France count on the crowds

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The Independent Online
The question is always asked a year from a World Cup finals competition: will it work? This time it is more pressing with 32 teams taking part, but the evidence of the four-team, 10-day Tournoi de France suggests that yes, by and large, it will.

The French, building for 10 June, 1998, seem more advanced than Italy in 1990 when stadiums and approach roads were still being topped off in the days leading up to the tournament. The United States in '94 was opposite and unique, a country with the infrastructure but little feeling for the game.

Yet still the Americans sold out their stadiums for almost all matches, averaging more than 60,000 per game. This will be the main task particularly in view of the poor attendances, in Paris and Montpellier if not Lyon, at Le Tournoi.

Crowds for the Umbro Cup in England a year before Euro 96 were similarly low and, as with some poorly attended group games last summer, the worry is that market prices may be too high, distribution poor. Television, its money and how the game looks on screen, is the main concern these days of Fifa, the world game's governing body, but they will not want a back-drop of half-filled stadiums.

At Le Tournoi, prices for England's match against Brazil ranged from 250 Francs (pounds 28) to 500FF. For France v Italy, it was 360FF to 700FF. Tickets for next year's group games are already on sale, reasonably priced, but only to the French themselves, with packages for each venue available, ranging from 750FF to 2,250FF for six matches.

Le Tournoi prices stirred such controversy in France that even the head of the ticket agency with the World Cup franchise was heard complaining. "The organising committee and the French Federation were wrong," said Patrick Guguen, managing director of Data Sports. "This is serious. I read that Michel Platini wants young people to be turned on by the game. If they want the World Cup - which will be cheaper - to be popular, they shouldn't exclude young people."

What will be interesting next year is the prices that are set for foreign supporters, who may want only single-match tickets. We will know after the draw, in Marseille on 4 December. They are likely to be considerably more expensive than for the natives with availability limited.

Platini, co-president of the organising committee, insisted that everything will be all right on the night; prices will be right. The stadiums are in place, the overall organisation and budgeting is complete and only final details of the finance and organisation remain, he added.

Indeed, the stadiums do look worthy. The new 80,000-seater at St Denis, just north of Paris, which will host the final, is well advanced and the other nine - Parc des Princes, Lens, Lyon, St Etienne, Marseille, Montpellier, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes - are ready or on schedule.

For those who travel, it is likely to be a more pleasurable experience than the continent- hopping by plane in the US, as the French rail network renders cities 300 miles apart just a couple of hours away. As is increasingly common with the modern commercial game, there will be a serious price to pay for the experience. English fans must hope the exchange rate remains buoyant.