When Germany's resurgent soccer team takes the pitch these days, the country shuts down. People cut work and don Michael Ballack jerseys. The streets go quiet. No wonder Berlin's prostitutes were irritable on Saturday.
The afternoon of the Germany-Sweden game, I paid 70 euros to enter the Artemis sauna club, what may be Europe's best-known and most luxurious brothel. Artemis is a four-story, 4,000-square-meter establishment tucked behind a tire shop and 10 lanes of highway traffic. Once I entered the building, I was promised up to 80 "Erotik and Maximum Girls." There were also two screening rooms for hardcore German pornography. But the real reason I had come here is that one of Artemis' cinemas had been converted into an X-rated fan zone. This, I thought, would be the perfect place to watch Germany try to advance to the final eight of the World Cup.
In Europe, the beautiful game is sexy. Soccer's big stars are pheromonal icons who date supermodels. Cheerleaders, some of them topless, gyrate on stages at FIFA-sponsored World Cup events. Even the rhythm of well-played soccer, with its mounting tension of parries and thrusts that crescendos in the release of a goal, mimics that most intimate of acts.
And then there's prostitution, legal in Germany since 2002. The multibillion-dollar industry is now taxed and regulated by the government and, reportedly, safer and cleaner than ever. That didn't stop the U.S. State Department from issuing a warning about sex trafficking in Germany during the World Cup. Several anti-prostitution groups circulated reports that Eastern European pimps were set to flood the country with prostitutes. They blamed mega-brothels like Artemis, in particular, for increasing demand for sex workers of all types.
At the door, a smiling hostess ordered me to strip down and put on a bathrobe. In the pristine locker room, a female singer trilled, "Just one of them days that a girl goes through," before advising me not to "take it personal." Fair warning. In Artemis' upstairs lounge, a dark expanse of leather couches, garish paintings, and zebra-skin beds, a dozen naked girls and about 30 johns milled about in various stages of flirtatious deceit.
Descending a spiral staircase to the brothel's lower level, which features a weight room, tanning beds, and an outdoor patio, I spotted a blond sitting naked across from an indoor swimming pool. I approached her, hoping to strike up a conversation about soccer with a German girl.
"Do you like football?" I asked her
"I like sex," she said, almost angry.
"Are you German?" I asked.
"I am Russian. I like sex."
"I'm looking for a German girl."
"I am Russian! Do you want sex?!"
"I want football," I whimpered before slinking away.
I had similar exchanges with three other Eastern Europeans. All the German girls, it seemed, had disappeared. Then, I found the cinema that was showing the soccer game. The entire clientele of the brothel, a gang of middle-aged men wearing towels and white robes, had packed into the room. One of them had even smuggled in a noisemaker.
It didn't take long for him to start making a racket. The aggressive German side struck quickly, with 21-year-old Lukas Podolski scoring two goals in the first 12 minutes. The brothel erupted. Four or five pouty prostitutes—at last, the Germans—stalked into the room. A man with a Russian accent barked at them to sit down. They stayed there, in the buff, fixated on the screen. They sat motionless except for the occasional stroking of a breast and quiet except for the muttered "Sheisse" as German star Michael Ballack hit a shot off the goalpost.
I took a stroll through the rest of the club in the 75th minute of the lopsided game. I found only one person. Her name was Rosa. She quickly attached her hand to my bottom. "It hurts me so much to see all the young Americans dying in Iraq," she said with a squeeze. "For what? I would kill Bush if I could."
Rosa had been here for a week. She came from Spain to work during the World Cup. Like most of the other girls, she gives Artemis 80 euros a day to enter the club and sleep here for the night. She negotiates her own prices for transactions beyond the standard 60 euros for a blow job and sex. She keeps all her earnings, paying only tax to the government. She doesn't have a pimp.
Artemis' mulleted public relations manager, Egbert Krumeich, explained that every girl needs to have European Union paperwork and proof of age to work here. He says the government checks the business regularly. Krumeich claims that business picks up when there's a game in town—Artemis averages 180 customers a day, but he says it had 506 after the Brazil-Croatia game. Yet according to press reports, the prostitution frenzy that was supposed to take hold of Germany has yet to materialize.
After two weeks in eight German cities, I'd agree. I've seen no sign of the wooden "sex garages" that were supposed to have been built to service the horny, nor have I spotted any streetwalkers or violent pimps. In Frankfurt's multiblock red-light district, which I'd heard was run by the Hell's Angels, there's nary a renegade biker to be found. Inside one "eros center," a prostitute scoffed at the suggestion, saying the 50-room building was owned by an Israeli businessman.
During the World Cup, it seems, visitors have priorities. "First is soccer," said Krumeich, a former semi-pro footballer himself. "Next is sex." That hierarchy is especially true during Germany games.
In my brothel robe with Rosa's hand on my ass, I suddenly felt out of place. Not because of where I was, but because of what I was missing. Rosa pleaded with me to run off with her while throwing in a few more barbs at "Bush, killer of children and robber of oil." That's tempting, I told her, but it's not why I'm here. I heard the crowd in the cinema ooh and groan and aww, and I knew it was time to get back to the real action.