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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.

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.''

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