Murky politics give birth to a jewel for Paris

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The Independent Online
The Stade de France, the most advanced and the most expensive sports stadium ever constructed, opens its turnstiles for the first time tomorrow. Its story reads like the modern history of France: hidden subsidies, unexpected deficits, political miscalculations, party intrigue, environmental mysteries. And the threat of a transport strike to ruin the opening day. But, as John Lichfield reports, it is still a magnificent stadium.

Jean Tiberi, the mayor of Paris, is not known for his sense of humour. But he surely intended a mocking joke when he announced yesterday that he would travel to the inaugural match in the pounds 270m Stade de France by canal boat.

To understand the joke, you have to remember three things. First, the stadium, built as the centrepiece of the 1998 World Cup, holds 80,000 spectators but has only 6,000 parking places. Second, there is a threat of a public transport strike to turn the first match, France versus Spain, into a public relations debacle. Third, Mr Tiberi detests the Stade de France, built in a breakneck 30 months just north of the city boundary at Saint-Denis. Its arrival will cast doubt on the future of the Parc des Princes, which is owned by the City of Paris and is the beloved home of his soccer team, Paris-Saint-Germain.

That is only the beginning of the web of intrigue, resentment and controversy which surrounds the creation of the first French national sports stadium.

One burning question should be answered tomorrow, at least provisionally. Is the grass green? Before Christmas, there were disturbing reports, backed by photographic evidence, that the pitch, laid at a record cost of pounds 400,000, was turning yellow. Environmental activists warned of noxious chemicals escaping from the former gas-works site on which the stadium was constructed.

Part of the pitch has been re-laid and stadium officials insist that all is now well. But one well-respected ecological group, Robin des Bois (Robin Hood), warned yesterday that "pockets of volatile, toxic gases" could build up around the concrete foundations of the stadium, producing a risk of noxious emissions and even explosion. Stadium officials dismissed the claim as alarmist and ridiculous.

But why was the stadium built on a poisoned site, with no room for car parks, in the first place? Several other locations were considered, further away from the city, but rejected through a mixture of political and financial intrigue. It was also feared that an outer suburban site would not attract the Paris-Saint-Germain (PSG) soccer team away from the Parc des Princes.

The income from regular, first class soccer, after the World Cup is over, was seen as crucial to the long term finances of the new stadium: so much so that the French government promised a pounds 7m a year indemnity to the private consortium running the stadium if PSG refused to move.

Partly through Mr Tiberi's intervention, partly because of the high charges demanded, PSG decided to stay at the Parc. This has led to the extraordinary sight of the government trying to invent a new first class soccer team for the Paris region. Attempts have been made to brow beat companies to sponsor and revive a once glorious team called Red Star, now languishing in Division Two. There are no takers. It looks as if the government will have to take the first penalties at the new stadium.

None of the above - except possibly the threat of explosion - detract from the magnificence of the Stade de France. A vast, oval space ship, towering over the northern Paris suburbs, it is the first sports arena in the world with variable geometry. t is capable of extending out onto the soccer and rugby pitch to accommodate 100,000 people at rock concerts - so long as the public transport is working.