Germany still consumed by a soccer scandal

Steffen Karl, a midfielder, admitted that he had offered a goalie for a team in Cottbus up to 20,000 euros ($26,800) to throw a second-division match.-Steffen Karl, a midfielder, admitted that he had offered a goalie for a team in Cottbus up to 20,000 euros ($26,800) to throw a second-division match.

FOR Franz Beckenbauer, the German former soccer star, orchestrating next year's World Cup in Germany ought to be the capstone of a triumphant four-decade career.

But 15 months before the tournament kicks off in his hometown, Munich, Beckenbauer said he felt as if he was under fire from all sides.

The World Cup organizing committee has been hazed in the German news media for everything from its logo — three smiling cartoon faces that critics say are vapid — to its official beer, supplied by the American brewer Anheuser-Busch, which is a partner of FIFA, soccer's world governing body.

Yet these are minor hiccups compared with the turmoil that has engulfed German soccer since late January, when prosecutors in Berlin arrested a referee on charges that he fixed several matches for money.

The scandal has mutated rapidly, implicating about 25 people, including three referees and 14 players. More than a dozen matches in lower divisions are suspected of having been manipulated. Soccer clubs are threatening each other with lawsuits, while critics say the German Football Federation, which regulates the game, ignored a warning about the match-fixing scheme last summer.

The timing, needless to say, could not be worse. The steady drip of revelations is overshadowing Germany's preparations for the World Cup, which, by most accounts, are in better shape at this stage than those of previous host nations. It goes to show that German planning is taken for granted, and that corruption in Germany's favourite sport is not.

"I would never have believed this kind of thing was possible in German soccer, and that it would happen a year and a half before the World Cup,'' Beckenbauer said in a recent interview. "It has disrupted our preparations at a time when we can't afford to be distracted.''

Beckenbauer said he hoped the worst of the disclosures had filtered out. FIFA said the scandal had not dented its confidence in Germany as the host country.

But on March 11, Steffen Karl, a midfielder, admitted that he had offered a goalie for a team in Cottbus, a city in eastern Germany, up to 20,000 euros ($26,800) to throw a second-division match. Karl is the first player to be arrested by the Berlin prosecutor's office, which is leading the investigation. Two referees were also arrested: Robert Hoyzer, whose testimony that he accepted bribes to fix matches set off the scandal; and Dominik Marks, who was implicated by Hoyzer.

"I hope this will be over in the next one or two months, but you never know,'' said Rainer Holzschuh, columnist and editor-in-chief of Kicker, a German sports magazine. "A month ago, I would have said it involved just one or two people. Now, I have to say, I don't know.'' Despite its generally clean reputation, German soccer has not been immune from scandal. In 1971, when Beckenbauer was a rising star, the Bundesliga was hit by a wave of bribes and rigged matches that eventually implicated more than 50 players, as well as coaches and officials.

That scandal ensnared clubs from the Bundesliga — the premier league in which Bayern Munich and other well-known teams play — but these allegations are limited to the second and third divisions. It shook German fans out of their smug view that corruption in soccer was mainly an Italian phenomenon.

The 1971 affair looms large in the memory of veterans like Beckenbauer, who in the course of a career that included World Cup championships as a player (1974) and manager (1990) — and a stint with the Cosmos of the North American Soccer League — epitomized the impeccable technique and good sportsmanship of German soccer.

"All sports have problems with things like doping or gambling,'' he said. "But soccer has had less of it.'' Beckenbauer, meanwhile, simply wants to change the subject. Germany has built or remodeled 12 stadiums, including a futuristic new arena in Munich and a refurbished Olympic Stadium in Berlin, where Jesse Owens won four gold medals in 1936 and where the final will be played on July 9, 2006. With such a huge investment, Beckenbauer says the championship could be a sparkling showcase for Germany — provided it can put these distractions aside and get back to work.

"We need to regain our fighting spirit,'' he said. "We've become a little negative as a country.'' — Mark Landler/New York Times News Service