Football: The boom that followed the glory

Return to France 98: Both the hosts and the Caribbean outsiders have benefited from the World Cup effect
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THE OPTIMISTS said the French victory in the World Cup would change everything, the pessimists said it would change nothing. Politically, the jury may still be out.(On the whole, the verdict is likely to be positive.)

In sporting terms, there is no argument. France has gone football mad. Six months after "les hommes d'Aime Jacquet" defeated Brazil 3-0 at St Denis, France is running out of room in its stadia to fit would- be fans; it is running out of football pitches to accommodate would-be players. The average crowd in the French First Division this year, up to the winter pause, was 18,959.

In the same period last year, it was 15,780. This is an increase of more than 20 per cent. Crowds in the Second Division - previously a contradiction in terms - are also up by one fifth, averaging just under 6,000. Even more encouragingly for the future of football in France, junior leagues and clubs have been besieged by youngsters, and some not so young, wanting to play the game played by Zinedine Zidane.

The new recruits are pouring in so rapidly that the Federation Francaise de Football has not officially counted them all yet. But the best guess is that another 240,000 French people have joined football clubs since the World Cup - an increase of about 12 per cent.

Many thousands of these recruits come from the troubled suburbs of the larger French cities. In the Ile-de-France, the greater Paris region, new players are joining at a rate of 250 a day. Hamar, a 33-year-old youth worker and voluntary football coach in the eastern suburbs of Paris, said: "As far as the kids around here remember it, France did not win the World Cup. Zinedine Zidane won the World Cup. To see a man who comes from the same background as them - it is not even just a question of race - leading the French team to victory opened these kids' eyes. Everyone wants to be a footballer now."

This is even true in the south west, the home of Didier Deschamps, Bixente Lizarazu, Christophe Dugarry and Fabien Barthez but also traditionally the home of both codes of rugby. The French rugby federation admits that it has been steadily losing young players to football since the World Cup - especially in its south-western fiefdom. France, compared to Britain, is already well endowed with municipal football pitches, even in the most remote rural areas. But abruptly there is a shortage of spaces to play on. In Brittany, and in parts of the Paris region, teams are stacking up on Saturday and Sunday afternoons to occupy the same piece of grass. In the Rhone-Alpes region, handball pitches have been commandeered for five-a-side football games. There is talk of launching a public campaign - "operation 1,000 terrains" - to build 1,000 new football fields.

There is an equivalent problem at the top of the football pyramid. Apart from the grounds rebuilt for the World Cup, French stadia are relatively small. With the boom in interest, many clubs are operating at or near to capacity. The World Cup victory accelerated, rather than reversed, a trend. Crowds had already been growing steadily in recent years.

This season all clubs have benefited from the Zidane-Jacquet effect - save one. Paris St-Germain, the wealthiest club in French football, packed with highly paid but perennially under-achieving stars, are finally losing their long-suffering fans. Financially, French professional football - although continuing to groan about the unfair tax burdens it faces - is in healthy condition. Six years ago the professional clubs made a combined loss of pounds 120m per year; they expect,on the half-time results, to make a modest profit of around pounds 5m this year.

On the field, the French best are competing with Europe's best on more or less equal terms. Three French clubs - Marseilles, Bordeaux and Lyons, also leading the championship in that order - made it through to the last eight of the Uefa Cup for the first time. (Lens gallantly failed to qualify for the final stages of the Champions' League; PSG abjectly crashed out of the Cup-Winners' Cup). But an ambitious new breed of football club presidents, led by Gervais Martel of Lens, believes that the French clubs must now use the springboard of France 98 to catch up permanently with the Premiership and Serie A.

Martel is campaigning for a much better tax regime for professional clubs, and their players. He also wants French TV channels to pay a much greater fee for televising matches when the present deals run out in two years' time. The aim, he says, should be to ensure that Zinedine Zidane - and the future Zidanes now squeezing on to pitches all over France - should win international trophies with French clubs as well the French team.