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European Melting Pot
Germany's Carnival of Cultures

After spending a week traveling across Germany, it will become clear to anyone visiting the country that the 2006 World Cup is more than just a soccer tournament. Indeed, this is a full-fledged festival of the people.

Even though FIFA only gave me a single ticket for the game between Saudia Arabia and the Ukraine in Hamburg, in a few hours I'll see my fourth live World Cup game in eight days. I don't know what went wrong with FIFA's electronic ticket vending system, but I know lots of people who purchased several tickets and won't get to watch anything besides the game between Saudia Arabia and the Ukraine.

Later today I'll watch the Netherlands play against the Ivory Coast in Stuttgart. I'm already in town -- an army of orange-clad fans is pushing me through the city center. I only ordered the ticket for this game four days ago, after watching Argentina play against the Ivory Coast in Hamburg and realizing that I would have to watch as many games as possible during the next few weeks.

I can't say it any less melodramatically: That night in Hamburg, that dance of 22 players, those intoxicated 50,000 fans were addictive, the way a novel or a concert or a painting can be addictive.

It's not just the physical artistry of the players, the beauty of the game, the harmony of the teams -- it's the human joy in the stadium that you can't enough of. I'm sorry, but I can't say it any less bombastically: Humanity celebrates itself during such moments -- it celebrates its creativity, its variety, its togetherness.

That's the secret of these international encounters during World Cups and Olympic Games, despite the commercialism, the dictatorial administrators and the hooligans. Whoever traveled through Germany during the first week of this year's World Cup felt the energy -- an energy more powerful than FIFA's bureaucratic nonsense, the media's frenzy and the profit-loss calculations of the sponsors.

People keep hugging before the game in Stuttgart, all of them dressed in orange. Some of them are Dutch, some are from the Ivory Coast, and sometimes the Dutch hug their African rivals. Both teams wear orange, but they can still be kept apart. The Ivory Coast team is participating in a World Cup for the first time; the shirts of the players are a fresh orange color. The Dutch fans are hardened veterans; their patriotism is sponsored by corporations. The Continental corporation passes out orange hats decorated with tires, the beer company Bavaria has orange lederhosen with lion tails to offer and Heineken has come up with green and orange hats that double as megaphones.

This time the Dutch have no anti-German slogans on their T-shirts, although some orange Wehrmacht helmets do feature. Some 70,000 joyfully costumed Dutchmen take to the streets of Stuttgart's city center. German fans take pictures. Women skip by, dressed in dark orange tops and with orange chickens and fake braids on their heads. Marie, Anike and Eva drove to Stuttgart by car to support their team. They've been touring Europe this way ever since the World Cup in France. One of them loves the games because they remind her of operas; the other admires the speed and precision of the players; the third woman can't help wondering why shooting goals is so difficult.

Everyone has their own reason for loving soccer. Women are hooked after their first World Cup. That's something I already understood at age 14, when my sisters suddenly showed up in the cramped stadium on the Baltic coast where I watched Wembley's final round game with my friends. It's the same during this World Cup -- women who can normally only shake their heads when you purchase a discount flight to see your team in Valencia, Milan or Barcelona suddenly become available for excellent conversations about the midfield players of the Ivory Coast or Dutch teams.

It's no secret that whoever genuinely loves football is bored by national league games. No national team is ever quite as elegant as a good local team. They lack routine and have to reinvent themselves during every game. That's why the relationship between national teams and their fans is so unstable.

When I watched Italy play Ghana in Hanover, I sat next to an Italian. Thirty-four-year-old Alessandro put his right hand to his chest when he sang the Italian national anthem, passionately and with tears in his eyes: "Let's close the ranks, we're ready for death, Italy has called!" But he was a fan of AC Florence and not of the national team.

Italians say it's easier to change your blood group than to lose your allegiance to the local soccer team, and love for the national league arises only when your own region -- and better yet your own regional soccer league -- is represented in the national league. For me, Germany's post-Wembley national team always consisted of Horst-Dieter Höttges, Max Lorenz, Dieter Eilts, Rudi Völler, Marco Bode and now Torsten Frings, Tim Borowski und Miro Klose -- all of them from Bremen, all of them dressed in national uniforms.

It's no different for professional players; they care less about the national league games than about regional games. That's why national league games are so boring -- except when their market value is redefined on the stage of a European or World Cup. Then the players unite to form a genuine team. That's when excitement turns championships into a pleasure and the fans into patriotic footsoldiers.

A not so secret tip for scoring stadium seats

Alessandro has tried everything to get tickets for Italy's games. He's spent one-and-a-half years battling the ticket vending bureaucracy. He's filled out Internet forms during the first, the second, the third, the fourth and the fifth ticket sale seasons. In the end he transfered money for so-called option tickets -- tickets that have already been sold but then returned. He got his tickets two days before the game and had to return one of them because his brother couldn't take time off work at such short notice. And so he tells me with a sour smile: "You're sitting on my brother's seat."

It's true -- I got the tickets by e-mail two hours after he returned them, via a Web site that is the secret tip of all the addicts who have succumbed to the intoxication of this World Cup. Pay a small fee and you can get tickets for every game, with FIFA's permission. The system works as smoothly as if FIFA President Sepp Blatter were personally selling tickets returned by sponsors. Anyone can have a ticket issued in their name, and since the black market for soccer tickets is thriving on Ebay and in front of the stadiums, the system of regular ticket sales -- the great promise of the Organizing Committee -- effectively breaks down a few feet from the stadium gates. Here as elsewhere, human ingenuity proves superior to plans and bureaucratic regulations. Sponsors received a half-million tickets -- only one million were sold regularly -- and many of those tickets ended up on the black market.

After the game, the ticket dealers gather in the snack shop at the central station and celebrate their earnings. Thomas from Frankfurt has re-sold tickets. The 38-year-old taxi driver went to the stadium in the morning, bought ten tickets for €100 ($127) each from a Frenchman -- the regular price is €60 -- and sold them to desperate Italians at the central station for €150 each.

Before the Argentina-Ivory Coast game in Hamburg, the ticket price on the black market in front of the stadium gates climbed as high as €350. Tickets for the quarter final in the AOL Stadium cost as much as €1,200. I'm sitting on the north side of the stadium, seating block 26B, surrounded by guests invited by the main sponsor, Continental. A BMW dealer sits next to me. He tells me he rarely watches soccer games. The last time he went to a match -- for the European Cup final in Berlin -- he also got a free ticket. During the game, he's busy writing text messages, telling people he's sitting in the stadium. He misses three goals. In fact, I'm afraid he misses everything: the explosiveness with which the Ivory Coast's midfield players move across the field; the forward-looking alertness of the No. 5 player, Didier Zokora; the lurking danger of the No. 11 player, Didier Drogba; the computer-directed precision of Argentina's defense players; the lazy elegance with which Juan Román Riquelme commands his team. The blue-and-white players are faced with 20,000 men in fan's clothing -- there are few women in the audience. This restless mass of people drums and sings the national anthem during the entire game: "May we be crowned with glory in life or swear to die gloriously." The African fans reply by singing "Greetings, land of hope, land of hospitality!" as they dance the bird flu dance, imitating the death throes of sick birds.

The night belongs to the trainer, who tells his team to think rather than to dominate; but the trainer who wants to dominate but doesn't know how to wait loses. The fascination in the game stems from the fact that these teams are so international. Apart from the goalkeeper and one reserve player, everyone in the Argentinian team plays in foreign soccer leagues; all of the players on the Ivory Coast team are in foreign leagues. Globalization has come to them via the soccer ball; it's only for 90 minutes that they don their national colors.

The football Mardi Gras

Apart from their goalkeeper (and soon their captain), all the German natioanal team members play in domestic clubs. Of course it's not patriotism that keeps them at home. Professional football is an international business. The major teams want international stars -- people like Beckham, Ronaldinho and Zidane, who function as idols on every continent. They confront one another every four years, and their uniform colors reveal which of the national teams they've made their home. The carneval these players celebrate on the field is celebrated by the fans in the audience as well. The fans wrap themselves in flags, paint their faces, sing their national anthems passionately. After the game, the fans from Argentina, the Ivory Coast, Italy and Ghana photograph each other. They exchange photographs and telephone numbers -- "Take care of yourself, see you in four years, at the next World Cup."

Germans have always had trouble waving their flag, painting their faces and singing. During the very first week of the World Cup, in the Munich stadium, they made it clear they now want to join the international community of flag-wavers. The colors black, red and gold were visible throughout the stadium. The wives of the players wore tight white tops that featured the word "Germany" -- demonstrating that, during this World Cup, self-confidence would be writ large.

Germans always need to justify their pride. Once the justifications consisted in cars and the strength of the deutsche mark. Later Gerhard Schröder's efficient handling of floods and his refusal to participate int he war in Iraq fulfilled the same function. Right now, German pride is founded on soccer stadiums and on the World Cup.

"It's your Heimspiel" (It's your home game) reads a Coca Cola billboard displayed across Germany. We've always played well at home. The last time we did so, more than 30 years ago, there was plenty of vigorous flag-waving. Newspapers hailed "the return of patriotism" and its rise to "luminous national heights" as the nation "took shape" and "came to life" on the soccer field. And yet the West Germans cheered for the Australian team when it played against East Germany. When East Germany beat West Germany, the East German team received bomb threats and had to be escorted by armored cars as the vice president of Germany's parliament announced: "All will be well when the East Germans have left."

The search for a common identity

Three decades later, the search for a common identity uniting East Germans and West Germans is still not over. Neither is the search for an identity uniting the farmer from Germany's rural northeast and the pensioner from Hamburg, the housewife from Itzehoe in the north and the artist from Munich in the south, the unemployed man from Bremen and the stock broker from Frankfurt.

Can such a common identity exist? The opening celebrations were designed to suggest that Bavarian culture is strong enough to unite the rest of Germany. The audience sent a clear signal: Germans are resolved to create their common identity by flag-waving, at least for four weeks. The hope of becoming world champion can unite 82 million people, or at least 60 million German soccer fans. Let's not talk about the fact that four punks didn't want to stand up on the subway when fans singing "Stand up if you're Germans" called for patriotic solidarity on the ride back from the game. Let's not mention that German fans verbally fought out their regional rivalries on Munich's central Marienplatz square ("There's only one Tim Borowski", "There's only one Lukas Podolski", "There's only one Philipp Lahm").

Let's wait and see whether the new patriotism survives a defeat in the eighth final, quarter final or semi-final. Let's hope those patriotic watchdogs who are now attacking Ballack for wearing an "Italy" T- shirt -- those loud-mouthed Germans championed by the tabloid Bild -- won't declare the German players losers, cowards and traitors or tell their trainer to leave for California, the way they usually do.

For the players and fans from the Ivory Coast, this World Cup -- the first one in the history of their country -- ended last week. They offered a breathtaking show -- another one. Their No. 5 player moved across midfield like a giant cat, but their No. 11 player missed the goal. Perhaps the patriotic burden that accompanied them to Germany from their war-torn country was too great. Their victories might have pacified their home, divided by civil war, but they lost 1:2.

Once the game is over in Stuttgart, the stadium belongs to the Dutch. They cheer fate, which is on their side tonight. In front of the stadium, fans from the Ivory Coast console one another in small groups. One family clusters around its banner "Allez les éléphants" ("Let's go, elephants!") and takes pictures. A small boy, barely as tall as the banner, fights back tears. The father, who is wearing lederhosen and a soccer jersey, invites Dutch fans to stand next to his family members. The pictures he snaps will bring happy smiles to their faces one day.

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