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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Curtain Rises on Soccer's Global Show




A monthlong feast of soccer action begins Wednesday with World Cup host France facing up to the challenge of organizing the largest finals ever amid striking pilots, possible threats from Islamic fundamentalists and the menace of hooliganism.


Politically charged games like the clash between Iran and the United States as well as a possible meeting between Croatia and Yugoslavia add spice to a tournament stocked with five former world champions.


The first week may even see a tribute to Nigeria's late military dictator as Nigerian players discuss wearing black arm bands to mark his death Monday.


The French government has plowed 9.4 billion francs ($1.58 billion) into the event and aims to portray itself as a modern and vibrant nation.


Half a million foreign visitors are descending on France for the 32-nation event. The tournament, scheduled to start Wednesday and run until July 12, is also expected to attract a staggering total television audience of some 37 billion as "the beautiful game" is beamed around the globe.


"For some days, France will be at the center of attention for the whole world, host to the entire planet," French President Jacques Chirac said this week.


"Our welcome must be exceptional and perfect. I hope that everyone will display a spirit of responsibility," he added.


But the omens are not good.


Organizers face a transport nightmare as striking Air France pilots continue their protest. The strike by the tournament's official airline could cause havoc for fans who, for the first time, have to travel to different parts of the host country for the first-round games.


Adding to their woes is the possibility of blocked roads and rails by other unhappy trade unions. Even the police have been showing their less-than-vocal support with a recent sit-in at the office of the French World Cup organizers, demanding a bonus for keeping the peace during the tournament.


Some say the organizers found their own way of keeping the peace at the finals by restricting the number of live fans. Twenty percent of the tickets went to sponsors and less than a third to fans abroad. The European Commission is so incensed it is threatening to fine the ticket distribution committee.


Even the accredited media are not happy. A press pass does not guarantee access to matches and so many journalists wanted to cover the opening match between Brazil and Scotland they would have come close to outnumbering the fans.


Security will be intense and not only because of soccer's perennial threat of hooliganism. Last week, French authorities arrested nine more suspects in a Europe-wide effort to thwart a possible terrorist attack. The suspects were considered close aides of the leader of a militant Islamic group in Algeria, who is accused of having ordered an attack during the games. About 100 suspects have been rounded up in sweeps in France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. French police have urged the public to be vigilant and watch out for possible bombs during the World Cup.


More than 7,000 police will be on World Cup duty while magistrates will be ready around the clock to send troublemakers to prison.


In Paris the police have taken to rollerblades to help keep order on weekends. Trained by a top French speed skater, the special eight-man brigade is expected to grow to 30 in the next few weeks.


When the soccer actually starts, the main focus will be on hot favorite Brazil. The four-time champion with Ronaldo, the world's most expensive player, up front, is the bookmaker's bet to take the title.


France has high hopes too and is bidding to become the first host to win the World Cup since Argentina in 1978.


Besides Brazil, the tournament features all the previous champions apart from Uruguay. Germany, who last won the World Cup in 1990, is again tipped strongly, although the aging team may be past its best.


Italy, runner-up in 1994, won the World Cup the last time it was staged in France, in 1938. Argentina, the winner twice in the last 20 years, seeks to prove there is life after Diego Maradona, while England returns after missing the 1994 tournament.


Apart from the favorites, the tournament could bring together two former foes. Croatia and Yugoslavia, now dominated by Serbia, could meet as early as the quarterfinals. But the United States will definitely face its political enemy Iran on June 21 in the first round.


Meanwhile, Nigeria's World Cup players expressed shock Tuesday at the death of military leader General Sani Abacha and said they might wear black arm bands for their first match.


Ajax midfielder Sunday Oliseh likened the shock of discovering the news to finding out that the country had won the World Cup without knowing they were even in the tournament.


"It was certainly a shock because in the first place we did not know he was sick," he said.


"It's like you didn't know that your team's in the World Cup and then you find out they've won it."


The tournament is expected to rake in receipts of over 2.4 billion francs ($400 million) and an operating profit is forecast, although this would not have been possible without heavy investment by the French state.


For the French, the hope is that at the end of a tournament 64 games long, one country will be crowned champion as France is congratulated for a final befitting the theme "C'est beau un monde qui joue," or "The beauty of a world at play." With a bit of luck France will get both crowns.