KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- For all the elastic expansion of the World Cup – from 16 to 24 and now 32 teams – no single player has ever come near threatening the achievement of Just Fontaine who has died aged 89.
Fontaine scored a single-tournament record of 13 goals to shoot France to their then best placing of third in the tournament in Sweden in 1958.
Morocco had been a French protectorate when Fontaine was born on August 18, 1933, in Marrakech. As a boy he honed his technique juggling coins wrapped in paper before building a reputation with his goals for AC Marrakech. More youthful success with USM Casablanca earned a transfer to French football with Nice.
A few months later he was conscripted but was assigned to the sports battalion Joinville near Paris. He soon became captain and player-coach of the army team which later won the military world championship. As he said later: “At least I didn’t have to serve, like my brothers, in the Algerian war. Otherwise I might be dead.”
In the summer of 1956 Fontaine was bought by Reims, who had finished runners-up in the inaugural European Champions Cup. Reims has just sold playmaker Raymond Kopa to Real Madrid and needed to fill the gap in attack.
Fontaine was a very different sort of player, not a schemer but a brave and resourceful centre-forward. Maybe too brave, as it turned out. His goals helped Reims regain the French league title in 1958 despite having undergone knee surgery during the winter break.
He was an obvious choice for the French squad at the World Cup finals though he was expected only to be a deputy for his club-mate Rene Bliard.
In fact Bliard was injured on the eve of the finals and Fontaine learned as he was boarding the plane that he had been promoted to the starting line-up. He recalled: “It was only when I arrived at Orly airport that our coaches, Albert Batteux and Paul Nicolas, told me: “You’re our centre-forward.” The majority of his goals he owed to Kopa’s creative work behind and alongside him.
Fontaine scored a hat-trick in France’s opening 7-3 defeat of Paraguay, followed up with two goals in a 3-2 defeat by Yugoslavia then scored again in the 2-1 victory over Scotland which lifted France to the top of the group and into the knockout stage.
The goals kept flowing. Fontaine scored twice in a 4-0 defeat of Northern Ireland in the quarter-finals and one in the subsequent 5-2 defeat by Brazil. France played much of the semi-final with only 10 men in the days before substitutes after centre-back Robert Jonquet was injured with the score 1-1.
At that point Fontaine totalled nine goals and he raced up into double figures by scoring four times in the 6-3 defeat of outgoing champions West Germany in the third place playoff.
Reims and Fontaine lost again to Real Madrid in the 1959 European Cup Final after which Kopa returned to line up alongside Fontaine at Reims. Unfortunately injuries prevented them reviving their prolific World Cup partnership.
Kopa never recovered fully from a knee injury suffered in the 1959 European final and then Fontaine was forced to retire in 1961 after twice breaking a leg. He had totalled 27 goals in 20 internationals and had twice been French league top scorer.
Fontaine never indulged in self-pity, saying: “Football was my passion but I didn’t waste time feeling sorry for myself. I’m not the type. When the insurance money came through for my broken leg, I opened a sports shop in Toulouse.”
Later he was president of French players’ union in negotiating the right to fixed-term contracts. He was less successful as manager of France, being sacked after two games. He also briefly led Morocco before retiring to enjoy enduring fame for a record no-one has ever threatened.
Just Fontaine: born August 18, 1933, died March 1, 2023.