Sport in '98: Hoddle: Cabbages or coronation lie in wait

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The Independent Online
The summer of 1998 promises to be a bumper one for off-licences, take-away restaurants, Relate and divorce lawyers. Yes, it's World Cup year.

Paris may be lovely in the spring but the footballers of 32 countries are more interested in being there in July this year as the World Cup returns to France for the first time in 60 years.

In the 33 days from 10 June, when Brazil open the tournament against Scotland at St-Denis, to the 17 July final in the same north Parisian suburb, 64 matches will played. The global television audience will break all records, new reputations will be forged and old ones broken. By the end of it Glenn Hoddle could be either destined to join Sir Alf Ramsey as a footballing knight or Graham Taylor in the vegetable patch. Either way he and his team will dominate the tabloid front pages.

The Football Association, and the French organisers, will be praying he will not be sharing them with England's fans. One hopes, for all Hoddle's faith, that they will be making more secular preparation as well. Unfortunately nothing short of the long-overdue government confiscation of passports from known offenders is likely to ensure a trouble-free tournament. This is unlikely, but should be remembered when the scapegoating starts.

There may be a dry-run for the security forces in Paris on 13 May, but Aston Villa's chances of progressing through a strong field to the Uefa Cup final seem slimmer than Chelsea's prospects of reaching the previous week's European Cup-Winners' Cup final in Stockholm.

By then Alex Ferguson should have become the first manager to win three successive domestic titles. The prospect of emulating Sir Matt Busby, and steering the club to European Cup final success in the Amsterdam Arena on 20 May should also be beckoning.

Off the pitch money will, as ever, be the dominant issue as the game bickers on how to divide Sky TV's largesse and the fall-out from Bosman continues. The only certainty is that the wealthy clubs will get richer and the poorer ones nearer bankruptcy. Some of the Nationwide League's latest proposals may seem outlandish but at least David Sheepshanks, the League's chairman, is being both pro-active and working for the wider good of the game.

This is not as rare as might be imagined, but self-interest still dogs football. Football may be phenomenally popular, and the World Cup is sure to inflate the boom, but now is the time to strengthen foundations. Only when it is too late will some chairman realise this is one industry where putting your rivals out of business is bad for your wealth.

Predictions: Manchester United to win championship and reach European Cup final. Chelsea to win European Cup-Winners' Cup. Liverpool to win FA Cup. Brazil to win World Cup, England to reach final if Shearer, Ince, Campbell and Seaman fully fit, quarter-final defeat to Germany otherwise. Scotland to go out in first round.