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Final Four feeling pressure

By Scott M. Reid

McClatchey Newspapers

BERLIN -- A World Cup that many expected to end in an Argentina-Brazil final took a decidedly Eurocentric turn over the weekend.

Led by Germany's penalty-kick shootout upset of Argentina on Friday, and France's Zinedine Zidane- inspired surprise of defending world champion Brazil on Saturday night, European teams claimed all four spots in the tournament's semifinals for the first time since 1982.

Three of the four semifinalists from Spain -- Germany, France and Italy -- again find themselves 90 minutes away from reaching the World Cup final.

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Germany plays Italy on Tuesday in Dortmund, while France meets Portugal, making its first World Cup semifinal appearance in 40 years, Wednesday in Munich.

"The semifinal is the hardest step to climb:not just for us, but for everybody," France coach Raymond Domenech said. "The pressure is extremely high because of what's at stake. You're one match from the final, but you have achieved nothing. You can see the summit, but you're not up there, yet."

All four teams, however, have more in common than just their current view. Each were dismissed by critics both home and abroad in the weeks leading up to a tournament where England figured to be Europe's best shot at breaking up an Argentina-Brazil final.

Germany's largest newspaper sounded a "WORLD CUP ALARM!" on its front page eight days before the tournament opener after a series of inconsistent and discouraging results under Jurgen Klinsmann. Reports of Italy's growing match-fixing scandal were seemingly interrupted only by criticism of Azzurri coach Marcello Lippi's tactics. Portugal couldn't overcome its dismal World Cup history, France its age, critics charged.

Even before Germany knocked off Argentina, nationwide skepticism had been replaced by Klinsmania, the nation's place among the game's superpowers restored.

"The world is scared of the German national team again," Germany team director Oliver Bierhoff said. "We gained respect for playing a fast, direct, aggressive stay and for always holding our nerve."

The chief beneficiary of Klinsmann's insistence on playing a very un-German, wide-open style has been forward Miroslav Klose, who leads the tournament with five goals.

Germany is a vastly different side than the one that lost, 4-1, to Italy in March but still expects the same old Azzurri on Tuesday. If anything, historically conservative Italy is even more cautious under Lippi.

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"It has been playing the same way for 60 years, it won't give up that philosophy now," Germany assistant coach Joachim Loew said. "They wait for their chance."

With a 3-1 second-round victory against Spain and Saturday's convincing 1-0 triumph against Brazil, France, after struggling to make it out of the first round, is playing like it's 1998 again.

"Now we'll try to win a place in the final," said Zidane, the hero of France's '98 World Cup triumph. "We don't want to stop here. This is so beautiful we want to carry on."

The question is how much longer can Zidane, pictured on the cover of Sunday's L'Equipe hoisting midfield general Patrick Vieira over his shoulder, continue carrying Les Bleus at 34?

"A player like Zidane can be 30, 40, 50 years old and he will always know what to do with the ball at his feet," said Brazil defender Roberto Carlos. "Those who say he must stop don't have any idea about soccer."

But Zidane and France will face a Portugal side that makes no apologies for its 15 yellow cards in its past three matches.

"The spirit in this team is a warrior spirit," Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said. "That is what was missing from Portuguese football."

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