MUNICH: Fans from Germany and Costa Rica poured through the streets of this Bavarian city, singing and chanting in feverish anticipation as their teams kicked off the World Cup on Friday amid tight security, dazzling fanfare and many mugs of beer.
Germans are counting on the world's largest sporting event watched by billions around the globe as a chance to show off the new Germany: reunified, rejuvenated and prospering.
Costa Ricans are also looking to the event to raise their nation's profile. "For us, this is a once in a lifetime chance," said Roberto Carranza, a student from San Jose, who will be among the 66,000 attending the event. "The whole world is going to know about our country."
Germans are realistic about their team's chances against the 31 other top teams in the world with many saying the team should be happy to make it to the quarterfinals.
Hoping for a miracle
Yet others hold fast to dreams of a repeat of the 1954 `Miracle of Bern' when the underdog West German team defeated Hungary for the title, catapulting the then fledgling nation out of the shadows of its World War II history and boosting self-confidence at home.
With the shadow of the Nazis ever present, Germans have long tended to steer away from overt displays of patriotism. But more than 15 years after the former East and West fused and 60 years since the war, such taboos seem to be melting away.
In Munich, the streets were packed with fans bedecked in every possible incarnation of the black, red and gold German national colours, including painted faces, caps, beaded rings and people who simply wrapped themselves in the nation's flag. Scores of people also wore plastic replicas of spiked World War I helmets painted either with the national colours or as balls.
Influx of millions
Germany stands to benefit from the million fans pouring into the country to attend the matches in 12 cities. Fans are expected to pack not only the stadiums, but also hundreds of organised outdoor viewing points, as well as the nation's many beer gardens, pubs and restaurants.
Police aren't taking any chances. A spike in racially motivated attacks in Berlin and surrounding areas ahead of the tournament raised concerns about neo-Nazis. An African group in the capital had even planned to issue a list of `no-go areas' for dark-skinned fans, but decided against it after meetings with police helped allay their concerns.
In a special pre-Cup service in Munich's famous Frauenkirche cathedral where German-born Pope Benedict XVI once presided Cardinal Friedrich Wetter prayed with hundreds of fans for a "festival of peace and friendship."
"Only a few can play on the field, but we can all participate with our hope and joy," he told the worshippers, from an altar behind a giant football.
The World Cup opens with indicators of business and consumer optimism running high and the German economy Europe's biggest picking up after several stagnant years.
In her inaugural weekly video podcast, chancellor Angela Merkel urged a "top-class performance" on and off the field.
The excitement of the World Cup spread beyond Germany.
In Denmark, which did not qualify, all newspapers featured the World Cup on their front pages, while public radio throughout the day played sound bites from sports commentators yelling and shouting when Danish teams scored in past tournaments.
``Football's popularity reaches all corners of the world,'' Former Polish soccer star Zbigniew Boniek wrote in Fakt newspaper. ``One can of course also talk about hooligans making trouble, which applies to a tiny percentage of real fans, but actually football today unites the whole world.''
A potential cloud over the tournament is the political dispute surrounding qualifier Iran, whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has indicated he may travel to Germany to support the national team in person. No specific plans have been announced. Vice President Mohammed Aliabadi came to Germany and is expected to attend.
Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust a ``myth'' and said the Jewish state should be ``wiped off the map,'' leading a German Jewish group and Amnesty International to organise demonstrations before the team's first game in Nuremberg on Sunday.
German far-right activists are threatening to demonstrate in support of the Iranian president. AP