By Ridge Mahoney
For a few more days at least, "PartyZone Deutschland" will stay on the air.
A show by that title is running regularly on German television, portraying the activities and adventures of fans attending games as well as gathering at "FanFests" to party in front of big-screen TVs. After the round of 16, FIFA estimated that 11 million fans had watched matches at the 15 sites around the country. Just about every game has been ausverkauft (a sellout).
But every party needs a gregarious host, preferably one that sticks around, and the host nation's team complied by eliminating a stubborn Argentina, 4-2 on penalty kicks, after a bruising 1-1 draw through regulation and extra time at the Olympiastadion.
Keeper Jens Lehmann, chosen over Oliver Kahn by Coach Juergen Klinsmann in one of the most contentious decisions of the California resident's tenure, saved kicks byRoberto AyalaandEsteban Cambiasso after a pre-shootout conference with Kahn.
Klinsmann's approach had drawn scorn leading up to the tournament, yet the criticism has ebbed while the resolve and unity instilled in this team has inspired a country of fans prone to pessimism and self-doubt.
When the Kahn-Lehmann encounter was shown on a large TV screen inside the stadium, with the rivals clenching each other's hands and resolve in the eyes of both, a huge roar rose from masses of German fans. For much of the day leading up to the late afternoon kickoff, they had sung, chanted, cheered and waved flags with the gusto of those who believed another hurdle en route to the July 9 final in this same stadium was about to be cleared.
Whatever nervousness had been generated by Argentina's occasional thrusts during regular play and the immense pressure of a nation's hopes dissipated and Germany survived by far its toughest test in the competition. Every German player smashed his penalty past Leonardo Franco, who'd replaced an injured Roberto Abbondanzieri in the second half and really didn't have a prayer of saving any of the four.
Central defenders Per Mertesacker and Christopher Metzelder, whose combined ages are just 46, neutralized Hernan Crespo and surprise starter Carlos Tevez for most of the match. Torsten Frings kept a close watch on Juan Roman Riquelme, who saw enough of the ball but couldn't do enough with it.
An early second-half goal by Ayala broke the logjam, and Argentina dug in to defend. Miroslav Klose, overpowered by Ayala on the ball the Argentine defender put away off a corner kick, and Lukas Podolskifaded after a bright start. Shortly before the goal, Abbondanzieri needed treatment of his lower back after a goalmouth collision with Klose. He lasted until the 71st minute. Coach Jose Pekermanthen pulled off Riquelme for Cambiasso and burned his last sub in the 79th minute, replacing Crespo with Julio Cruz.
Pekerman was thus without options, attacking or otherwise, when Germany equalized a minute after Cruz came on. David Odonkor, Klinsmann's first sub, had shaken the Argentines with his strong, aggressive dribbles, and the second and third subs eventually had their impact as well.
A long shot from Tim Borowski, who replaced Bernd Schneiderat right mid, required a Franco save. A few minutes later, when given a chance to set up his Werder Bremen teammate Klose, Borowski came through. Michael Ballack, himself laboring on a sore right ankle crunched several times in fierce duels, used that same foot to cross from near the touchline. Borowski flicked the ball to the far post, where Klose - free at last from the attentions of Ayala and Gabriel Heinze -- nodded in his tournament-best fifth goal. A tense final 10 minutes gave away to extra time. With no subs available on either side, few risks were taken in open play.
Oliver Neuville, sub number three, started Germany off in the shootout by blasting in his penalty over Franco's dive. When Lehmann easily smothered Ayala's low shot, the second Argentina attempt, the celebrations started, and upon Cambiasso's attempt being deflected, the fans cranked up to full volume.
The din lessened only slightly as players and officials from both teams scuffled and pushed. RefereeLubos Michel gave Argentine defender Leandro Cufre a red card for kicking Mertesacker. German assistant coach Oliver Bierhoffseemed to be the target of Argentine players and officials gesticulating angrily. Several had to be pulled away. They finally left the field, heads down, their attendance at the party concluded.
The hosts rejoiced, and an hour later, as a setting sun bathed clouds bright red, they basked in the knowledge that for a few more days, at least, they stay at ground zero of this celebration.