Before the first goal is scored, soccer fans around the world got a taste last weekend of the ecstasy - and agony - that awaits them at next year's World Cup in Germany.
World Cup organizers last Friday granted the first batch of an estimated 1.1 million publicly available tickets, the result of a lottery in which 900,000 people from 195 countries participated. Only 208,455 walked away with tickets in the first sales period, one of five taking place before kickoff on June 9, 2006.
"We will make a lot of people happy, but a lot more will be disappointed," said David Will, vice president of FIFA, world soccer's governing body. "All I can say is, 'Keep on trying.' "
A Super Bowl showdown, a Red Sox-Yankees series, even the Olympics - none match the sheer intensity of soccer's World Cup. Global GDP plummets during penalty kicks. Red cards carry more force than UN resolutions. And with so much national pride at stake, the month-long tournament becomes a sometimes- violent exhibit of nationalism, especially for increasingly homogenized Europe.
Soccer fans around the globe logged onto the FIFA site from Feb. 1 to March 31, many applying for the maximum 28 tickets over seven matches. The tickets range in price from 35 euros ($45) to 600 euros ($774).
As the host country, Germany has become especially wrapped up in the ticket hype. In fact, more than 80 percent of the applicants were German. But in the latest sign of soccer's popularity in America, US fans followed British ones as the third-highest contingent.
Some of the fortunate ones, like Fabian König, employed complex strategies to beat the odds and navigate FIFA's byzantine ticketing regulations. Mr. König, who lives in Munich, sent out three different applications and put everyone from his grandparents to his girlfriend on order forms to try to increase his chances.
Out of 74 possible tickets, he got eight tickets to two games.
"I was super excited, and began calling all my family and friends," says König, who spent an entire evening mapping out his strategy with a friend.
Others, like Gerhard Stochl, just sent in their requests and hoped for the best.
"I knew that the chances were slim. But when I went to the European championships last year there was a similar system, and I got tickets," says Mr. Stochl, an Austrian photographer who lives in New York. This time around, however, Stochl, who applied for 28 tickets in 14 matches, went away empty-handed. "I was disappointed and surprised," he says.
He was joined by a growing legion of frustrated - and desperate - soccer fans.
Soon after the lottery results appeared in e-mail boxes from California to Kyrgyzstan, World Cup tickets showed up on eBay, their prices doubling and tripling.
Organizers immediately sought to stamp out the illicit trade, reminding people that only those whose names appeared on tickets would be allowed into the stadium.
"We know there will be a black market - the tennis at Wimbledon has had one for over a hundred years - but we want to spare fans a rude awakening at the stadium gates," says organizing committee vice president Horst Schmidt. There will be random checks, he explains, at the entrance of the tournament's 12 stadiums on game days to make sure the right people get in.
Philipp Köster, a veteran of European soccer tournaments and founder of the respected fan publication 11 Freunde, dismissed the random checks as naive.
"There will be large amounts on the black market anyway," he says.
More incomprehensible, he says, is why sponsors, journalists, and national soccer associations - and not the fans - will have access to the estimated 2 million remaining tickets.
"An unbelievable amount is going to sponsors and people who have little to no idea about soccer," says Mr. Köster, who fears a "world cup of suits." "The atmosphere in the stadium will suffer greatly."
The ticket distribution and entire bureaucracy involved in applying has angered and turned off many fans, he argues. The complicated ordering site, which crashed when run on certain Web browsers, frustrated many applicants - as did rules that voided applications for more than one game on the same day.
"I deal with computers every day and I didn't think it was that easy," says Marco Spier, a native Berliner who is an animation director at a company in New York. He and his friends spent two hours just going down the list of ticket-ordering "dos" and "don'ts."
But Spier shouldn't be complaining. Unlike this reporter, who didn't win a ticket, he'll be sitting in Berlin's Olympic Stadium next June, watching the final match of the group round.