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Victory Is Both Bitter And Sweet

By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 14, 1998; Page E6




PARIS — Michel Platini, co-president of the French World Cup organizing committee, often repeated before the month-long soccer tournament that France 98 would be remembered, or not remembered, by the quality of the sport. If the games were good, the impression would be good, he said.

Perhaps. But anyone who had trouble getting here because of the Air France strike, whose dearly bought game ticket proved to be nonexistent, or who was caught in the melees after some of the games involving England and Germany may remember those aspects as well.

For the French, the 1998 World Cup may be remembered not only as one of their greatest moments of national joy — their team's first appearance in the final produced a stunning 3-0 victory over defending and four-time champion Brazil — but also as the event that left one of their policemen in a coma, some of their store windows smashed, many of their streets littered, some of their museums unusually empty and some of their taxi drivers complaining that business had dried up.

"I've lost half of my business compared with last year," said one taxi chauffeur as he negotiated southern Paris. "This is the first trip I've made that has anything to do with the World Cup. All the visitors are in organized groups, in buses."

These were some of the troubles that plagued France's World Cup, an event that opened in confusion and transportation difficulties.

Even before France dramatically handed mighty Brazil its worst loss in any World Cup tournament or qualifying match, the event wound down on a different, and very French, note: a pre-final Yves St. Laurent fashion show Sunday night at the new Stade de France. Whatever one's view of haute couture, it was a reminder that some of the greatest pleasures of this World Cup were visual, even outside the stadiums. From the 60-foot-high robotic giants that opened the Cup to the rocket-and-light-driven closing ceremony, France showed again that it knows how to put on a show — especially its national team, which had not even qualified for the past two World Cups.

Logistically, many pieces of this gigantic event functioned smoothly. Some 130 specially scheduled TGV trains and 400 other trains carried more than a million fans and journalists between the nine cities hosting games, with few foul-ups. The logistics for the press and spectators at the stadiums worked successfully, as did extensive computer databases and television retransmission systems. The weather was cool and dry nearly throughout. And all the games went off without a hitch.

"I can understand that people will remember the problems we had with the tickets, with people in the streets in Marseille and Lens, and we will certainly remember Daniel Nivel," the Lens policeman clubbed so severely by a German hooligan that he remains in a coma, said Keith Cooper, spokesman for FIFA, soccer's world governing body.

"Having said that," he added during an interview before the championship match, "the lasting impression of the World Cup will surely be the quality of the football played. That's what people talk about in bars and offices, that's what writes football history."

It was the largest World Cup in history in nearly every way. It had more games (64), more teams (32), more television spectators (an estimated 40 billion over the course of the month) and even a record number of hits on the official France 98 Internet site (1 billion in a month).

When the World Cup began, however, the overriding impression was one of chaos. Air France pilots struck for 10 days, requiring fans and other visitors to juggle their travel arrangements. The strike came at the same time as other sporadic outbursts of labor difficulties by rail and bus workers; they quickly died down once the pilots ended their work stoppage on June 10, the day of the opening game.

Once games began, a new crisis arose. Thousands of fans from all over the world discovered that the tickets they had bought through tour operators had either never existed or had vanished. Some 23,000 Japanese, 10,000 Germans, 12,000 Dutch and hundreds of fans from other nations paid for tickets they never received.

Some had bought tickets from one of the 17 tour operators legally affiliated with the organizing committee, others had contracted with tour operators acting as intermediaries. In most cases, the tour operators apparently just got too greedy, selling tickets they didn't have in the belief, sometimes supported by signed contracts, that they could acquire them.

But French magistrates are investigating allegations of outright fraud as well. The director of the French affiliate of FIFA-licensed marketer ISL Worldwide, and a consultant to the affiliate, are under investigation in the affair. In addition, an American identified in the French press as Douglas Kittle, president of the American tour operator Prime Sports International, and three other PSI employees are under investigation for reporting as stolen 15,000 tickets — some of which were for seats that were occupied during the games in question.

Meanwhile, other people without tickets were creating a different set of problems. After England played Tunisia in Marseille, English hooligans clashed with Tunisian supporters and some of Marseille's North African residents downtown and on Marseille's beaches; one Englishman was badly cut with a knife. Then near-riots in Lens after the Germany-Yugoslavia game June 21 left Nivel in a coma and left many Lens residents wondering why they had wanted the World Cup in their town anyway.

Extensive police surveillance, alcohol bans and curfews kept gang violence under control after that, but there was one more victim. The night England was eliminated by a loss to Argentina on June 30, Eric Frachet, an apparently friendly young actor, smiled at David Birch, an England fan, on the train from Lyon to Grenoble. Birch, believing Frachet to be an Argentine fan making fun of him, pulled a knife and stabbed the Frenchman to death. He has been charged with murder.

As often happens to business people with dreams of riches, not all the economic benefits promised by the World Cup materialized. Hotel owners complained that the late postgame trains — after one evening game in Saint-Etienne in the south, four TGV trains zoomed the three hours north to Paris after 1 a.m. — deprived them of business. Museums, especially in Paris, found their traffic down by 10 percent to 15 percent as non-soccer tourists stayed away.

The biggest dose of pleasure outside the stadiums was provided by fans from different countries, who provided an ever-changing parade of cultures. Parisians grew used to seeing kilts on the streets one day, sombreros the next. Dutch orange, Brazilian yellow, Mexican green, the blue and white stripes of Argentina — these were part of the French spectrum for nearly a month.

"The image that remains will be colored," said Bruno Travade, spokesman for the organizing committee. "I was very struck by the colors in the stadium, the fans and their decorations. This was the World Cup we wanted, a World Cup of festival, of emotion, of sharing."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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