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   28 May, 2002 | 1800 IST


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FIFA fury overshadows the finals

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Alan Wheatley

A special congress on FIFA's finances ended in farce and fury on Tuesday, further tarnishing the image of soccer's ruling body just three days before the kick-off of the World Cup finals.

France, winners on home soil four years ago, confirmed that they would be without playmaker Zinedine Zidane because of a thigh injury when they launch the defence of their title against Senegal in South Korea's capital Seoul on Friday.

Another midfielder, Ireland's Roy Keane, looked sure to miss the tournament completely after his team mates said they did not want their disgraced former captain back. Keane was sent home last week after a blazing row with the team's manager.

But there was better news for a third midfield talisman, England captain David Beckham, who is set to play against Sweden on Sunday after recovering from a broken foot. Beckham came through a full training session without any pain.

The action on the training pitch was overshadowed by the game's administrators, who made sure an extraordinary FIFA congress in Seoul lived up to its name by jeering the group's embattled president, 66-year-old Swiss Sepp Blatter.

Blatter, who is facing criminal charges of corruption in the Swiss courts and allegations of financial mismanagement, fought to be heard over whistles from angry critics in scenes unprecedented for the usually staid soccer body.

Becoming ever more agitated, Blatter would not allow hostile delegates to take the floor and was loudly booed when he refused to let the meeting run beyond its allotted time.

"What happened to FIFA? What happened to our proud and successful organisation? Do you think we are producing just a spectacle that can only delight parts of the press?" Blatter, who is fighting for re-election, asked delegates.


As he left the meeting, Blatter and his rival in Wednesday's vote for FIFA's presidency, Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, exchanged heated words and gestured angrily at each other.

There were also angry scenes on the floor when African supporters of Blatter began haranguing a Somali soccer official who said in March that Blatter's backers had offered him a $100,000 bribe to vote for the president when he stood for election in 1988.

Despite the controversy, Blatter is still widely expected to beat Hayatou and secure a second four-year term as president when soccer barons from FIFA's 200-plus members vote on Wednesday.

FIFA's money politics has cast a shadow over the run-up to the month-long World Cup, the first to be held in Asia and the first to be co-hosted. South Korea is sharing the honour with Japan.

But fans around the world are more interested in the fate of their star players than in the murky rivalries of the game's administrators.

In France, the injury to Zidane, the world's most expensive player, led news broadcasts despite impending parliamentary elections and a visit by U.S. president George Bush.

The inspirational midfielder, scorer of two brilliant goals in the 3-0 trashing of Brazil in the 1998 final, tore his thigh muscle in a warm-up game with South Korea on Sunday and will miss one game and maybe more.

"Everything is possible from the first match to the second round," French team doctor Jean-Marcel Ferret said in Seoul. "Like in any muscular injury it's always difficult to say how long it can take to heal."


Winning his race for fitness, Beckham came through what England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson called a "very, very good" training session at Higashiura in Japan with no pain.

Beckham broke his foot nearly seven weeks ago in a tackle by Argentine Aldo Duscher in Manchester United's Champions League quarter-final match against Spanish side Deportivo Coruna.

He started practising with the ball only a few days ago, but Eriksson did not think he was gambling on his captain's fitness.

"He did a session this morning and he did everything -- free-kicks, corners, a lot of shooting and a lot of running," Eriksson said five days before the group F game in Saitama.

Keane, Beckham's club team mate, saw the World Cup door slam shut when the Ireland squad said they did not want him back.

Keane was sent home in disgrace last week after a slanging match with manager Mick McCarthy at the team's training camp on the South Pacific island of Saipan.

"Regrettably, the manner of Roy's behaviour prior to his departure from Saipan and the comments attributed to him since have left the staff and players in no doubt that the interests of the squad are best served without Roy's presence," the Ireland team said in a statement.

In other team news, Spain striker Fernando Morientes hobbled out of training after twisting his right ankle, but Croatia said striker Alen Boksic had recovered from an abdominal strain and would make his long-delayed World Cup debut against Mexico.

The 32-year-old did not play in France four years ago because of injury.

Both host countries were making last-minute security preparations to counter the threat of hooligans and any September 11-style assaults during the finals.

South Korea intends to place surface-to-air missiles and station sniper squads near the country's 10 host stadiums, although a defence ministry official said the government had no indication that they might be the target of terror attacks.

"The Korean military is trying as best it can to protect the people watching and playing the games," he said.

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