A smile on the face of France

Even the host nation's intellectuals are warming to Le Mondial.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE WORLD CUP is coming home. France did not invent football but it did invent the World Cup. How gloriously appropriate that France, birthplace of Jules Rimet, founder of the feast, should stage the last World Cup of the 20th century. How depressingly predictable that so much rain should fall on the parade, even before the parade has begun.

Seen from this side of the Channel Tunnel, it has seemed that some sections of the British media (and not just the British media) have been willing France 98 to be a disaster for weeks now. Violence by fans is taken as inescapable, to the point where even semi-tamed British fans might feel they have let the nation down if they fail to get into at least one punch- up.

The likely impact of the transport strikes, embarrassing enough for France, has been widely exaggerated; what stoppages remain may be awkward for fans, but will not come near to wrecking the competition.

And yet, despite the carping, it seems that everyone is desperate to come to France 98. Would the demand for tickets have been so great if the contest were being held in any country but this - the world's favourite foreign destination? Would the criticism have been so joyous if the host nation had been anyone but the French, perennially among the leading candidates for the world's least favourite people?

Only eight years ago, the World Cup in Italy - a more passionate soccer nation than France - failed miserably to fill its, admittedly larger, stadiums for every game. Many games in France 98 could have been occupied several times over, with French fans alone. Every single match in the first stage - even Japan v Jamaica and Nigeria v Bulgaria - is a sell- out. The foreign brouhaha over ticket sales - not just a British phenomenon - ignores the fact that the greatest number of disappointed and ticketless fans will be French.

What hope then, after such a sour beginning, that the World Cup will be the "joyous, popular festival of youth", sought by Michel Platini, the former French captain and manager, and co-President of the French organising committee?

Desperate forecasts were also made for Euro 96 in England, which did not materialise. There is every reason to believe that, with a minimum of goodwill on all sides, this could still be a memorable, orderly and peaceful World Cup.

Until a month or so ago, it would have been true to say that France, at large, was ignoring the event. There was little sign of popular excitement, even public awareness, that the globe's greatest sporting and media event was imminent. Symptoms of interest, even fervour, began to appear in the eight provincial host cities a few weeks ago. Paris has finally begun to waken in the last fortnight. Abruptly, the World Cup is penetrating parts of the French metropolitan culture that football usually never reaches.

A couple of days ago, an exclusive florist's shop in the heart of the 16th arrondissement - the Parisian Belgravia - erected a large, topiary sculpture of a footballer dribbling a ball. Similar signs of welcome and anticipation are appearing all over France.

The magazine L'Express was categorical: "Stop sulking," it ordered its high-brow readers, in a World Cup supplement, published partly, startlingly, in English. "Let's seize the chance to show the planet the best side of France and give up our good old Gallic taste for auto-flagellation."

Not everyone will stop sulking. There are three anti-World Cup organisations in Paris (apart from the pilots' unions). These groups are not dedicated to disrupting the World Cup but to helping people to ignore it. They are sponsoring alternative programmes of social and artistic events.

It will not be easy to hide from Le Mondial, even on the Left Bank. The official opening ceremony - The Festival of Football - tomorrow will for the first time occupy, not a stadium, but a whole city. Four parades, led by giant, bizarre figures, representing the footballing continents, will wind through Paris to a vast spectacle on the Place de la Concorde, employing 3,500 actors, acrobats, dancers and roller-skaters.

There will be other differences from previous World Cups. The nation- wide rotation of teams and venues in the first stage - Platini's own idea - was meant to show all of the contestants to the nation; and the whole of the nation to the contestants and their fans. It should also, transport strikes permitting, usefully increase the earnings of France PLC from the competition.

Otherwise, the Frenchness of France 98 may be minimal. It is disappointing to learn that all the stadiums will be serving little that is truly French but rather standard, global-village food and drink at standard prices (pounds 1.50 for a Coca-Cola or beer; pounds 1.80 for a hot dog). The merchandise on sale is also mostly American in inspiration - baseball caps and T-shirts - and there is hardly a beret or a striped jersey in sight.

Hungry fans, wanting a French flavour, would probably be well-advised to eat away from the stadia, if only at the excellent Haute Cuisine sausage- and-chips stands which haunt all large public gatherings in France.

It will cost France pounds 900m to stage the World Cup: more than half has been paid by national and local taxpayers. Almost half (about pounds 400m) was spent on the construction of the 80,000-seat Stade de France, north of Paris, and the renovation - virtually the rebuilding in some cases - of nine other stadiums.

The French organising committee has raised the rest of the cash from business sponsors and expects to break even or make a small profit. Fifa will make a vast profit from television and sponsorship deals but that is a different story.

A substantial chunk of the cost will also go on security: the biggest security operation ever mounted for a sporting tournament. The French police and military have been mobilised, but not the President's mounted guard. They were supposed to join the mounted police at matches at the two stadia in the Paris area but the police objected to having their role usurped by people who normally wear feathered helmets. Otherwise, the security operation - painstakingly co-ordinated with other nations, especially Britain - appears extremely professional.

Le Monde, the excellent but austere daily, parish magazine of the French intellectual classes, published a supplement on football on Wednesday. Admittedly, it was a compilation of passages of fine writing about soccer by novelists and philosophers from around the world. No matter. This was Le Monde's half-apologetic way of saying: a) the circus is coming to town; b) you can be intelligent and still like football.

Belatedly, despite the disruptions and the gloomy talk at home and abroad, France is definitely preparing to enjoy the tournament. As L'Express said, in English: "Yes, we're bawdy and grouchy and domineering" but also we have a unique talent "for happiness and fun."

After all, the French didn't just invent the World Cup; they also invented It's a Knockout. Que la fete commence.