Spain tries not to trip at World Soccer Cup kickoff

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Foreign reporters tend to poke fun at Spain's annual tourist season with reports about ''chaos on the costa'' (coast).

With Sunday's kickoff of the World Soccer Cup, some of them are relishing a new target: ''chaos in the cup.''

It's not entirely fair. Chirpy hostesses dressed in the yellow and red of the Spanish flag are doing their best to smooth the path of players from 24 competing countries, plus the hordes of fans.

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The cities have been cleaned up, trees and flowers planted everywhere. Cafes and restaurants have decked the pavements with tables and chairs.

Spain is putting its best foot forward in its biggest-ever exposure to the international news media. It is expecting more than 7,000 journalists and a television audience of about 1.4 billion.

And there is no doubt that having the cup hosted by Spain at all is a great boost for the country's fledgling democracy. Such an international event would never have been possible in a Spain ruled by Franco.

Yet behind the welcoming smiles, the organizers are concerned. Handling the half a million fans and all the details and tensions of such a huge gathering is proving a monumental task.

Just a few days before the opening ceremony in Barcelona's new stadium, for example, it was discovered that the newly installed doors had been put on backward.

After a report from the fire brigade, the local governor reduced the ground's capacity by some 20,000 spectators. But tickets had been sold for its original capacity, 120,000.

Meanwhile, the precious turf for the opening game had been damaged by 4,500 marchers rehearsing a formation of Picasso's dove of peace for the opening ceremony.

Workers and technicians worked around the clock this weekend, trying to complete stadiums and new installations at Madrid and Bilbao international airports.

Strikes by selected ground staff throughout the country's airports threatened travel arrangements for the competition.

And Spain's head of state security told the international press, ''We cannot rule out ETA (the radical Basque separatist organization) trying something big during the world cup.''

ETA has promised not to interfere with the competition. And fears of an attack by ETA have not stopped the fans. But the way ticket sales have been handled has - causing an uproar in Spain.

Mundiespana, a specially formed hotel and travel group, has handled 50 percent of the match ticket sales, all of which were to be sold outside Spain. Mundiespana has been criticized for overcharging for its travel/ticket packages, with many tickets being returned because the package tours cost too much for the average soccer fan.

Some European fans plan to travel to the matches on day-return charter flights, thus avoiding expenses for lodgings.

Embassies received their allotted 10 tickets apiece last week, with a 25 percent markup. There were some cancellations.

The Falklands crisis has meant further cancellations. Argentina has cancelled more than half its 5,000 bookings because of currency restrictions and the war.

The English and Scottish teams very nearly pulled out of the games because of the possibility they might have to play against the Argentines, the current champions. And some British fans have stayed away, fearing anti-British feeling in Spain because of the Falklands conflict.

Even without a direct encounter of the two countries on the field, Spanish police have been advised to expect trouble from notoriously rowdy British fans.

To forestall trouble, spectators will be allowed drinks only in plastic containers. The Spanish have laid on a 25,000-strong police contingent to control crowds. In Malaga some cells have been cleared in the police station in anticipation of rowdy fans.

The Spanish are eager to present a ''good image.'' The organizers have prepared a series of activities ranging from top-name bullfights to a Rolling Stones concert.

The Spanish tourism minister's message to fans is to ''enjoy the country, sights, and food, and above all have a good time.'' But politics is taking a backseat to the games. And if the competition goes smoothly, it will be a great plus for democratic Spain.

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