It was more like a star-spangled first night than a dress rehearsal. The President of the Federal Republic was there. So was Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, with the cameras of 29 TV stations on him. And so were 61,500 less exalted West German soccer fans who filled Hamburg's Volksparkstadion to capacity one night last week. Bundled up in woolen scarves and caps of the Bundesrepublik's red, gold and black, they stomped and roared, " Deutschland! Deutschland!" as if that would take the nip off the freezing evening. Under the lights, the air was blue with smoke from the bratwurst stands. And for the fans' entertainment the loudspeakers blared a highly relevant song. "Buenos dias, Argentina," went the chorus.
The miserable cold made it clear that this was the North German plain, where spring is a little late this year, but there was hardly a soul in that Hamburg crowd who wasn't projecting his thoughts more than two months ahead, to a game that will take place in a gentler clime, 7,800 miles to the southwest. To the World Cup final, that is, at the River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires on June 25, to a sporting event that in the eyes of much of the world transcends even the Olympics, that has a television audience sometimes put as low as a billion, sometimes as high as a billion and a half.
And if ever such an event could be said to have a dress rehearsal, this was it. West Germany, champions of the world since the '74 World Cup, against Brazil, three times the winner of that championship. In defiance of the realities, the match was labeled a "friendly" game. But in harder-headed terms, it was Brazil, the 7-to-2 favorite to make it into the Argentina final, vs. West Germany, the second choice at 4 to 1. The odds may be somewhat longer that both teams will make it to the final game—but no other combination seems as likely. Or at least that's the way it seemed when the referee's whistle started play Wednesday night.
It is a mistake, of course, to imagine that the whole of the 1978 World Cup takes place in Argentina between June 1 and 25. These will be the final rounds. The tournament, in fact, began in the summer of 1976; 251 games, involving 104 national teams, already have been played. Not until the end of last year did 14 finalists emerge to join Argentina, which, as host nation, automatically qualified, and West Germany, also guaranteed a berth because it is the reigning champion. For countries from regions where soccer is a more recent phenomenon than it is in Europe and South America, qualification was often a prolonged undertaking. Iran, for example, had to play 12 games, traveling as far as South Korea, Hong Kong and Australia. Others, like seeded Holland, runner-up in the 1974 World Cup competition, played half that number.
On June 1, the 16 finalists will split into groups numbered 1 to 4, and each group will play a round-robin tournament of six games. The two leaders in each will advance to the second round, forming two new groups of four, labeled A and B. Once more there will be six round-robin games. From then on it will become simpler. The nations that finish second in Groups A and B will play off for the third and fourth places. And on June 25 the A and B winners will contend for 10 pounds of 18-carat gold, the World Cup of the F�d�ration de Internationale Football Association, perhaps the most coveted trophy in sport.
The complexities of the World Cup playoffs had been digested months before by the German fans assembled in Hamburg and by the tiny group of Brazilians who were on hand, bravely drumming out samba rhythms and flaunting their nation's flag in the bitter night air. The Brazilians might also have been reflecting ruefully that their team was at least getting a chance to acclimate itself to playing in the cold. The World Cup draw made in Buenos Aires last January placed Brazil in Group 3. The Brazilians' first-round matches against Austria, Spain and Sweden, none of them a pushover, will take place at the pleasant summer resort of Mar del Plata, about 250 miles south of Buenos Aires. But in June—midwinter in the Argentine—Mar del Plata is a town of chilly winds and frequent showers.
By contrast, the Germans look as if they are headed for an easy first-round ride in Group 2. To be sure, Poland, the third-place finisher in the '74 World Cup, is in the same group, but so are Tunisia, a 1,000-to-1 shot, and Mexico at 100 to 1. With two teams from each group advancing, it does not seem possible that the champions will not progress. Moreover, apart from their opening game at Buenos Aires, the Germans will be playing at Cordoba where the temperate climate should suit them.
But their fans, even though they are among the most affluent in the world, will not have an easy time of it if they want to watch their team in Argentina. To begin with, there are no cheapie air charters, because Argentine regulations prohibit them, and even on specially arranged flights all seats are full-fare.
Too, the Germans will have a difficult time finding a domestic flight between Buenos Aires and Cordoba. Officials and journalists have priority, and most fans will have to cover the nearly 500 miles that separate the two cities by time-consuming and tortuous bus or train journeys. Hotel prices in Buenos Aires have generally doubled for the World Cup. The elegant Plaza, for instance, has upped a double room from $57 to $114 a night. Payment was demanded two months in advance—for a minimum stay of 30 days. Nor can fans pick and choose among matches: they buy a block of tickets, or they can forget it.
Such gouging might be enough to deter any soccer fan except perhaps a Scot. When Scotland qualified for the finals, one of the nation's papers crowed euphorically, "We're on our way to Rio!" Better advised geographically than that, two Scots last year set out for Buenos Aires on bicycles. Others, it is rumored, have joined the merchant marine, the word being that Liberian freighters calling at Dakar in West Africa for the South American run are chronically short of hands. Nobody who has encountered the demonic single-minded-ness of the Scots when it comes to soccer disbelieves this story.