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Savoring the atmosphere

HAMBURG, Germany -- I've stood in the infield of the Daytona International Speedway and watched Dale Jr. win the 500. I've sat on Henman Hill and witnessed a few thousand Brits lose their Pimm's over Scottish tennis star Andy Murray. I've seen the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers win the Super Bowl, the Marlins win the World Series and the Devils take home the Stanley Cup.

I've seen walk-off home runs and walk-off field goals, game-winning jumpers and U.S. Open-clinching putts.

But never -- ever -- has a 6-year-old boy, strapped to his father's shoulders, looked down on me, leaned back and with all his might slammed his forehead smack into mine. And then received a high five from his dad.

Nope, it took the World Cup for that. It took German defenseman Philip Lahm's beating Costa Rican goalie Jose Porras in the sixth minute of the Cup opener in Munich (some 480 miles away) to get my first fan head butt.

It took little Max Moeller's seeing the goal on the massive big screen in front of him, feeling the testosterone racing through him and deciding to noggin-knock the first person he saw.

And afterward, Max and his father did what any good soccer fan would do -- they exchanged high fives and sang songs, celebrating their goal, celebrating their celebration.


"You must understand," Max's father, Paul, said later, "this is the greatest day of Max's life. He has talked about World Cup since his first words. I'm not sure people from U-S-A understand."

Maybe, maybe not. But Max and Paul sure tried to hammer home their point. Literally. The problem is, back in the States, there simply is no comparison to the World Cup.

"We say the winner of the World Series is the world champion, the winner of the Super Bowl is the world champion, but they don't play anybody outside of our country," U.S. defender Eddie Pope said. "So how can they say that's a true world champion? The magnitude of all this just isn't easy for Americans to understand."

U.S. World Cup schedule
• Monday, June 12 -- vs. Czech Republic at Gelsenkirchen, Germany, noon ET (ESPN2)
• Saturday, June 17 -- vs. Italy at Kaiserslautern, Germany, 3 p.m. ET (ABC)
• Thursday, June 22 -- vs. Ghana at Nuremberg, Germany, 10 a.m. ET (ESPN)

I've tried. And all week long in Germany, I've looked on in awe as the hype has continued to escalate, making the Super Bowl look more and more like the Little League World Series.

Forget the endless, mind-numbing soccer analysis on every media outlet imaginable. That's to be expected. But some of the other things on local television are not. Like Wednesday's fashion show in which models posed in cutouts of soccer balls for their tops -- and bottoms.

Or Thursday night's mini-soccer match between a pair of blindfolded Germans, in which onlookers barked directional commands so they could find the ball.

Or every night this week, when the clock has struck midnight and one channel has displayed what best can be described as soccer porn: female models, lying in goal, peeling off their soccer uniforms until they find themselves completely naked.

Yes, the hype has touched every single aspect of German culture. Beate Uhse, a German sex store with more than 300 retailers, is selling World Cup vibrators. And a news report earlier this week even went so far as to remind dog owners not to paint their pooches the traditional German colors of black, red and gold for the tournament.

Here in picturesque Hamburg, the country's second-largest city, the action doesn't get started officially until Saturday, when Argentina and the Ivory Coast square off at 9 p.m. local time (ESPN2, 3 p.m. ET). But that didn't keep some 50,000 Germans from gathering at Heiligengeistfeld, the city's fairgrounds, in the shadows of a massive former World War II bunker, to watch Friday's opener on a massive 250-square-foot screen.

They began gathering in the morning for the 6 p.m. match (noon ET, televised on ESPN2). By an hour before kickoff a moat of empty beer bottles had gathered around each entrance, with security guards keeping fans from bringing in their own beer.

Fans came in all shapes and sizes, all ages and colors. From the beer-bellied to the pint-sized, from babies to grandparents, from blacks to whites. Nearly everyone wore the black, red and gold of the home country, and seemingly everyone carried a German flag or a foghorn.

While some girls wore tank tops, some occasionally wore no tops.

"I want everyone to know I'm for Germany," said 26-year-old Elke Schmid, who had a friend paint a giant German flag across her chest. "But it became a problem so I have my shirt back on."

The scene was undoubtedly repeated in each of the 12 World Cup host cities, where FIFA and the German host committee organized Fan Fests so fans could come watch the matches with fellow fans. Think Super Bowl Sunday meets Lollapalooza. Berlin was expecting more than 150,000 people for Friday's opener.

Germany-Costa Rica re-airs today at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN Classic.

And for good reason. From 1958 to 1970, the host nation always took part in the opening match. But from 1974, the last time Germany hosted, that honor switched to the defending champion. Thirty-two years later, back on German soil, the old tradition was reintroduced.

In this country of 82 million, one Hamburg city official estimated 85 percent to 90 percent of the country watched Friday night's World Cup opening match.

"You have to remember," she said, "we have babies, old people and sick people, too."

Not to mention rambunctious 6-year-olds, eager to do everything they can to display their patriotism -- preferably headfirst.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer at He can be reached at