If football is an art form, Platini plans a masterpiece

From Bordeaux to Lens, the 1998 World Cup will be a moveable feast. Nick Bidwell spoke to the midfield wizard turned organiser about his 'competiti on of smiles'

These are times of disillusionment in France, bitterness caused, among other things, by persistently high unemployment levels and a muddled - if not reactionary - immigration policy. But one project they are making a decent fist of across the Channel is the groundwork for the next World Cup finals, France 98.

Initial dithering about the site of a new national stadium in Paris and wrangles concerning the funding of building work at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille have long been settled. As the qualifying phase, which will whittle down the 172 entrant nations to 30 finalists plus hosts France and holders Brazil, moves up a gear, the former French international midfield star-turned World Cup organising committee co-president, Michel Platini, is happy to make optimistic noises on his country's preparations for the tournament kick-off on 10 June 1998.

"Since we were awarded the World Cup four years ago and even before then, many people in France have been toiling away in an effort to produce the best tournament ever," Platini says. "I suppose the same claims are made every four years, but we really mean it.

"Increasing the number of World Cup finalists from 24 to 32 did result in a few minor organisational, logistic and financial problems. But now the lion's share of our work has been completed or is on course to be. Football is the most popular sport in France and I'm sure we will put on a great show in 1998."

The French have always nurtured a romantic view of their football - if Pele had not dubbed it "the beautiful game", you can be sure a Gallic observer would have - and this idealised concept of soccer as art form is very much at the heart of their plans for 1998. Michel Platini is realistic enough to concede that a World Cup at the fag-end of this century is inextricably linked with big-business partners, marketing dollars and astronomical television rights. Yet he does not see his baby as a reworking of the crass commercialism so recently on offer in Atlanta, preferring to emphasise the human aspect of world football's showpiece.

"Off the pitch it will be a hi-tech tournament," Platini says. "But just as importantly, we want a competition of smiles and entertainment. Our stadia will be surrounded by our French culture, the architectural and natural beauty of our country and our good food. All this, I believe, will create a wonderful atmosphere at the event.

"Our stadia are not nearly as big as those which were used at USA 94. We will have space for about 500,000 spectators, less than the Americans. But smaller grounds will make things more intimate. Of course, I would like France 98 to make a profit. But I will not cry if we break even as long as I have the satisfaction of doing something positive for France, the 2.5 million spectators who come to the games and football in general."

For those who like to watch their football against a variety of landscapes, France 98 is the place to be. With the hills of Provence near Marseille's Stade Velodrome, the handsome "Ville Rose" of Toulouse and its Wembley- lookalike ground built on an island in the middle of the Garonne River, and even the slag heaps viewed on the horizon from the Stade Felix Bollaert in Lens, there will be a backdrop for all tastes.

Nine of the 10 venues to have the honour of hosting France 98 - Lens in the north; Nantes to the west; Bordeaux, Toulouse and Montpellier in the south-west; Marseille, Lyon and Saint-Etienne in the south-east, and the Parc des Princes in Paris - have been revamped, with central government meeting a third of the costs. But the real jewel in the Gallic crown will be their only newly constructed World Cup arena, the 80,000-seater Stade de France, to be found in the northern Parisian suburb of St Denis.

The Stade de France, due for completion by the end of next year, is a space-age stadium with 2,000 luxury boxes, 6,000 "prestige seats", several bars and restaurants, and parking for 6,000 cars. Designed by Aymeric Zublena and Michel Macary, it will provide a fitting setting for the opening match and final of the 1998 World Cup.

Close inspection of the France 98 map reveals a rather lop-sided distribution of football. Six of the sites are to be found in the south and there is absolutely no World Cup presence in the east. Certainly, organisers were keen for the Alsatian capital, Strasbourg, to host the party, but the Socialist municipal administration of the mayor, Catherine Trautmann, declined, unwilling to contribute to the bill of transforming the city's Stade de la Meinau into a 35,000 all-seater stadium. They instead opted to invest in a new train system and indoor sports complex.

"The new Palais des Sports will be in use for 50 years," says Robert Hermann, a Strasbourg city councillor. "The World Cup is just for a month." It is ironic that the home of the European Parliament will not be part of the World Cup.

Faced with the task of cramming 64 games into 33 days, French World Cup officials nevertheless seem determined to keep teams and supporters on the road in the summer of 1998. Rather than making teams play at one or two first-round venues, it has been decided that in the opening phase all teams will appear at three different sites, a move designed to give all host cities an equal share of the World Cup cake.

"Travelling from venue to venue should not pose any great difficulties to players and fans," says Fernand Sastre, a France 98 administrator. "Between one game and the next there will be time for players to recuperate, and no venue is more than a one-hour flight or a four-hour train journey from another. All our World Cup cities are served by our TGV express rail network."

Security? Following the Atlanta bombing, Michel Platini promises no effort will be spared in the fight against terrorism, while any hooligan contemplating mayhem on French soil should think again. The country's CRS riot squad is not known for its subtlety of response. Malfaiteurs be warned: it is a feast of football the French are after.

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