ON the first weekend of the World Cup two years ago, there was no more beautiful place to be than Marseilles. It was Friday afternoon and, in a couple of hours, the hosts would play South Africa in their opening match. The sun shone down on the Old Port area of the town as black and white South Africans celebrated their arrival among the football nations of the world. They mingled with French fans and anybody else who happened to be passing through or setting up camp for the five weeks that lay ahead. Twenty-four hours later all had changed. The few English fans who had mingled happily on Friday had been joined by a couple of hundred more and, convinced in their insecurity that nobody liked them, had laid siege to a couple of bars on the seafront. On the Saturday night they toyed with police and locals, simply lobbing the odd bottle in their direction, but, by Sunday, when the local Arab population had decided to confront them, Marseilles was unrecognisable from the fun town on Friday evening. Marseilles was full of horror by Sunday night. English fans fled from the monster which they created and it was dangerous even to speak English as Arab thugs roamed the streets on mopeds looking for English fans to beat. It is these two sides of the football fans' character that pose the greatest threat to Euro 2000 as a spectacle. As a football occasion, apart from the history and the honour, it provides even more to excite one than the World Cup. Simply work out permutations for the quarter-finals and you arrive at ties which anybody should travel to see. France, the World Champions, could play Spain, everybody's fancy since Real Madrid (full of Argentinians, Brazilians, French and English) won the European Cup and Italy could play Portugal, the side with the most flamboyance, sometimes undelivered, in the tournament, Germany or, in the unlikely event of Kevin Keegan keeping his head, England. But, if things go wrong off the pitch, all the football in the world won't be enough to stop destroying the image of the second biggest football tournament in the world, along with, most likely, England's chances of hosting the 2006 World Cup. UEFA's official slogan for the tournament is `Football without Frontiers' which, taken to its logical conclusion would surely mean all sixteen nations playing as one, but is probably meant to arouse the feeling of the nations of Europe coming together in peace and harmony. This would be very noble if it wasn't for the extreme nationalism of the English and German hooligans. Despite their protestations and the more serious violence of the German fans in France, if Euro 2000 gets ugly then the chances are that it will English football's contorted face in the mirror. The contrast between the two European finals this summer tells it all. While the English fans and UEFA may have bleated that the violence in Copenhagen was exaggerated, fifteen minutes of infamy is all it takes to strike fear into a city's residents. The Lansdowne Road riot did not last much longer, yet nobody who was there could claim that it was less intimidating because of its brevity. A couple of weeks later, the scenes in Paris were totally different. The police stood idly by as Spanish supporters from Valencia and Madrid created the atmosphere which can enrich as much as the scintillating football that Madrid played later in the evening. This is something as alien to English fans as it is natural to most other footballing countries. There may be trouble involving other supporters, but there will definitely be violence wherever English fans gather with their poor mouths and their pathetic pleadings that they are being blamed yet again for others' mistakes. The tournament will prosper once England are quickly eliminated and even a poor German side should be tactically superior to England and their eternally hopeful spin-doctor Keegan.
Of course, the Germans, the wise will tell you, should never be under-estimated, but it is surely beyond them, unless they surprise everybody and top the group, to move beyond the quarter-finals and retain their trophy.
They are an ageing team for whom things have not improved since Croatia eliminated them in France. Their squad is in turmoil - their best player Jeremies referred to the sate of the game in Germany as ``miserable''. In qualifying, they did worse against Turkey than Ireland did in the play-offs which says something.
THEIR veterans may run into trouble in the opening match against Romania - who aren't in the first flush of youth either - and by the time they play England in Charleroi in two weeks' time, they may both be fighting for their lives. It will be hoped that those words don't have a more violent turn off the pitch.
It is a group, which offers the beguiling opportunity of seeing the team which offers more potential for entertainment than any other. Portugal will beat England in the opening match and may go far if the talent they have shown in the qualifiers is realised in tournament football. They failed four years ago, but if players like Luis Figo display their club form (and it is staggering to imagine what he could do to either of the Neville brothers) then Portugal are the bet for the tournament, especially at 20/1.
While Figo is the most exciting attacking player on view over the next few weeks, players like Rui Costa offer a creativity that no team, apart from France can match. For such an attacking team, they are resolute defensively, led by Fernando Couto of Lazio, and they conceded only four goals in ten matches during the qualifying, even if Romania did top the group.
Portugal have the verve and talent, and if it can be matched by a discipline and dedication then the tournament could have worthy winners.
The co-hosts Holland are favourites and, in the World Cup, they were unlucky to lose on penalties to Brazil. They had been fortunate to defeat Argentina in the quarter-final, aided by the availability of Dennis Bergkamp whose hideous foul against Yugoslavia in the second round was ignored. The Dutch will have the dice loaded in their favour, but there is enough reason to suspect that they will implode. Bergkamp is not the player he was two years ago and Patrick Kluivert has still much to prove at the highest level.
The Dutch are in the toughest group and if they do not perform at the outset against France, Denmark and the Czech Republic, they could be the most disappointing hosts of a major tournament since Spain in 1982.
Amazingly, France have been written off in many quar ters while money piles onto Spain.
The French would seem to have a better side than that which triumphed in the World Cup two years ago. Their back four is as organised and determined as ever, with great players like Marcel Desailly and Lillian Thuram always capable of producing the most important performances at the most important times.
Upfront, Stephane Guivarch has disappeared, replaced by Nicolas Anelka. Guivarch may be a more sturdy pro and a more pleasant human being, but on the football pitch there is only one winner. Anelka, on form, and used correctly as Arsenal did, is lethal. Frighteningly quick, he has a compo sure on the ball which few with his pace can match and he is lethal in the finish.
Whether the coach Roger Lemerre starts with Anelka or plays Henry in a more forward position than two years ago - when he scored four goals - France promise to be more dangerous upfront.
If Vieira - the only midfielder who can match Roy Keane in England - replaces Deschamps then there is no reason that France can't make it all the way to the final.
They could easily beat Spain on the way. Two years ago, Real Madrid beat Juventus in the European Cup Final, but Spain were eliminated in the first round in France.
IN the years when English clubs dominated Europe - with a lot more homegrown players than Madrid have - England failed to qualify. In 1978 they missed out, while in 1982 they were a dour, confused team. Spanish football may have more going for it, but that does not mean it will translate into success for the nation.
There are miles to go in which anything can happen.
The siege mentality of the English makes it an unfortu nate wish for many football lovers that their team is elimi nated quickly.
Japan and Korea will not be an easy trip, so it will be Portugal in four years time before Ireland can move en masse again. By that time the hosts could well be holders. Portugal to beat France in the final.