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Voeller is big reason why German soccer is back

Default coach has team in first Cup semis since 1990

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SEOGWIPO, South Korea — The play hasn't been beautiful, just good enough to win. In his first major tournament as coach, Rudi Voeller has taken a mediocre German team all the way to the World Cup semifinals.

Voeller is the first to admit his team hasn't exactly electrified World Cup audiences. He also points out that the best team doesn't always win the title.

The Germans are in their 10th World Cup semifinal, their best showing since 1990, when they won the last of their three championships.

Now that they've beaten the surprising United States, the Germans will have to face another World Cup upstart, co-host South Korea, which will have tens of thousands of screaming fans behind it at Tuesday's game in Seoul. South Korea beat Spain on penalty kicks Saturday after a 0-0 tie.

"They'll be riding this great euphoria and it'll be fun to play them," said German striker Miroslav Klose, one of three leading scorers at the tournament with five goals.

"The fans will carry them. They are like bees swarming all over you. We must not underestimate them. They've shown they can play soccer; they have a great team spirit," he said.

The Germans' run has helped erase some of the bad memories from Euro 2000, when they went home without a victory as defending champion.

Much of the credit must go to Voeller, who only got the job because coach-designate Christoph Daum flunked a drug test. In two years, Voeller has taken a team woefully low on confidence back to the top ranks.

"Voeller's has been an absolutely fortunate choice," said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a vice president of the German soccer federation whose main job was to help reconstruct the team after Euro 2000.

"He is very confident and he relays this feeling to the players," added Rummenigge, Voeller's teammate on the 1986 team that lost the final to Argentina.

Voeller knows exactly how to get the team through the daily grind of the monthlong tournament: keeping it relaxed, encouraging the younger players and making sure everyone stays motivated.

"It's very important to have a coach who has been through it all," captain and goalkeeper Oliver Kahn said.

As one of Germany's all-time best strikers, Voeller won the World Cup in 1990, and he is now two wins away from repeating as coach. He enjoys tremendous popularity at home and unquestionable authority among the players.

Voeller didn't make any big changes immediately after becoming coach, although no one would have questioned him if he had. He gradually brought in younger talent and started giving those players more responsibility, while retaining some of the veterans.

"He managed to stabilize the team very quickly and then started slowly changing the team," Rummenigge said.

Voeller's reign hasn't been all success. He had to endure the bitter 5-1 loss at home to England in qualifying that sent Germany to the nerve-racking playoff against Ukraine.

The 42-year-old coach says that game was a defining moment for his team.

"Those were the hardest days in my career. I had never been under so much pressure," Voeller said. "But that's when the team grew together, when we created this spirit we have and when we showed that we are able to produce under pressure."

Having lost several starters to injury just before the World Cup, Voeller refused to dwell on the problems and installed 21-year-old central defender Christoph Metzelder into his starting lineup. Metzelder will be hard to remove after the World Cup.

The main reason Germany's game has sputtered is the subpar showing of midfield star Michael Ballack, who isn't in top shape because of a string of late-season injuries.

Ballack probably hasn't been at more than 40 percent of his potential, but that has been enough for two goals, including the winner in the 1-0 quarterfinal victory over the United States.

Voeller's defense basically comes down to one man, Kahn. But the goalkeeper has been outstanding, protecting the victory against the Americans with three stunning saves and allowing only one goal in five matches.

Up front, Voeller trusted his instinct and went with Klose, who has justified that decision with his five goals.

"We have a very good goalkeeper and we are very good at set pieces. It's no shame to win games that way," Voeller said.

Voeller has restored the team's trademark desire and relentless drive, characteristics that have served German soccer well in the past.

"Honestly, we were not so good in 1986 and 1990, yet we went to the final in '86 and won the title four years later," Voeller keeps telling his players.

It might happen again.