Football: France hopes for a scoring draw

John Lichfield in Paris describes some unique preparations for the World Cup
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The Communist union leader in Marseilles thinks the World Cup is marvellous. It is a great opportunity, he says, "to show people in China that French workers can strike". He has called a one-day stoppage of public transport on Thursday, when the city hosts the globally televised World Cup draw and Europe v the Rest of the World exhibition match.

Michel Platini also thinks the World Cup is marvellous. He wants an occasion which is "festive, convivial and gives people pleasure". The World Cup next June and July, the first hosted by France for 60 years, must be a great event for the "whole of France", he says. Unfortunately, no one has told the Department of Equipment, in the Ministry of Transport, which is refusing, for unfathomable bureaucratic reasons, to erect special signs pointing to the 10 stadiums in which matches will be played. Platini, former French team captain and manager, now co-president of the French Organising Committee, appealed directly last week to the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin (who used to play in goal as a young man, before defecting to basket-ball). Mr Jospin - a classical goal-keeping type: dour but a safe pair of hands - promised that Platini would have his signs.

Welcome to France, which is just waking up to the fact that, seven months from now, from 10 June, it will be precisely where France assumes it should always be: the centre of the world's attention. There is nothing wrong with the organisation of the World Cup: the general consensus is that Platini, and his colleagues, have done a good job. Half the 2,500,000 tickets for the 64 matches have already been sold, to French fans. Over 200,000 hotel nights - one-fifth of those set aside for visiting fans at only mildly inflated prices - are already booked.

Unlike past World Cups, the first-stage matches will rotate all around the country; the eight four-team groups will not be based in a particular region. The official explanation is that the French organisers wanted to give every region a glimpse of the most exciting teams; an unofficial explanation is that the flux of supporters around the country should maximise the economic benefit to France.

Depending on next Thursday's draw, England and Scotland could play their three first-stage matches at any three of the ten venues: the Stade de France at Saint-Denis, the Parc des Princes in Paris, the Felix- Bollaert stadium in Lens, the Beaujoire in Nantes, the Parc Lescure in Bordeaux, the "Stadium" in Toulouse, the Mosson in Montpellier, the Stade- Velodrome in Marseilles, the Gerland in Lyons and the Geoffroy-Guichard stadium in Saint-Etienne.

What is apparent, however, is that France, as a whole, has yet to become excited about the World Cup. For weeks, Platini has been complaining publicly that the vast French administrative apparatus has failed to grasp the event's magnitude. Last week's meeting with M Jospin cleared the air somewhat. It was agreed that nine out of the ten stadiums would abandon the security fences. But one venue, Nantes, nearest to the England team base at La Baule, insists that it must keep its fences, following pressure from stubborn, local officialdom.

Platini has also been agonising about the apparent lack of public excitement about France 98, the last World Cup of the century and the largest ever. Beyond the football-watching community, enthusiasm has been low. "It is a mixture of things. Partly it's because the national team's preparatory games have been poor," said one French football official. last week. "With the draw next week, I expect the country will start to realise how important an event this is."

The choice of Marseilles to stage the draw and the all-star exhibition game is deliberate. Marseilles is the only city in France where football is a fervent religion, and dominant topic of conversation, in the same way as Milan or Liverpool, Turin or Glasgow. Strikes permitting, the Marseilles public can be guaranteed to give the "Mondial" a stirring kick-off.

For the sake of the presumed taste of the global audience, the organisers are seeking to turn the event into a cross between the National Lottery and the Eurovision Song Contest. The precise method of the draw - table- tennis balls in a tube? bits of paper in a hat? - has yet to be decided by Fifa. An announcement may be made on Tuesday, at the same time as the decision on the eight seeded teams.

The draw will be fronted partly by Roger Zabel, the French equivalent of Des Lynam. But his usual partner, the brutal-looking Auxerre manager, Guy Roux, has been dumped on aesthetic grounds, in favour of a school- mistressy TV presenter, Carole Rousseau, who usually stars in programmes about pets. She has been studying world football intensively for weeks. Minor roles in the draw itself have been assigned to footballing greats such as Raymond Kopa (the French goal-scorer from the 1950s), Franz Beckenbauer and Mia Hamm. Mia who? She is the captain of the US women's soccer team.

There will also be two songs. The Belgian singer Axelle Red and Senegalese pop star Youssou N'Dour ("the idol of Dakar") will perform the official anthem of France-98, "La cour des grands", which means, roughly, "The playground for grown-ups".

The event will be watched by tens of millions around the world but not by 2,000 people living in the shadow of the Stade de France, the new stadium built just north of Paris, which will stage the first World Cup game and the last. Controversy already surrounds the pitch in the stadium, which has turned a browny-yellow (a temporary hitch say the stadium management; noxious substances rising from a former gas-works site, say environmental campaigners). It now turns out that the gigantic roof of the stadium has blotted out TV reception in 1,000 neighbouring homes.