Germany opens qualifying campaign against Belgium

After earning plaudits around the globe for its attractive play at this year’s World Cup, Germany opens its qualifying campaign for the 2012 European Championship at Belgium on Friday.

The tough part for this sparkling, young Germany team will be actually winning a major trophy.

For Germany coach Joachim Loew, nothing but victory will do against Belgium, which has failed to qualify for any tournament since 2002 and has slumped from 16th to 49th in the FIFA world rankings within six years.

Two months ago, Germany reached the World Cup semifinals with a free-flowing, attacking style that was only undone by eventual winner Spain. Loew now says "this is a new start."

"Our way of play earned us a lot of respect abroad," said Loew, referring to the 4-1 victory over England and the 4-0 drubbing of Argentina.

Loew realizes the first game of European qualifying means a clean slate, and added motivation, for any opponent to do well against Germany.

"It is important that we concentrate fully again," he said.

To make that easier, he settled two distracting issues on the eve of the trip to Brussels.

He said veteran Michael Ballack will be Germany’s captain, even though he is not in the current squad. The Bayer Leverkusen midfielder was injured before the World Cup, allowing Philipp Lahm to take over. The Bayern Munich defender liked the job so much he wanted it for good.

Now, Loew said Lahm will be Ballack’s deputy and wear the armband in the qualifiers in Brussels on Friday and against Azerbaijan on Sept. 7 in Cologne.

Loew also settled the issue over who is the No. 1 goalkeeper, by sticking with Schalke’s Manuel Neuer ahead of Leverkusen’s Rene Adler, who was his top choice before injury prevented him from playing at the World Cup.

Germany’s victory at Euro 1996 in England was its last major trophy. Even though it has often come close again, Loew will be expected to end the drought at the tournament in Poland and Ukraine in two years’ time. At the last edition in Austria and Switzerland two years ago, Germany lost 1-0 in the final to Spain.

Turkey, Austria and Kazakhstan are the other teams in Group A of qualifying.

It will be a tall order for Belgium to advance from that group. After Dick Advocaat quit in April, barely half a year after joining, Belgium went back to coach Georges Leekens. The former bruising defender led the Belgians to the 1998 World Cup.

Leekens can rely on a strong core of players performing in some of the world’s best leagues, but results have been disappointing over the past years. Yet Leekens knows that Belgium often is best as an underdog.

"With Spain, Germany is currently the best team in the world," he said. "They are just stronger, so they are the favorites."