Football: Muted passions and a threadbare field of dreams

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The Independent Online
The pounds 270m Stade de France, centrepiece of this summer's World Cup, looked stunning at its formal opening. Pity about the pitch, though.

John Lichfield examines the stade of readiness of France, and the French team, for France '98.

The opening ceremony was impressive; the stadium extraordinary. The French team played well, for the first time in months, defeating Spain 1-0. The predicted strikes, and transport nightmare for fans, did not happen. Even President Chirac took part, somewhat clumsily, in the first Mexican wave in the Stade de France.

But the heavily sanded pitch was a disgrace, like a village Sunday league field dropped into the midst of the most expensive and most advanced stadium in the world. A late frost was blamed. But why, the Spanish coach Javier Clemente wanted to know, does such a splendid stadium, and the most costly stretch of turf ever laid, have no underground heating system?

In any case, frost was only part of the story. The pitch looked yellow and threadbare - only 60 per cent covered in grass, according to one account - fulfilling the predictions of ecological doomsayers. (The Stade de France was built, against advice, on a chemically polluted, former gasworks site).

French media coverage yesterday declined to dwell further on this controversy, even though the pitch spoiled what began as a promising game. The newspapers concentrated on the victory of Les Bleus, and the first defeat for Spain in three and a half years. "What a good augury," said the banner headline in the daily sports paper, L'Equipe.

Until now, French preparations, on the field, for France '98 have been dispiriting: a series of draws and defeats and narrow victories over second- rank teams such as South Africa. Michel Platini, the former French captain and co-president of the France '98 organising committee, blames the limp performances of the team for the manifest absence of World Cup fervour in France, with 132 days to the opening match. Until the team starts winning convincingly, he said in a recent interview, the French will not get excited about the event.

The performance against Spain, some people's tips to win France '98, was certainly encouraging. The exiled stars, such as Zinedine Zidane (who scored the frost-assisted winning goal) and Youri Djorkaeff produced, finally, something like their Italian club form. The right wing-back, Lilian Thuram, and right-sided midfielder, Ibrahim Ba, also given rave reviews in Serie A this season, showed why the French coach, Aime Jacquet, continues to ignore the Tottenham Hotspur winger David Ginola, who is still very popular in France.

Jacquet, a taciturn man accused of producing dull and mechanical teams from promising components, was jeered by the crowd when he was presented before the match. Shades, perhaps, of England in the run-up to 1966: could Monsieur Jacquet yet prove to be the French Alf Ramsey?

His squad, packed with excellent defenders and midfielders, still lacks a top-class striker: Stephane Guivarc'h of Auxerre (sought by Newcastle United, according to the French press) and David Trezeguet of Monaco were tried out against Spain but both looked clumsy in the awkward conditions.

Will this match be enough to stoke French passions? The crowd was hopelessly quiet, though, admittedly, many were invited dignitaries rather than genuine fans. The truth is that the France, unlike almost all its neighbours, is not a passionate, football-supporting country. Many French First Division games have attendances of fewer than 10,000.

The country as a whole remains, with four months to go, intrigued and interested rather than excited about the World Cup. French officialdom has not caught the spirit at all. The organising committee is still trying to persuade the roads ministry to put up special signs to direct foreign fans to the stadiums. A small Paris hotel tried to whip up a little fervour last week by decking itself out in the national flags of all 32 countries involved: it was immediately ordered by the Paris Town Hall to take the flags down, because they made the street look untidy.

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