Football, World Cup: France's World Cup concerns reach yellow fever pitch

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The pitch that is being prepared for the opening match at the World Cup next year is looking distinctly off colour but, as John Lichfield reports from Paris, experts cannot agree why.

Imagine a World Cup final played on a pitch the colour of a mown hayfield. There is growing concern over the condition of the turf - laid at a record cost of pounds 400,000 - in the splendid stadium constructed near Paris for the World Cup next June and July.

After a recent inspection of the Stade de France, Michel Platini, the former French international and co-president of the World Cup organising committee, complained that the turf looked rather yellow. The stadium engineer admitted only that the pitch appeared "dirty". It had been treated with sand, he said, and too much had been applied. He would have the grass brushed.

Independent experts tell the French press that there may be a far more serious problem. Sections of the pitch, laid in September, have already been replaced, making it look more like a chessboard than a sporting showpiece.

One school of thought blames the impressive and futuristic roof of the stadium, which has an elliptical cross-section. Some experts say the roof is too big. Even though it has been fitted with vast skylights, it may be blocking out too much light and preventing a reasonable circulation of air. As a result, they believe, the grass is not drying or photosynthesising properly and will be vulnerable to disease and incursions of fungi. (An especially nasty attack of mushrooms has already been repulsed).

Other experts say that the problem may be below the pitch, not above it, and even more serious. The stadium at Saint-Denis, just north of Paris, was built, after a great deal of political manoeuvring, on the site of an old gasworks. Before building work started, the subsoil was cleansed of chemical pollutants and an underground filter installed to absorb noxious substances.

But environmental experts point out that the chosen design sank the pitch 30 feet below the natural ground level of the site, in other words, much closer to the poisoned subsoil than was really necessary. A pressure group called Robin des Bois (Robin Hood) points out a substantial rise in the water table would make the underground protection system useless. The group also claims that the degree and variety of pollution of the site - including traces of cyanide, tar, benzol and phenol - is far greater than first admitted.

The stadium management continues to deny that there is a problem. The turf was temporarily damaged, they say, by a combination of excessive sanding and mowing. All yellowness will have disappeared in two to three weeks, they say, in plenty of time for the inaugural match, a friendly between France and Spain on 28 January.

According to Le Monde, a substitute is standing by. The company which laid the grass is cultivating another 3,000 square metres of identical turf, just in case the pitch does need to be replaced. The grass has been designed to be especially hard-wearing, capable of sustaining 16 hours of play a week.

A grim thought remains. Brazil, with their canary yellow shirts, will play in the stadium in the first match of the 1998 World Cup on 10 June. If the pitch remains yellow, tens of millions of TV viewers around the world could be struggling to pick out the 1994 world champions.