WOITALLA: The Fan Fest Phenomenon

By Mike Woitalla in Hamburg

Fans who take the S-Bahn to the Hamburg Fan Fest get out the Reeperbahn  station and walk east down the red-light avenue.

The McDonald's is flanked by Erotik Heaven and Blue Banana's Table Dance  Club. Across the street is the St. Pauli Theater, soon to stage "The Threepenny Opera" by Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill.

There are five-star restaurants and sausage stands, American fast-food  joints and the Turkish doener booths; fancy nightclubs, brothels and a  church. At Operettenhaus, well-dressed couples will line up tonight  for "Mama Mia."

One 100-yard long side street has 11 bars. At the Sankt Pauli Bar you can get Mojitos, Cuba Libres and Caipirihnas.

The traditional Kneipen, like the Alber Eck, Astra Bar or Ult Hamburg stick to keg beer and serve hard liquor straight. Order a Caipirihna at one of those, they'll probably think you sneezed and say "Gesundheit."

These bars will fill up in the evening. At 1 p.m., four hours before kickoff of Germany's quarterfinal game against Argentina, hundreds of fans are streaming down the Reeperbahn toward the Holy Ghost Field, where there's room for 70,000.

"It fills up fast," says a 65-year-old Irishman who's visiting from Canada when asked why he's going so early.

At 3:20 passengers on the U-Bahn at the St. Pauli station are told not to disembark. The Fan Fest has been closed. It is full, 100 minutes before kickoff.

The Operettenhaus has set up a big screen where the overflow crowd from the Fan Fest, at least 10,000, according to newspaper reports, watch from a Reeperbahn plaza, the Spielbudenplatz.

There are 15 Fan Fest venues in Germany. Hamburg is one of the biggest, but  much smaller than Berlin's Fan Mile, which has six big screens and has drawn  crowds of more than half a million. In Munich, 85,000 gather for big games at the 1972 Olympic grounds.

Organizers had predicted 8 million would visit the Fan Fests during the entire tournament. More than 12 million have attended through June 30. They are why FIFA President Sepp Blatter has called this "the best World Cup of all times."

"Never has an event been so emotional and so global," Blatter says.

The Fan Fests are open every day. When Ghana played Brazil, 22,000 attended the Hamburg Fan Fest. About 7,000 Ghanaians and 1,600 Brazilians live in Hamburg it seems they were all there, joined by foreign visitors and Germans who throughout the tournament have adopted visiting teams, especially African teams, which they're drawn to for their underdog appeal.

After Brazil beat Ghana, 3-0, fans from both teams and plenty of Germans joined together to turn the Holy Ghost Field into a giant dance hall.

The dancing isn't always is impressive as when there's a samba beat, but any  visit to a Fan Fest to promises this commingling of fans and friendly  celebrations, which is why these venues have become a magnet to Germans and the visitors from abroad.

On days when the Fan Fests aren't too crowded, soccer balls are kicked around and hardly a passer-by doesn't stop to attempt a trick with the ball.

Thousands of police patrol the events, but they usually slouch against their trucks in non-intimidating fashion. Many wear black T-shirts and are distinguishable only by the word "Polizei" on their back. Many are women and boyish young men.

When a group of male fans in German jerseys walk by chanting, "Deutsche polizisten, Gaertner and Floristen!" ("German cops are gardeners and florists!"), the police just smile back.

German security forces credit the Fan Fests for the lack of hooliganism at this World Cup. They provide a place for ticketless fans to enjoy the tournament, instead of wandering around frustrated. The friendly atmosphere, with so many children and elderly, and hordes of teen-age girls, defuses violence tendencies, say German police chiefs.

After Germany beat Argentina, thousands from the Fan Fest moved their party to the Reeperbahn or headed to the train stations, where thousands more, dressed in Ukrainian and Italian colors, moved in the other direction.

Another giant party was about to start.

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