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Andorra to share a grand stage

A nation with only 32 eligible footballers gets ready to face the world champions.
THEY HAVE a centre-forward called Jesus - but do not expect any miracles. Lourdes is on the other side of the Pyrenees. In one of the most absurd, and engaging, mismatches ever thrown up in international football, Andorra play France tonight at the Stade de France.

In their first return to the stadium since their victory over Brazil in the World Cup final on 12 July, the world champions take on one of the newest, and weakest, of football nations.

Selection is not a headache for Andorra's Brazilian trainer. He picks whoever is fit and can get time off work. Only 50 adult male Andorrans are registered as footballers; of those, just 32 are regarded as proficient in the basic football skills. Six are professionals or semi-professionals in the Spanish and Portuguese third divisions. The rest are students, firemen, insurance agents and municipal employees.

Jesus Julien Lucendo, the Andorran striker and captain, is a 30-year- old youth worker who once played a few games for Barcelona. He is not expected to have a busy night. (He does not have to do much, however, to outshine the last centre forward to take on the French at the Stade de France - another former Barcelona striker called Ronaldo.)

If the entire population of the tiny mountain country made the 500-mile journey to the Stade de France, a fifth of the 80,000 seats would still be empty. In fact, no away supporters are expected. Football is not a popular sport among Andorrans, a nation devoted to running duty-free shops and, when time permits, skiing. There are only three football pitches in the country, which is, admittedly, not well endowed with flat spaces.

One of the greatest problems the squad have faced in preparing for the match was persuading the Andorran government not to turn the lights off in the 980-seat national stadium in the evenings. In their previous away game, the Andorran players were discomfited to find the ball moving around the pitch more rapidly than they were accustomed to. Christian d'Argueyrolles, an Andorran football official, offered an explanation. "At home, there are lumps of soil on the pitches which slow the ball down..."

The European Championship qualifying match is the third competitive international - and only the eighth game of any kind - in Andorra's four-year history as a footballing nation. Their record is not at all bad in the circumstances: Played 8, Won 0, Drawn 1, Lost 7; Goals For 2, Goals Against 16. The 0- 0 draw was away to Azerbaijan. One of the defeats was 3-0 against Brazil, in a pre-World Cup friendly.

Last Saturday, Andorra lost 2-0 at home to the respected Ukraine side, who are regarded as the main threat to France in Group Four of the Euro 2000 qualifiers. The Ukrainian coach, Josef Sabo, did not enjoy his trip into the mountains. "Our players were lucky to leave the pitch alive after the way Andorra played," he said. "They play like football was 50 years ago."

In which case, why did the Ukrainians not score a net-full? The Andorran coach, Manoel Miluir, who helped to coach Ronaldo at Cruzeiro juniors when he was a boy, retorted: "I cannot understand what he is on about. There was not a dangerous tackle in the match and we did not get a single yellow card."

Miluir plans a similarly uncompromising display tonight. Anything less than a 4-0 win for France will be a moral victory, he says. "If we can, we may try a few counter-attacks."

The man deputed to extinguish the great French midfield player, Zinedine Zidane, will be Xavier Francesco Palomo Ramirez - who is, appropriately, a fireman. Andorran creative hopes rest on the libero Antonio Lima Sola, from the Portuguese Third Division club, Madeira. Miluir describes him as a "delicate artist".

The coach, and other Andorran football officials, have been fighting an uphill battle with their government since they were admitted to the ranks of the nations recognised by Fifa, world football's governing body, in 1994. The truth is that football is popular in Andorra, but not among Andorrans. There are are 1,733 registered players, including women and children, but almost all are immigrants. Under the tiny but wealthy country's restrictive nationality laws, it is impossible for them to become naturalised Andorrans.

Miluir has pleaded for relaxation of the rules: for more money for football and for the lights to be kept on later in the national stadium on training nights. To no avail. "If I were cynical, I would say the national sport here is opening and closing the cash box," Miluir said.

The match poses a tricky problem of protocol for one keen French football fan, President Chirac. At the World Cup final, he wore a France scarf and carried a squad shirt bearing the number 23. He is expected to go to tonight's game. But will he wear two scarves, or swap at half-time? Andorra's joint heads of state are a Spanish bishop and the president of the French Republic.