The world's greatest floral decorators have all descended on Berlin in a bid to take out the biggest prize of them all in floral design, the Fleurop-Interflora World Cup.
It's a typical World Cup scene - the flag waving amidst bouts of patriotic chanting, momentarily drowning out the hum of tension in the atmosphere. The competitors stream onto the pitch to applaud, and the siren sounds the start of the match.
But this isn't your typical sporting fiesta. Indeed, by the look of the fearsome array of saws, scissors, drills and plentiful reserves of band-aids on display, it's going to be a much more brutal bout: the contest for the title of the world's best floral designer.
Spread over three days, contestants from 26 countries will battle it out in the hope of taking home the title - last won by Norway's Stein Are Hansen in 2010,when the event was held in Shanghai. The 2015 competition features 17 men and nine women, clearly bucking age-old clichés about floral design being a mainly female profession.
"It's a man's sport of course - and we are here to win it again," Norwegian supporter Erik Kopke laughs mischievously while ferociously waving his immense national flag. The floral design teacher has travelled to Berlin with his all-female students from Oslo to observe the best designers in the world at the top of their game. "It's the definition of art and beauty. You must work so hard on this creation, for in a matter of days it will be gone. Dead. Such beauty, such perfection is hard work."
The 14th annual World Cup returns to Germany for the first time since 1982. It's a significant homecoming, as it was in Berlin where Fleurop-Interflora (the world's leading floral association) was born in 1908, founded by florist Max Hübner.
Hundreds of eager fans lined up early to buy tickets to watch Berlin's suitably grungy Arena venue in the district of Kreuzberg erupt to life with color and scent. Over the three days, contestants partake in four competitions, with the top ten going on to compete in the grand final on Saturday. The themes range from "surprise item" to "hand-tied," "organic" and "personal." The overall winner is announced at a gala dinner on Saturday.
For the first day's challenge; contestants were given 1.5 hours to create a work to the theme "strictly carnation." As the name suggests, that meant utilizing the one flower type, albeit in a kaleidoscopic array of tinctures. But the flowers themselves were most often upstaged by the creations that began to take shape on each contestant's metal scaffolding.
The personal touch
While Poland's entrant Zygmunt Sieradzan referenced classic floral arrangement with one tightly-bound bouquet lashed to an intricately decorated frame, other contestants opted for interpretive creations. South Korea's Alex Choi was one, draping his work in colored foam to give the impression of a fluorescent fruit tree.
Greece's entrant Panagiotis Tsiamouras seemed to do away with the need for flowers at all, concentrating on a complex weave of bamboo and leaf instead.
"It is sculpture," a staff member offered as I looked inquisitively at Tsiamouras' sparse creation. "It's not about the flowers alone. It's about what the flowers represent: beauty and freedom."
Bloom or bust
Freedom is the overarching theme of this year's World Cup, inspired by 25 years of German unity. China's entrant Ni Zhixiang seemed to take that theme to another level, however. Thronged by supporters, he finished five minutes before his allotted time and then sat down to mingle with fans while his fellow contestants battled frantically against the looming clock, reaching desperately into their tool kits.
"The rules are strict: we are using just one flower, the carnation, in this particular round," Australia’s entrant Shauna Larsen offered with a sigh, as the bell sounded the end of competition. "But it's amazing what you can do with so little. That is what it is about. It's about that freedom to use what you have and make something beautiful with it. Like life."
With blackened hands and weary limbs, the contestants take a break before readying for the battles ahead, hoping to take the 2015 crown. As the Germans like to say: "For beauty, you need to suffer."