Newspaper article International New York Times

France Is Ready for High Stakes ; Security a Top Concern for Host, Which Hopes to Repeat Past Successes

Newspaper article International New York Times

France Is Ready for High Stakes ; Security a Top Concern for Host, Which Hopes to Repeat Past Successes

Article excerpt

The 2016 European Championship starts Friday in France, with the home team hoping to win the title, like the French did at home in 1984, and with security heightened amid terror fears.

Even in the best of worlds, which we cannot pretend this to be, France is taking on an awful lot over the coming month.

In simple sporting terms, the 2016 European Championship starting Friday has to live up to the legacy of 1984, when France last hosted and won the Euro, with Michel Platini, the team's most inspirational player and leader, as the star.

In 1998, France hosted and won the World Cup. By then it boasted a much grander team, and no one would dispute that the finest player at that tournament was Zinedine Zidane. With a "black-blanc-beur" starting lineup that reflected the country's diversity -- the players were black and white and of Arabic origin -- France '98 became a symbol of tolerance in the country. Only Jean-Marie Le Pen, then the leader of the far-right National Front party, demurred. He called it "not a real French team."

We can discuss who, if anyone, might step into the shoes of Platini and Zidane this year. But France being France, a scandal is often not far away. To begin with, there are many opinions as to why Karim Benzema, the nation's top striker and a winner of the Champions League in two of the last three years with Real Madrid, has not been selected by France for this Euro. And, after the terror attacks of the last 18 months in France, there are safety issues.

The tournament runs through July 10, and most people will be grateful and relieved if it ends up as a safe, secure and sporting event. We can hope the last part -- the game itself -- will be the greatest focal point of all.

When France bid for the event in 2009, no one could have foreseen the security challenges that France now faces.

In 2007, Platini became president of UEFA, the sport's European governing body, and he oversaw the procedure that led to his country winning the hosting rights in 2010. Now, he is barred from office and all of soccer for receiving unauthorized payments from Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, who also has been banished from the sport.

Under Platini, the Euro has been expanded. Eight teams played a total of 15 games in 1992. Four years later, 16 teams played 31 matches. This year, 24 national squads will play a total of 51 games.

France has used the tournament as an opportunity to build four new stadiums and refurbish five others, meaning the whole of the country's soccer infrastructure has been updated. Of the 10 stadiums that will host games this tournament, only Stade de France, in St. Denis north of Paris, is not new or overhauled.

France needed this because even though it is still producing good players, its top domestic league has fallen behind other top leagues in Europe. Its finest talent migrates abroad to play professionally, notably for the greater salaries paid in England and Spain, and, at one point, Italy.

The plan was to use this Euro to re-establish France at the heart of the sport. France had, after all, dreamed up the first World Cup in 1930 and the first European Championship in 1960.

"Here we are!" wrote Noel Le Graet, the president of the French Football Federation, in welcoming the rest of Europe to this year's tournament. "UEFA Euro 2016 is finally upon us. France loves football. Now is the challenge to deliver organization and hospitality of the highest standard. We know how to do this, and France is ready to accommodate the 2.5 million spectators expected during the tournament."

UEFA endorses this positive message. Its executive committee said in May that people should go to the stadiums to watch the games, or, if they lack tickets, enjoy the "safe and festive fun" of fan zones in designated areas of the cities.

In addition to the 6,500 volunteers -- the unpaid and often overlooked enthusiasts who make these events run smoothly -- at this year's Euro, there will be 90,000 police officers, soldiers and private security agents deployed across France during the event. …

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