France '98: Banquet with a bloated menu

Ian Ridley hopes that Fifa's bid to tackle old problems is not a recipe for disaster
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FASTER, higher, stronger, says the motto of the Olympic Games. The slogan of football's World Cup, which has supplanted its general sporting brother as the greatest show on legs, could well become fatter, richer, longer.

The finals of France 98 will feature 32 teams for the first time, stretch over 33 days and embrace 64 matches. For billions of armchair viewers and some two million attending spectators, it is a feast of the game at an appropriate venue, a gastronomic nation which also happened to invent the tournament.

What, though, will be the effect on the players or on the integrity of the game with such a bloated menu on offer? If the governing body, Fifa ,do not take care, they will create another beast that devours the energies of the participants while destroying their ability to create and entertain. The evidence was there four years ago when Brazil and a drained Italy, who had flown 3,000 miles across the United States to play the game, laid on a final that failed to match the expectation raised by a tournament dazzlingly staged by America and with an average attendance of 68,000.

It can only be hoped this time that some Roberto Baggio is not placed in the position of having to score a penalty to keep his side in the final after almost five weeks of epic endeavour. "I was worn out," he said. "I could feel his exhaustion," said his team-mate Franco Baresi. This was a man who had scored five wonderful goals to get his team there. It simply wasn't fair.

And it remains a staggering oversight that Fifa have still to devise a more acceptable solution for resolving a team game, a solution that combines more skill. At least, though, they have done something about the tackle from behind that threatened to strangle the life out of the 1990 finals. The fear is, however, that reason might fly out of the window in favour of an inflexible rule and that we end up with games of 10 against nine. Instead, let us hope that the aim of the initiative is fulfilled, that the attacking players are protected and the beautiful game is put on view. The game is about players, and the joy should be in seeing the very best performing at their peak. And there can be - should be - as much pleasure in watching good defenders as in watching the best attackers at work.

In goal, David Seaman, Peter Schmeichel, Jose-Luis Chilavert, of Paraguay, and Rene Higuita will delight for different reasons. Spain's Fernando Hierro, Manchester United's new signing Jaap Stam of Holland, and perhaps England's Tony Adams, will provide examples of the stopper's craft.

We will see if the midfielder's art really is dying when we watch Andy Moller of Germany, France's Zinedine Zidane and Denilson of Brazil. Then there are the contenders for the Golden Boot: Ronaldo, Gabriel Batistuta, Marcelo Salas, Alan Shearer, Dennis Bergkamp, Oliver Bierhoff, Predrag Mijatovic of Yugoslavia.

We will see the ageing stars given one last tilt at the windmill; Hristo Stoichkov, Gheorghe Hagi, Paul Gascoigne, Baggio. Who are the young pretenders to greatness? David Beckham? Ariel Ortega of Argentina? Are Ronaldo and Denilson really that good this early? And will those with reputations on their own continent - such as Nigeria's African Footballer of the Year Viktor Ikpeba - seize the moment?

Any time now an African team will win the competition. The Nigerians this time could edge them closer and as Olympic champions, they will have acquired some belief that it is possible. This, though, is the biggest of all trophies and yields itself only to the elite, for all Fifa's all- must-have-prizes expansionism.

England find themselves among only six countries who have won, five of whom will be in France, with Uruguay having fallen in qualification. And it is, indeed, difficult to look beyond Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy for this year's winners.

There will be those who shine early on, among them the Nigerians for sure, and probably a couple of the four debutants - Jamaica, Croatia, South Africa and Japan, whose presence the organisers will see as justification for their more manageable format in which two qualify from each group.

It is then that the competition will really start, with the dark horses of Spain and Yugoslavia seeking to steal a length or two on the favourites. Naturally Brazil, the holders, are seen as the leading ones, though for all their attacking flair they may be vulnerable at the back. Argentina, mean but menacing, are first choice. Four years ago, they were gathering pace when the Maradona doping scandal undermined them. Now they look potentially powerful party-poopers, possibly vanquishers of Brazil in one semi, and France, who could beat Germany in the other, in the final in Paris on 12 June.

Before then there will be drama and probably scandal, football to delight and disgust. We may be turned on or we may turn off, may rue the rules and all the red cards; pity the poor player even. It could be fascinating or frustrating. But it should certainly be fun finding out.