By Ron Synovitz, Joel Blocker and Dora Slaba
Prague, 10 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The world's press is focusing its attention on France, where the first matches of the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament will be played today. But columnists are not looking only at the events on the pitch. The political, sociological, cultural and economic ramifications of the World Cup provide fuel for today's editorial and commentary writers.
INTERNATIONAL TRIBUNE: The absence of sports tyranny gives the French version of the great soccer competition a framework of grace
In the International Herald Tribune, edited in Paris, John Vinocur praises the French for their "discretion, grace and measure" as well as their lack of "boosterism" in arrangements for the Cup. He writes in a news analysis: "Some have found room for mild reproach in the non-hysteria that surrounds the coming of the World Cup to France....(But) in a country that invented the word chauvinism, the absence of sports tyranny, of having to love it, gives the French version of the great soccer competition a framework of grace and measure that may put off the outsider who craves enforced exuberance."
Vinocur continues: "The fact is that, although thousands of millions will watch the World Cup everywhere, losing sleep and screaming themselves hoarse, soccer is to France as what France is to breakfast. The country produces terrific croissants and brioches. But they are not what the place is about. (Unlike England, Germany, Italy or Brazil) no one here has ever succeeded in romanticizing or intellectualizing sport to the point where it fuses with the deepest marrow of national life." He concludes: "Hardly shameful, France recognizes with a shrug...that soccer claims a relatively small piece of its rich fantasy life. (The popular French sports weekly) L'Equipe even acknowledged Tuesday that tickets for the matches were still on sale at a few reputable travel agencies."
DIE WELT: Soccer creates emotions, and emotions decide elections
Frank Quednau, of Germany's daily Die Welt, examines the effect that a World Cup championship for Germany could have on German elections later this year. In a commentary, he writes: "It is an entirely valid idea that German soccer success would increase the chances of Helmut Kohl remaining as Chancellor (after general elections in September), and defeat would help his opposition." Quednau quotes public opinion researcher Reinhard Schlinkert, who theorized that "soccer creates emotions, and emotions decide elections." Quednau also ways: "This wisdom popped up in 1954 when Sepp Herberger and his German team re-awakened national self-confidence and helped spirits rise during the years of the economic miracle." Quednau also notes German finance minister Theo Waigel's forecast that it will be "Germany and France in the final -- and Germany will of course win 2-1." But Quednau concludes: "Many people will be pleased that the politicians are thankfully only playing a minor role in the French spectacle."
GUARDIAN: Workers of the World Unite -- to Watch TV
Jamie Wilson of Britain's Guardian newspaper writes a commentary today saying that the World Cup could be the biggest career test for many factory and offices managers in the United Kingdom. Wilson's piece is ironically titled: "Workers of the World Unite -- to Watch TV." He writes: "With almost a third of all men planning to take time off to watch the tournament and some already preparing to go absent without leave during crucial matches, the cost could run into millions. Employers are going to extreme lengths to keep what's left of their workforce happy -- from piping live commentary (into factories) to stopping production during crucial games. Employers in Scotland appear to be making the most effort to accommodate the work-force, changing shift times in factories and installing televisions."
THE GLOBE AND MAIL: Croatia has a chance to make a long-shot run to the semi-finals
In Canada, the Globe and Mail daily offers an analysis saying: "The World Cup is not a democracy." The paper notes: "Different countries carry different expectations. For a small country, or for one without a soccer legacy, just reaching the second round might be cause for celebration. For a traditional soccer power, going home after the second round would be a disaster. In 1994, for example, Romania was cheered at home for reaching the quarter-finals. Germany reached the quarter-finals, too, but coaches and players were roasted for not going farther."
Meanwhile, Globe and Mail sportswriter Neil Campbell profiles four southeastern European teams -- Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Yugoslavia. Campbell says: "It would be no great shock if Yugoslavia nudged ahead of Germany at the group stage and stormed to the final four." He writes: "For Bulgaria, the first game will tell a lot. If Bulgaria can't beat Paraguay, the players might as well pack and go home. But a win there will boost spirits for the showdown against Nigeria. Second place in Bulgaria's group likely brings a second-round match against France."
Campbell believes "Croatia has a chance to make a long-shot run to the semi-finals, the way Bulgaria and Sweden did four years ago." He writes: "The Croatian team just about a cinch to get to the second round. Once there, a couple of upsets are well within Croatia's grasp." As for Romania, Campbell says, "finishing second in the group round would bring more memories of 1994. Romania would likely play Argentina in the second round. The outcome would be different this time."
IRISH TIMES: Sleaze is not a word exclusive to politics
The Irish Times carries a commentary by Peter Byrne saying that the Cup games are putting (soccer) "under a world spotlight." He writes: "Traditionally, the World Cup finals are the showpiece of the game, an occasion for the technocrats to assess the way (soccer) is evolving and, for the money minders, an opportunity to sell their product to the corporate sector. In each instance, the evidence of France 98 promises to be enlightening. For the first time since its inception almost 70 years ago, the finals have been expanded to embrace 32 teams." Byrne continues: "One of the consequences of the new format is that a television audience of 35,000 million is projected for the marathon program....It's a unique chance to sell...to a public undreamed of...only 20 years ago. But," the commentary points out, "in spite of its extravagant, wealth, or perhaps because of it, (soccer) is now under scrutiny as never before." Byrne adds: "Sleaze is not a word exclusive to politics, and at yesterday's press conference in Paris a leading FIFA official admitted to some disquiet over suggestions that the finals could be devalued by corruption."
BERLINER ZEITUNG: The bosses of the original sport have long lost the game
Today's Berliner Zeitung is also worried about the amount of money now involved in world soccer. The paper writes in an editorial: "Soccer follows a few simple rules that can be equally understood in Greenland, Tibet, Togo and Burkina Faso. Soccer is a world language, soccer is pop culture. And naturally, soccer is a game. (But) of course soccer is also politics and an enormous entertainment industry with growth proportions that every economy dreams of." The editorial continues: "While only a few days ago, there was talk of a world turnover of $200 billion annually, at the FIFA meeting the even larger figure of $250 billion was mentioned. The emotionally loaded (soccer) business commands hosts of greedy proprietors who, in hotel lobbies and VIP lounges, will compete equally in the next five weeks. The bosses of the original sport have long since lost the game to the lawyers' offices of investment firms and to media businesses."
LE FIGARO: France is both engaged in a festival and in a strike
Several French newspapers also comment on the month-long tournament that began in their country today. The conservative daily Le Figaro, in an editorial titled "The World Cup is a Peculiar Festival," says that "France has delivered an odd spectacle. The world looks at a country through the medium of soccer. It sees (France) both engaged in a festival and in a strike (of Air France pilots that ended this morning, although other French transport strikes are still possible during the Cup)." Le Figaro continued: "The strike is not unconnected to the festival. At the turn of the third millennium, the soccer championship should have been a crowning achievement. Instead, it threaten(ed) to constitute the first serious problem for the (one-year-old Left) Government that so far has reclined on a bed of roses. The roses have been strewn above all by the out-of-step (conservative) opposition."
DERNIERES NOUVELLES D'ALSACE: The Cup makes men equal
The independent French regional daily Dernieres nouvelles d'Alsace is more upbeat about the cup in France. In an editorial signed by Christiane Vettu, the paper says: "It's a great day for lovers of the round ball but also for France, which has become for a month the planet's capital. The soccer World Cup, the last great sport event of the 20th century, has begun." The editorial goes on: "(Soccer) fanatics will abandon themselves without guilt to their 'cult." (Those less enthusiastic) won't find it hard to turn their backs on games they hold in contempt and cultivate other emotions." In conclusion, Vettu says: "This World Cup could play the role of an outlet for the misfortunes, sufferings and inequalities of our planet. With the ball (controlled by the) foot and strategy carried in the head, the Cup makes men equal. Rich and -- above all -- poor carry on peaceful combat with equal weaponry. This sport has become a universal phenomenon, 'much more than democracy or the free market,' according to the findings of the geo-politician Pascal Boniface."