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EVERY four years, the world's sports fans share an experience unlike any other in its intensity, its drama, its exultation, its heartbreak: the World Cup, a tournament involving 32 countries from almost every corner of the globe. And the country that plays host to that event — this year it is Germany — is more than just a place where memorable matches are played out in packed stadiums. For a month, it is transformed into perhaps the world's best party scene.

WHEN I arrived in Cologne at the end of April, the city was getting primed for the Weltmeisterschaft, as the World Cup is called in German. Signs, banners and ads for the tournament were everywhere. In one bookstore, I counted at least 20 new soccer titles in the World Cup display, ranging from intellectual treatises on German teams to naughty cartoons about referees.

Pascha, a 10-story bordello on the aptly named Hornstrasse, was already welcoming soccer fans from around the world. A giant picture of a seminude woman graced the facade, along with the flags of the 32 participating nations, though those of Saudi Arabia and Iran were blacked out after receiving phone threats.

At the plaza surrounding the Dom, the towering Gothic cathedral near the main train station, peddlers were also selling flags to tourists and commuters alike. And along the narrow cobblestone streets of this compact city, nearly every storefront had the official tournament logo in its window, a stylized "2006" composed of laughing faces. Cologne was ready to party.


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