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 Fèdèration 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.
Scots, too, have a reputation for violence, but Cordoba, where they will be lodged, is hardly the place for it. "We have General Menendez and the Third Army stationed here," a citizen said confidently last month. What he probably did not know was that a company that distills a domestic "Scotch" called Old Smuggler was proposing to dispense free samples of its product in a big first-night party for the visitors. The mind boggles. They will no doubt arrive singing the song that is currently No. 6 in the British hit parade: Ally's Tartan Army.
Ally is short for Alister McLoud, Scotland's manager, whose uncompromisingly physical team with brilliant attacking players like Andy Gray and Kenny Dalglish could do well if it is not unduly yellow-carded by zealous referees. Scotland will be in Group 4 with Holland, which may, or may not, have Johan Cruyff, star of the '74 Cup, on its side. He is currently playing in Spain, and there is a possibility that he will make a deal with the NASL Cosmos and perform in Argentina as well. Both Scotland and Holland should progress to the second round after their round-robin with Iran and Peru.
Group 1 is the hardest to assess; none of the teams is a powerhouse. Argentina could be the winner because it has the pronounced advantage of playing at home. It will oppose Italy, which lost to England 2-0 in the last qualifying game but got to the finals on goal difference; Hungary, which defeated Russia for a berth; and France, until last week considered an outsider worthy of the 25-to-1 odds quoted on it.
But four days before the great Hamburg dress rehearsal, the underrated French, with only five of their World Cup starters present for action, defeated Brazil 1-0 in the first game of the South Americans' European tour. So it was cold in Paris. So Brazil was jet-lagged. But the French still contained the great, if aging, Rivelino, the magnificent Striker Reinaldo and above all Zico, hailed as the new Pelè.
It was no surprise, then, that in Hamburg the Brazilians, shivering in shirts with unfamiliar long sleeves, started out against West Germany with more than a touch of desperation in their play. But the Germans, plainly lacking the authority of '74 hero Franz Beckenbauer in midfield, were even more ragged. Passes went astray. Rainer Bonhof, normally sure and cool, had a very bad evening indeed against Zico, and the huge, flaxen-haired Defender Rolf Russman fared even more poorly. Klaus Fischer, whom the Germans call the Stürmer-Star, is the striker who has inherited the role of Gerd Muller, Der Bomber of the '74 Cup. This night Fischer was a dud as he foraged unsupported on the attack.
In the second half, Brazil took over the midfield and in the 76th minute a rebound was kicked in by Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Nunes for an easy goal. The final score was 1-0. The German fans hurled cushions and whistled their defeated team off the field, "1-0, GUTE NACHT!" was the headline in Bild the next morning. The sobersided Die Welt was frankly lugubrious. "The bottom is hit," it wrote. "What now?"
What now indeed? The World Cup of 1978, with its two giants failing in the space of a week, looks wide open. The darkest horses are probably Poland, France, Scotland and Argentina, the home team. One venturesome forecast: No European team has ever won the World Cup in South America, but this may be the year for it.