Prague, 9 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Amid continuing worries over striking French transport workers and possible terrorist attacks, the quadrennial World Cup soccer tournament will get a celebratory kick-off in Paris tonight. Tomorrow, the first of 64 matches -- 1994 champion Brazil versus Scotland -- is due to get underway, after official opening ceremonies, at 17:30 at France's new showcase Stade de France stadium just north of the capital.
This evening's Parisian celebrations will start with a parade down the Champs Elysees featuring four 18-meter-high figures meant to symbolize the different cultures taking part in the games. When the parade reaches the bottom of the avenue, a music-and-dance show will begin at the Place de la Concorde, whose obelisk is topped by a huge and well-lit World Cup symbol. Playing the drums in that extravaganza will be 10 Pygmies flown in especially for the event from the West African nation of Cameroon, one of 32 qualifying countries out of the 200 which sought to take part in the tournament.
Hundreds of millions are expected to watch tonight's fete on world-wide television. Thousands of millions more will watch or listen on TV or radio to what has, in the 68 years of its existence, become by far the world's single most popular sports event. Those promoting this year's World Cup say the best games will be watched by 1.2 billion fans, a fifth of the world's population. They claim that the cumulative television audience between tomorrow and the tournament's final match on July 12 will been seen by a total of up to 37 billion TV watchers.
The matches will be held in 10 French cities. In addition to Paris and nearby Saint-Denis, the site of the Stade de France, they are Bordeaux, Lens, Lyon, Marseilles, Montpelier, Nantes Saint-Etienne and Toulouse. Up to 2.5 million spectators, at least three-quarters of them French, will travel from city to city to watch the matches.
The first phase of the competition will give each of the four nations making up the tournament's eight separate groups (Groups A through H) three matches to play. On the basis of their results, the two top teams will qualify for the Last-16 phase of the tournament, which starts on June 27. From that time on, every encounter is a elimination match, with quarterfinals on July 3 and 4, semifinals on July 7 and 8, a playoff for third place on July 11, and the final -- like the first match tomorrow, to be held in the Stade de France -- on July 12.
Brazil is considered by many fans, and some odds-makers, as likely to repeat its victory of four years ago (in the U.S.). The skillful and stylish Brazilian team contains what most soccer observers believe to be today's most outstanding player among some 200 million on the planet -- the 21-year-old striker Nazaria de Lima Ronaldo Luiz, known universally as simply Ronaldo. He first learned soccer on the streets of Bento Riveiro, a poor suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Today, he is said to be worth $7 million a year, after taxes. He is also said to be following in the footsteps of the legendary Brazilian striker known as Pele, who exactly 40 years ago blossomed at his first World Cup and became the acknowledged master of the sport.
But other soccer analysts, more tradition-oriented, believe a European team will emerge the victor. They point out that since 1930 only six nations have won the cup -- Italy, England, and Germany in Europe, and Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay in the Western hemisphere. But only once in all World Cup history has a team won the prize on a continent or hemisphere other than its own -- Pele's first World Cup, won by the Brazilians in Sweden. For the traditionalists, a hard-playing though aging German squad, experienced Italy, or even host France's youngish team is more likely to win the gold trophy.
For the French authorities, the run-up to the Cup has been little short of a nightmare. First, they were accused of allotting too many of the available tickets -- as many as 90 percent, some said -- to their own citizens. They agreed to make some, but not much more tickets available to foreign visitors. Then, late last month, plans for terrorist attacks in France during the Cup's month-long schedule were discovered in police round-ups of suspected Islamic extremist groups in France and four other West European nations. As late as yesterday, an additional nine suspects were rounded up in France -- a country where two lethal waves of Islamic terrorist attacks have taken place within the past 13 years.
Finally, the French have been acutely frustrated and angered by a round of transport workers' strikes, timed in typical Gallic fashion, to coincide with the days before and the days just after the Cup's start.
Well-paid pilots at the state airline Air France, which had billed itself as the Cup's "official carrier," went on strike eight days ago over a planned wage cut. Most of the line's places have since remained grounded as a result, seriously disrupting air travel and stranding tens of thousands of soccer fans just when organizers had hoped to put French efficiency on show. What's more, low-paid truckers have also flexed their striking muscles, and reasonably paid railroad ticket collectors have briefly walked out their jobs, while railroad engineers are planning their strike, in the Paris area, beginning tonight and through tomorrow.
This all probably adds up to at least a somewhat disrupted World Cup start. But for the largely male fanatic soccer fans attending the matches, any obstacle is perhaps worth overcoming -- if their team wins. If they don't, and much alcohol is consumed, the French will have to put up with still another challenge -- the violent hooliganism that has marred many soccer matches in recent years.
As for those women who couldn't care less about soccer, Parisian entrepreneurs have prepared special arrangements for them while their husbands or friends are attending or watching matches. Several of the capital's restaurants and stores are offering discounts to all-women diners and shoppers. And the "Follies Bergers" and "Lido" night clubs, traditional male-chauvinist bastions, have laid on special World Cup entertainment for women -- acts featuring all-male strippers.