Hosts yearning for the Becker factor

'Sun lounger stealers' boosted by best average crowds in the world and goodwill of people
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The Independent Football

At Leipzig's Christmas market, traders are doing brisk business in football hats and scarves, notably in the green and blue of Brazil. After an outbreak of football-related advertising, the closest thing to anti-2006 sentiment is complaints about the lack of tickets.

"People are starting to be interested in football who never have been before. The starting pistol is fired at the draw," said Günther Netzer, who played for the stylish Germany side who won the European Champion-ship in 1972, and is now the country's foremost commentator.

"The interest in football has been reawakened. But its extent also depends a lot on how Germany play. I remember the effect when Boris Becker won Wimbledon and then Steffi Graf. So many parents were sending their children to tennis lessons. That trend will be repeated if Germany do well."

In Hanne am Zoo, Berlin's best-known football bar, Hans "Hanne" Weiner, ex-Bayern Munich player turned publican, explained why the tournament could not come quickly enough.

One of the exceptions, he said, to the long recession has been tourism, and next summer's showpiece can only help. "Also there's this great opportunity to show a new face of Germany. Too many people think the Germans are withdrawn and steal the sun loungers on holiday. But we will show them a great time." A view that chimes with the official tournament motto, Zu Gast bei Freunden, "At home with friends".

Asked whether he is worried about drunken fans trashing his pub, he says: "Not really. I'll buy them a schnapps and explain that I was a professional, and then things tend to calm down."

Germany, based in Berlin in the other half of the draw to Brazil, have not beaten one of the traditional powers of world football since a 1-0 win over England five years ago. But Jürgen Klinsmann's team, as hosts of last summer's Confederations Cup, came third and impressed with their style of football. As they showed by reaching the last final in Japan, they rise to the occasion. "You can't go out of your own World Cup early," said Netzer. "It would be inexcusable."

Young talents such as Bayern midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, Cologne striker Lukas Podolski or FC Schalke striker Kevin Kuranyi will be hoping to prove themselves as world-class players with Michael Ballack.

"With Klinsmann they have turned a corner which is very positive," said Netzer. "The Confederations Cup was a highlight when they were successful and played attractive football. Since then it's not been so good. We'll see how the next half-year goes. I don't see them as favourites. To reach the quarter-finals would be a success. It's all about Brazil."

An average 40,000 fans go to each Bundesliga game, making it the best-attended league in the world."The fans are simply more important in Germany," said Thomas Hitzlsperger, at Stuttgart after four years at Aston Villa. "They also have more access to the players."

In the former East Germany, the professional game has gone into decline since reunification. Bereft of their old state-run youth training programmes, unable to attract big sponsors, clubs struggle. Hansa Rostock were the only former GDR team in the top flight until relegation last year. Leipzig's new, 44,000-capacity Zentralstadion is the only former GDR venue. It will seem big as the home of Division Four's Lokomotive Leipzig, with an average crowd of 3,300.

After France 98, the spectre of hooliganism hangs over this event. The anti-hooliganism unit Zis believe the stadiums will be trouble-free, but are less assured that the "fan parks", an attempt to keep fans entertained in front of giant screens, will succeed.

The potential for trouble was underlined two weeks ago when Germans and Poles fought in a wood outside Berlin, and there will be huge fears when the two countries meet on 14 June in Dortmund. "The trouble is in estimating the potential from eastern Europe - Czech Republic, Poland and Ukraine - because we are not getting the information from their police," said one anti-hooligan official.