MOST OF us will have spent last year's World Cup tournament, which took place in Germany in June and July, cheering on the men with three lions on their shirt — and then crying into our beers when they got knocked out by Portugal in the quarter-finals.
There were some British journalists, however, who focused on a far more sinister side to the month-long football extravaganza.
They argued that the real World Cup story was not Peter Crouch's bizarre bodypopping dance, or Wayne Rooney's red card, but the trafficking of thousands of women into Germany to work as sex slaves for football fans.
In the run-up to the World Cup, newspapers carried reports predicting that up to 40,000 women from Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America would be transported to Germany, where they would be "enslaved" as prostitutes who would be paid a pittance to service drunken or drugfuelled fans in various German cities.
But new EU documents reveal that five women, not 40,000, are believed to have been trafficked into Germany to work as prostitutes during the World Cup.
Some pretty shocking stuff was written in the weeks before the World Cup kicked off. On 14 May last year, Independent columnist Joan Smith wrote about the "dark side" of the forthcoming tournament. "The combination of sport, booze and sex is a huge problem, encouraging degrading attitudes and sometimes actual violence towards women," she claimed. Smith reported EU officials' concerns about the "prospect" of "40,000 women being imported [to Germany] for the ‘use' of visiting fans".
On 30 May 2006, Julie Bindel wrote a feature for The Guardian headlined "Foul play", in which she claimed that "thousands more women will be forced into prostitution" to service the "millions of men arriving [in Germany] for the World Cup".
Because the sex industry has been legalised, special facilities, including "wooden ‘performance boxes' resembling toilets, with condoms, showers and parking" were being laid on in the 12 cities hosting the tournament, Bindel wrote.
On 26 April 2006, The Independent's Deborah Orr said it was a "chilling insight into sporting life" that "anything up to 40,000 extra sex workers are likely to be smuggled into [Germany] in the coming weeks, in anticipation of huge demand for prostitutes during the World Cup".
Some journalists questioned the 40,000 figure that seems to have come from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), a US feminist group.
The Daily Telegraph's then Berlin correspondent Kate Connolly wrote in her blog on 17 May: "According to my research and the discussions I've held with various campaign groups and NGOs closely involved in this issue, this figure appears to be without foundation. It has apparently been plucked from the air to appease the media, but there is no empirical basis to the claim. The groups, who are in close contact with the police department responsible for tackling human trafficking, also say that there has been no extra movement on the borders so far."
It is unclear how CATW arrived at this neat, rounded figure that was repeated without question by some journalists in the UK.
Two new Council of the European Union documents reveal a different account of the scale of trafficking into Germany during the World Cup. One of them says: "There was no sign whatsoever of the alleged 40,000 prostitutes/ forced prostitutes — a figure repeatedly reported, also in international media — who were to be brought to Germany for the 2006 World Cup."
They state that there were only five cases of "human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation" related to the football tournament.
For all the claims that thousands of football fans would be lining up outside toilet-style "sex sheds" to use and abuse trafficked women, this new evidence suggests that demand for paid sex was so low that even those women who voluntarily travelled to Germany to offer their services left before the tournament ended. One of the EU documents says: "The increase in the number of punters which was forecast by some did not materialise and this was the reason why some prostitutes left before the 2006 World Cup was over."
Will those journalists who predicted that the World Cup would be a cesspit of sex slavery and abuse now withdraw their earlier claims?
"I stand by my statements," says Julie Bindel. "The EU documents are flawed."
For Bruno Waterfield, Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, who covered the trafficking controversy for my website spiked, the sex slavery story shows that journalists need to be more careful when reporting shocking numbers.
"It can be very hard to step back from a story. But journalists must find out where a figure has come from, and give its provenance so that people can make up their own minds.
"There are often frightening figures and scary statistics around the issues of crime and migration. And the clamour for ‘something to be done' in these policy areas have real consequences, often leading to the further criminalisation of migration.
"That is why we reporters need to make ourselves resistant to the heat of hype and moral panic."
Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com)