Argentina and France’s Road to the World Cup Final: Part One — France’s Early Beginnings
A third star on the jersey of its national team is something most nations dream of. The third star went to Argentina this time, France being bitterly disappointed as they failed to make up some ground on Brazil, Germany, and Italy. With the tournament still fresh in our memories, let’s take a look at how this final came to be, more than one hundred years after these national sides played their first games. The usual suspects are once again the English. As much as both sets of fans would love to have it otherwise it was the English who introduced this beautiful sport to both countries.
Since France and England are only 20 miles (32 kilometres) apart, at the Channel’s narrowest point, football only had a short journey to make. The newspaper the Scotsman put it this way in 1863: “A number of English gentlemen living in Paris have lately organised a football club… The football contests take place in the Bois de Boulogne, by permission of the authorities and surprise the French amazingly.”
In the next decades, modern versions of the game reached the country and its popularity started to increase. By the turn of the century, the French were competing at the Olympics, where they reached second place. Back then the USFSA, the national sports union, was responsible for internal footballing matters, as well as selecting a team to represent France.
Since they had taken part in the 1900 Olympic Games under the names USFSA XI, or Club Français, the official date of the first international game of the French National Team is recorded as May 1st, 1904. A 3-3 draw against Belgium, played out at the Stade du Vivier d’Oie in Brussels. With everyone saying nowadays that France could field 2 teams and still win the World Cup, we need only look back to the 1908 Summer Olympics where France A and France B participated.
The A team, under FIFA’s jurisdiction, would dispute official matches, whilst the B team, controlled by the USFSA would take part in unofficial ones. As in the qualifiers for this World Cup, Denmark were the bane of France’s existence, defeating both teams, France B 9-0 and France A 17-1. Following many reorganizations and disputes, the FFF (French Football Federation) was formed in 1919. Once again, the first game of the new iteration of the national team was a draw against Belgium.
A momentous 2-1 win against England was followed by highs and lows on the international stage and at the Olympics. In 1934, France answered the call to take part in the inaugural World Cup and travelled to Uruguay. They scored the first two goals in World Cup history through Lucien Laurent and Marcel Langiller in a 4-1 against Mexico. Sadly, it was not the beginning of a fairytale, as they lost the following two games against Argentina and Chile. Following the tournament, the first black player (Raoul Diagne) and the first player of North African descent (Larbi Benbarek), made their debuts for the national team.
After elimination in the first round at the hands of Austria in 1934, France would host the 1938 edition. On home soil, the vanquished the Belgians 3-1 in the first round but could not match Italy’s strength in the quarterfinals. World War II brought about suspensions to international competitions and the France team played a handful of games in between their country being ravaged.
The 1950s brought about a massive improvement in quality with players like Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa and teams like Reims, who reached the European Cup final two times. At the 1950 World Cup France did not take part, being eliminated by Yugoslavia in qualifying. The qualification for the next two tournaments went in a similar way with France breezing through their groups with high-margin wins.
The story at the final tournaments would be very different: in 1954 they got knocked out in the group stages, but in 1958, they snatched the Bronze medal. The team, inspired by Just Fontaine would fall in the semifinals at the hands of Pele’s Brazil, but managed a 6-3 win over the West Germans in the third-place match. The final tournament of the 1960 Euros would be held from the semifinal stage onward, with the hosts being decided on after all the teams qualified.
France reached the semis after storming past Greece and Austria and were awarded the hosting rights. At the semifinal stage, however, they fell victim to a 4-5 defeat at the hands of Yugoslavia as they could not count on Fontaine or Kopa for their match-day squad. The 1960s were not kind to the France National Team, seeing them miss out on almost all major tournaments and the old guard of the 1950s team retire.
From 1960 to 1978, France only took part in the 1966 World Cup, where they finished last in their group. After replacing multiple managers, in March 1969 Georges Boulogne took the reins and despite falling to qualify for any major tournaments, he is credited with modernizing the game in France, with the nation now emphasizing youth development and modern training. He was replaced by France’s only foreign manager to date, Romanian Stefan Kovacs.
Kovacs, who had succeeded Rinus Michels at Ajax and continued the team’s success implemented his total football philosophy and focused on youth development. His assistant Michel Hidalgo replaced him in 1976, continuing his work. The hard work of previous managers paid off and with Michel Platini in their ranks, France qualified for the 1978 World Cup.
Despite strong results in their pre-tournament friendlies, the inexperience of the young squad showed in Argentina, with them going out in the groups. Following the failure to qualify for the 1980 European Championship the final piece of the Carre Magique (Magic Square) arrived. Jean Tigana joined Platini Giresse and Genghini just in time for them to start their qualifying for the 1982 World Cup.
At the final tournament, France finished second in the first group stage and won the second one to reach the semis. Their game against Germany would be an all-time classic. The 3-3 score line, with four of the goals coming in extra time, was overshadowed by the actions of the German keeper. Harald Schumacher clattered into Patrick Battiston, the French player suffering vertebral damage, lost teeth, and going into a coma. The referee did not even award a free kick.
To add insult to literal injury the Germans went through on penalties. In the next game, Poland won the bronze medal in a game where many of the French stars were rested. The 1984 Euros were to be held in France and the nation had high expectations for their favorites. In the series of friendlies prior to the tournament, a new iteration of the Carre Magique was born with Luis Fernandez joining Tigana as the deep-lying playmakers and Platini and Giresse in front of them.
This midfield quartet was in full song at the final tournament beating Denmark, Belgium and Yugoslavia in the groups. A semifinal tie against Portugal followed, with Platini scoring the decider in extra time to win 3-2. Platini was once again instrumental in the final, opening the scoring. France managed to win 2-0, even though going down to ten men. Two more gold medals followed, at the 1984 Summer Olympics and the Artemio Franchi trophy, a precursor to the Confederations Cup.
The next World Cup saw the French as favorites, with the team being nicknamed the Brazilians of Europe. Despite Platini and Giresse playing through injuries, they managed to get out of the groups and were due to face Italy in the knockouts. Platini scored in a 2-0 win and now the European Brazilians would face the actual Brazilians. Another important Platini goal meant the game finished 1-1 in regular and extra time. A tense and nervy shoot-out followed with players like Socrates and Platini missing.
Ultimately, Luis Fernandez scored to send his country through. In the semifinal, the eternal enemy awaited: Germany. The injuries and fatigue of the previous rounds took their toll, France’s star players being ineffective and the Germans running out 2-0 winners and the old guard, including Platini and Giresse, retiring after the tournament.
By: Eduard Holdis / @__He___
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / John Berry – Getty Images