Let’s hear it for the French

SOMETIMES football’s administrators seem to adopt the sort of approach that eccentric writer William Burroughs used to concoct sentences when he was penning his novels. He would cut up various words and come up with very creative passages of prose, often out of nowhere. When it comes to future tournament structures, such as the bloated 48-team World Cup and now an idea to introduce an additional European club competition concept, you have to wonder if the backroom staff sit around a table and try to make the football calendar even more crowded in a very similar, random fashion.

But the people governing football really cannot win – they preside over a pastime that millions and millions believe is their personal property. It’s a ludicrous idea that a sport that is now a fully-fledged business sector is some sort of sporting socialism, because it is as much a child of capitalism as the most aggressive form of commerce. The governing bodies are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

The French are getting some criticism at the moment, largely due to their handling of the UEFA Champions League, but it is fair to give credit to a nation that really created the framework that modern football adheres to. The World Cup, European Championship and European Cup (Champions League) are all ideas that were germinated in France. Men like Jules Rimet (pictured in 1951), Henry Delaunay and Gabriel Hanot helped to shape modern football. And all this despite the fact that French football, on the international stage, has been an inconsistent player – only recently enhanced by the winning of the European Championship in 1984 and 2000 and the World Cups in 1998 and 2018.

Let’s not deny France has had some great players down the years: Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Raymond Kopa, Just Fontaine and Thierry Henry to name but a few. France was among the forerunners of intelligent writers on the game. L’Equipe and France Football were among the first “serious” publications to examine football and both were instrumental in the development of the European game. France Football was the sponsor of the Ballon D’Or, while L’Equipe, a sports paper, was a big advocate of the European Cup.

Rimet was a liberal character full of ideals. He founded the Paris club, Red Star, in 1897 and was one of the people behind the formation of FIFA. At an early stage, he nurtured the idea of a global professional football competition, but had to make do with an amateur competition at the 1908 Olympic Games. It wasn’t until 1928 that the idea of the World Cup started to take shape. The choice of venue, Uruguay, was controversial, but it was largely due to the fact that the Uruguayans had agreed to pay all related costs. Rimet, along with the competing teams, all travelled to South America on the Italian ship, SS Conte Verde and for the entire voyage, Rimet carried his trophy in a bag alongside him.

Delaunay was Rimet’s friend and colleague. He was also involved in the foundation of the World Cup, but in 1927, proposed the inauguration of a European competition. It wasn’t until 1960 that the first European Nations Cup took place. The trophy bears his name. Gabriel Hanot has never had his name on a trophy as far as I know, but he was the instigator of discussions around European integration. Hanot, a journalist and former footballer, was inspired by the pre-war Mitropa Cup and Copa Latina (Latin Cup). But it was also the claim made by Wolverhampton Wanderers that they were “champions of the World”, after beating Hungary’s Honved at a floodlit Molineux, that spurred him on. One senses that the French did not like this self-appointed title and wanted to prove the Brits wrong. Interestingly, England spurned the idea of the competition, much as they had the World Cup. Elsewhere, it was warmly received.

So why were the French so influential in the development of the pan-European game?  I suggest it echoed the desire to create an integrated continent in the aftermath of World War Two. The French were at the heart of the Common Market and likewise, England’s own reluctance in 1955 to allow Chelsea to enter the European Cup was as “isolationist” as Britain’s initial nervousness about an economic union. Actually, Manchester United’s Matt Busby saw the way things were heading and his club entered in 1956-57, having seen how successful the first European Cup had been.

Let’s remember, too, the French didn’t do all this to feather their own nests. Only one French club, Marseille, has won the competition and down the years, they have never been one of the dominant countries. Paris St. Germain may have something to say about that going forward.

Organised football had its roots in England and the FA Cup is arguably the world’s oldest competition of its kind. But the global expansion of the game is as much a product of French creativity and the vision of a handful of football administrators who today would be derided as “suits”.

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