MAINZ, Germany — Thirty-two years after hosting its first World Cup, the world's most-watched sporting event is back in this soccer-mad nation.
The month-long contest featuring the world's 32 best soccer powers — including the United States — will kick off on Friday at a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium in Munich, the Bavarian capital famous for its Oktoberfest, lederhosen (traditional leather pants) and huge mugs of beer.
With a population of 84 million — including more than six million active members in 170,000 organized soccer clubs and an additional 10 million Germans who play soccer regularly — the German fan base is huge.
And intense. During the 2002 World Cup, held in Korea and Japan, German broadcasters reached up to 80 percent of the market share when the national team played, and the opening match between Germany and Costa Rica is expected to empty the streets.
"We all are Klinsmann — 80 million will become national team coaches," wrote the German sports magazine Rund, referring to the large number of soccer fanatics who will be loudly assisting coach Jürgen Klinsmann from couch positions in front of their television sets.
Ahead of the tournament, German union officials called upon employers to grant their workers flexibility to down tools if soccer matches take place during their shift. Meanwhile, many workers did not want to take any chances and put in for vacation during the World Cup.
A pub in Stuttgart, a southern German city, even installed television screens in the men's room so that guests would not miss a single play of any games.
And, for the few nationals not interested in the sport, travel agencies have been offering special "escape" packages, such as half-price tickets to Turkey and other vacation destinations for so-called "soccer widows" who want a time-out from all the frenzy.
All the attention is especially welcome in Germany, whose battered economy has led to severe political battles and much soul-searching.
Sales of World Cup merchandise alone — from special sausages to German flags and World Cup t-shirts — are expected to score millions in additional revenue.
Meanwhile, more than 50,000 jobs are expected to be created in the hotel, restaurant and retail industries during the tournament, with some hotel room prices having tripled for game nights.
And with an estimated TV audience of over 2.5 billion over the next four weeks (many being repeat viewers, but viewers nonetheless), the World Cup offers an advertising and marketing bonanza to international companies from Coca-Cola to McDonald’s.
If it's done right, that is. Anheuser-Busch paid $40 million for its exclusive sponsorship — more than it paid for this year's Winter Olympics in Italy — but the U.S. suds maker quickly realized that it had perhaps made a tactical error in pushing its products in a country where ale is practically a national religion.
Negative reaction came just after the organizing committee announced that the maker of Budweiser would have the exclusive sales rights at the 12 World Cup stadiums, with Germans exploding in anger that their local brews were being excluded.
"Beer is an extraordinarily sensitive issue in Germany," Jens Grittner, a spokesman for the organizing committee told Reuters.
Anheuser-Busch moved quickly to quell criticism by striking a deal with German brewery Bitburger, allowing the local firm to sell its "Bit" beer alongside Budweiser at the venues. In return, Bitburger agreed to drop an old lawsuit against Anheuser-Busch and will not be permitted to put up advertising.
From suds to sex
Even more controversial, at least from an American perspective, is another sector that is expected to produce millions in turnover: Germany’s sex industry.
Germany legalized prostitution in 2002, and brothel owners have been eager for the confluence of the huge sporting event and the legal sale of sex.
In preparation, erotic stores have been marketing vibrators with names such as "Captain" and "Hard Shot on Goal” and mobile brothels have been popping up on the outskirts of Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and other host cities. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of prostitutes have supposedly flocked into Germany from neighboring countries.
The phenomenon has elicited concern from the United States, which in its annual report on forced labor and trafficking persons, identified Germany as "a source, transit and destination country" for sex workers and pointed particularly to the tournament.
"Due to the sheer size of the event, the potential for human trafficking surrounding the games remains a concern," the State Department said in the study. It called on the German government to increase police enforcement of laws aimed at reducing exploitation.
“While the winner of the World Cup remains unknown, the clear losers will be thousands of women and children trafficked and sold in Germany's legal sex industry to accommodate the huge influx of demand,” said U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), the chairman of a House subcommittee on global human rights.
German officials, while standing by their country's policy of legalized prostitution, say that under no circumstances do they condone human trafficking and promise that authorities are stepping up measures to fight the problem.
Local security officials are also eager to make sure that the high-profile event stays safe, fearing that its motto, "A Time to Make Friends," could be tarnished by hooligan violence, neo-Nazi demonstrations or, in the worst case, a terror attack.
In Berlin, a clearing house called the National Information and Cooperation Center will operate 24 hours a day, gathering information from local police forces, Interpol and the intelligence services.
Stadiums and team hotels are receiving particular protection and NATO's AWACS surveillance planes will patrol the skies during the World Cup matches. Regular air traffic will not be permitted near the stadiums on game days.
Who's the best bet?
So, who is going to win?
Bookmakers see Brazil, the only country to have qualified for all of the 17 previous World Cups (and the team that has played in the past three finals), as the favorite for the tournament.
But the betting firms also favor Germany, with odds of 1 to 8.5 that the host nation will win the cup.
"The German team has weaknesses, but the home crowd factor will be a strong bonus for the squad," said Jochen Bouhs, who will be reporting for German broadcaster ZDF.
Other frontrunners are England, Italy and Argentina, while the biggest outsider is Trinidad and Tobago, with odds of 1:1001.
In the end, though, it won’t really matter how good or bad Germany plays — it promises to be a winner whatever the outcome of the tournament.