Diary

Tobias Jones

For all the American ham and glam, the last World Cup Finals were a public relations disaster: the apex of world football frenzy was a dull noscore draw, and had to be decided on penalties. In a previous game, Diego Maradona had run to the corner flag after scoring for the Argentines, only to stare and rant at the camera in such a maniacal manner that all suspicions were confirmed – his euphoria was ephedrine-induced. Andres Escobar, the unfortunate Colombian who scored an own-goal in his team’s unlikely draw against the Americans, was gunned down on his return home by an embittered betting syndicate. And, to make things even worse, Britain wasn’t even represented.

In this, at least, the Finals which begin next month will be different. On 10 June, Scotland will play Brazil at the Stade de France in the opening game. For the first time in eight years, English supporters, too, will be able to admire, or rail at, their team on the most important international stage. The media and advertising bonanza will last for more than four weeks. The final itself is on 12 July, and it’s a fair guess that the Brazilian Bastille will remain unstormed.

Fans see the unfairness of the ticket allocation for the World Cup as indicative of their lot in the modern game. As an explanation, or rather excuse, ‘hooliganism’ is the word deployed by politicians, television executives and club shareholders. According to Dominique Spinosi, the security chief of the French World Cup Committee, ‘the British invented the poison of hooliganism at the start, but they have also invented the antidote.’ The cure is rigid ticket arrangements, a sensible separation of fans and a legal squeeze against touts: but by allocating 60 per cent of all tickets to their own fans, the French organisers have left swathes of supporters out in the cold. France has been cited as being in breach of European competition regulations which guarantee all EU citizens equal rights in the sale of goods. As it stands, tour operators and sponsors will get 20 per cent of the tickets, and Fifa another 20 per cent to divide between the competing nations. So in Lens on 26 June, when England play their final group match against Colombia in a stadium which holds 41,278, there will be fewer than three thousand (legitimate) English ticket-holders. (Gulliver Sports Travel in Gloucestershire offers the round trip for a mere £695. The face-value of the ticket itself is £14.50.) At St Etienne, which has a capacity of 38,000, there will be a paltry two thousand Scottish supporters.

Tony Banks has called the French hosts ‘miserly’, and 22 Liberal Democrat MPs have signed a motion condemning the French authorities. A few more tickets have become available thanks to a contingency fund. While Blair has banned his football-mad cabinet ministers from taking up freebies at the Finals, the merchant bank Deutsch Morgan Grenfell has admitted to having 1600 seats already booked. (At England’s Euro 96 semi-final against Germany, an astonishing 14,000 people in the stadium were on corporate entertaining packages.)

Of the ten venues, now commemorated on postage stamps, the Stade de France is the jewel in the French crown, even if it is set on the site of a gasworks. It is elliptical in shape; its athletics track can be hiden underneath retractable lower stands, so there won’t be the usual Continental distance between spectators and players. It has a halo roof, hovering 140 feet above the turf, supported by pylons and an inner rim of tinted glass to let in light and cut out infra-red. Ten thousand people will be able to dine at the stadium, which also has a thirst-quenching 750 metres of bar. Football is selling out to the hospitality suite (the Stade de France has 148 of them), the suits and the sponsors.

In Britain, the transformation in football began with the Hillsborough tragedy of April 1989. Hillsborough was the result of a self-fulfilling Thatcherite prophecy. The Tories were determined on a crack-down against hooligans; the police were paranoid and, as a result, they failed to operate effectively. The disaster was caused ‘not by hooliganism but by football’s political desire to react to hooliganism by erecting unforgiving steel cages which became coffins’, Colin Ward writes in All Quiet on the Hooligan Front (1996). Lord Justice Taylor produced his interim report on the tragedy on 1 August that year. The chief superintendent in charge, Taylor decided, ‘could not face the enormity of the decision to open the gates and all that flowed there from’. He had ‘an aversion to addressing the crowd’ and failed ‘to take effective control of the disaster situation. He froze.’

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[1] Mainstream, 192 pp., £14.99, 18 September 1997, 1 85158 916 3.

[2] B&W, 203 pp., £6.99, 21 November 1997, 1 8736321 75 8.

[3] Mainstream, 192 pp., £14.99, 16 October 1997, 1 85158 863 9.

[4] Routledge, 160 pp., £14.99, 23 October 1997, 0 415 11518 0.

[5] Berg, 320 pp., £14.99, 1 January, 1 85973 957 1

[6] The Boosty Egan Letters, Mainstream, 192 pp., £14.99, 9 October 1997, 1 85158 908 2