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Watch out, World Cup, Platini's coming

FOR a moment, forget about Larry Bird and Dwight Gooden. Meet Michel Platini. He is the star of France's national soccer team, one of the favorites to capture the 1986 World Cup soccer tournament that kicks off tomorrow in Mexico City. Almost none of the 3 million spectators likely to attend the matches, or the cumulative total of 10 billion likely to tune in on TV, have heard of basketball player Bird or baseball pitcher Gooden. But they all know Platini.

Arguably, he's the best soccer player in the world today. Brazilian Pele and West German Franz Beckenbauer have retired. Although Argentine superstar Diego Maradona can be a one-man gang, blasting thunderous shots and executing improbably dazzling footwork, he also can be inconsistent. On a recent tour of Europe, Maradona looked lost as the Argentine national team was defeated 2-0 by the French ``Bleus.''

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Platini's moves are much more consistent -- and equally spectacular. For the past two years, he's been named European Footballer of the Year. For the past three years, the magazine France Football has voted him the world's best player. That's not mere chauvinism, either. Consider the accomplishments: In the past three years, he led his team, Turin's Juventus, to the Italian league title. In 1985, he led Juventus to victory in the European club championship.

An even grander achievement came two years ago at the European Cup, fought for by the best national all-star teams of Western Europe. In the first game, a Platini goal gave France a 1-0 win over Denmark. In the second game, against Belgium, Platini slammed home three goals in a 5-0 win. He scored all three goals in a tough 3-2 win over Yugoslavia, and in the semi-final against Portugal, he hammered the ball through the posts in the last minute to put France in the final. France beat its finals opponent, Spain, 2-0. The winning goal was Platini's. His nine-goal performance set a European Cup record.

Yet Platini's main talent is not scoring. It's playmaking. He roams the center of the turf nonchalantly. One second he's in a slow trot, the next, he's taking the ball, his head always up. His vision astounds. If he looks left, he's just as likely to pass right. His touch also amazes. He can hit a winger on a dead run.

``Platini can be a soloist,'' says Michel Hidalgo, former coach of the French team, ``but he prefers to be an orchestra leader.''

The fluid style and the fair grace come from a tough upbringing. Platini was born in Joeuf, a small steel town in eastern France. Grandson of an Italian immigrant, he grew up speaking Italian, surrounded by friends with names such as Antonetti, Antonelli, and Angellini.

Immigrants have never been popular in France. In recent years, North African guest workers have been the focus of growing racism. Though Italian immigrants (as Roman Catholics and as Europeans speaking a similar language) face fewer integration problems, Platini still considers himself a bit of an outsider.

In a recent television program on his life, he asked French viewers at the beginning to excuse his ``accented French.''

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Immigrants make up the backbone of the French national team. Joining Platini at midfield is Luis Fernandez, a Spanish immigrant, and Jean Tigana, an African.

Sports experts consider the immigrant soccer success no accident. Immigrants often find their only outlet in sports, says Jean-Franois Renault, associate editor of L''Equipe, France's only sports newspaper. As outsiders, they know they must compete harder to succeed.

Native-born French tend to view athletic competition as unimportant. Ironically, Platini benefited from this national preference. Because he could not play soccer at school, his father, the coach of the local soccer club, signed him up for the team. There he learned to play with older and bigger children.

Young Platini spent hours kicking his ball against the concrete wall of his home. He also spent countless hours practicing free kicks into an empty goal. That experience today has earned him the title of ``Mr. Free Kick'' -- a reference to his uncanny ability to curve a set ball around a wall of players and into the corner of the net beyond the outstretched arms of the goalie.

At age 17, he quit high school and began playing professional soccer with a team in Nancy. He was one of the youngest professionals ever in France.

``I discovered a small little boy,'' says Herve Collot, his coach there. ``But already he had technique and vision.''

In 1979, Platini joined the French club St. 'Etienne. He led the team to the French championship, becoming a rich man on the side by defying the traditional French aversion to commercialism. In 1980, he built Grande Stade, a youth-training sport center in the Pyrenees. A year later, he started a line of clothing, and now he has branched out into sunglasses and watches.

Platini has used some of his money to provide a comfortable life for his wife Christel and their two young children. While at St. 'Etienne, marital difficulties hurt his performance and that was one of his reasons for moving to Italy in 1983 -- although nothing seemed to interfere with his playing on France's all-star national team every year since 1977. Today he says, ``my family is my stability, my refuge.''

Platini also joined Juventus to improve his soccer. Although critics had long recognized Platini's exceptional talents, they wondered if his slight build would prevent him from reaching the top ranks of world-class soccer. Italian competition provided the needed test.

``In Italy, you go to Mass Sunday morning and the soccer stadium in the afternoon,'' he says. ``The Italian sports press and public are hard, hard. They never let up.'' The pressure helped. Playing for Juventus, he learned to win the big match. These qualities blossomed in the 1982 European Cup.

Will they stay fresh in Mexico? World Cup observers are divided. While they acknowledge that, on paper, the French may field the best team, some wonder whether they can win away from home. European teams have generally had a hard time playing in Latin America. France, in particular, tends to lose away games. During the qualification rounds for the cup, France dropped two away games to East Germany and Bulgaria.

Another criticism of the French is that they lack stamina, a crucial consideration, given Mexico City's high altitude. Like Platini, many of the French stars are 30 or over. Have they passed their peak? Platini answers with a grin. He suggests that World Cup winners have been determined by one or two players. Of the 24 teams competing this year, six are considered serious contenders. But only one has a Platini.

``I know I have a lot of responsibility,'' he says. ``We are one of the favorites. We've proved ourselves once. We can prove ourselves again.''

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