Pour faire progresser le football francais

EDF 1940 cropped

The post-mortems have started after France’s defeat in the final of Euro 2016. In the semi-final, they beat Germany in a competitive match for the first time since 1958, before going on to lose for the first time ever in a competitive fixture to Portugal, in a tournament arguably featuring more karma than quality. So, what is to be done?

Match 1930I spend a lot of time wandering around antiques markets and while this is less problematic for my wallet in France than in the UK as I am less likely to get carried away at second-hand bookstalls, I do keep an eye out for anything football-related – partly because most old magazines / newspapers on offer in French markets relate to politics, fashion and film. Even the sporty ones are mostly cycling or motorsport. So when I see something football-related, I have a habit of not even bothering to haggle. So it is that in the past two weeks I’ve picked up two massive tomes, on the history of football in general (La Fabuleuse Histoire du Football, 1979), the World Cup (La Fabuleuse Histoire de la Coupe du Monde, 1982), and an issue of “Très Sport” from 1 February 1925. I’m still struggling with whether to spend c.€100 on a full year’s set of issues of ‘Match’ from 1930, in original binder. I’ll get back to you if/when my nerve breaks on that.

While ‘Tres Sport’ is mostly about motorsport and hockey, there is a very interesting article from Lucien “Lulu” Gamblin, defender for Red Star and former captain of the French national team, who won 17 caps between 1911 and 1923 before turning his hand to sports journalism. It is called ‘Pour fair progresser le football francais‘ (basically, ‘how to improve French football’). So, let’s see what M. Gamblin had to say about that.

“Our players aren’t comfortable when it comes for them to pass back to the goalie. However, when under pressure, it is an excellent way of getting the team out of difficult situations”

Crystal Palace v Bradford Tres Sport 1925Gamblin was a defender, so it is maybe natural that his ‘tips’ focus quite strongly on that side of the game. At this point, also, a back-pass could be picked up by the goalkeeper, so this may be more about taking the heat out of the game at a tricky time than playing it out from the back. However – today, Hugo Lloris is considered one of the better ‘sweeper-keepers’ out there, and back-up Steve Mandanda, now of Crystal Palace, can also be pretty handy with his feet (getting his chance to play outfield in OM’s bizarre football/rugby hybrid pre-season friendly, which I was wondering if I had imagined until Jeremy found the highlights).

Bobby De Ruymbeke for OM in Tres Sport 1925Other tips re goalkeepers are that they must be ‘robust’ and that punching is a good thing, referencing Marseille’s keeper, the Belgian Bobby de Ruymbeke, in the 1924 Coupe de France final in which OM beat FC Cette 3-2 after extra time. And via a series of careful notations on photographs (see above) the goalkeeper should really keep an eye on the avant adverse. That means ‘opposition attacker’. Merci, M. Gamblin.

Antonin Janda Tres SportHaving set out some rules for the defence, Gamblin turns his attention to the attack. His verdict on Antonin Janda, the Czech and Sparta Prague centre-forward, was that he was “un avant comme nous n’en avons pas” (“a striker the like of which we do not have”). Scoring 12 goals in his ten selections, Janda managed two hat-tricks at the 1920 Olympics (against Yugoslavia and Norway) before what could have been his finest hour descended into farce as the Czechs abandoned the final when 2-0 down to Belgium, complaining of biased refereeing, and were disqualified.

Nicolas Tres SportHowever, the French had a different type of striker – such as Paul Nicolas, who played at three Olympics, including being beaten by Janda’s Czechs in the 1920 semi-final, and getting the sole French goal in the 5-1 hammering by Uruguay in the quarter-final in 1924. Nicolas is held up as the example of the striker who can play it on the floor – “départ en dribbling” (“off on a dribble”). Was Gamblin (who played with Nicolas) challenging, back in 1925, the much-criticised tendency to ‘try to walk it into the net’? The article doesn’t mention tiki-taka, to be fair, but he focusses very strongly on the need for young players to “tripoter une balle” (loosely translated as “have fun with the ball”):

Oui, laisser les enfants, les juniors, s’amuser à dribbler à outrance, à executer toutes les fantaisies qui leur passent dans la tete : coupe de pied retournes, reprises de balles acrobatiques, etc. Il est desirable que le joueur devienne un prestidigitateur de ballon

Or, “yes, let kids amuse themselves by dribbling to death, to try all the fantasies they have in their heads : cutbacks, acrobatic efforts. It is desirable that a player be a conjurer with the ball.” You get the feeling that M. Gamblin would approve of Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann.

Another interesting opinion is on ‘le choix de la place‘, where Gamblin’s approach seems more modern than one would expect.

“I am of the opinion that young players should be left to decide for themselves what position that wish to play. Those who train them should seek to convince them of their error if they think that their qualities do not correspond with that position.”

He also recommends, in this case, trying out different positions before settling on one, which is desirable, to find a player’s ‘metier‘, his proper role. Specialisation brings experience, and “we all know that experience is a very useful quality in football, as in all sports”. It is also important that older players lead by example, and are involved in the training of the youngsters : “a lesson lived is more likely to be retained and applied than any theory”.

Finally, Gamblin mentions team spirit (“pour vaincre, une équipe doit avoir un moral élevé” – “to win, a team must have a strong spirit”), and the importance of well-organised training; an issue in 1925 when it was tricky to get amateur players spread across a big city to get together consistently. There is also an interesting photograph, like several others, not specifically mentioned in the text.

Tres Sport 1925 Team Est Africain

It shows ‘une equipe d’espoirs’ described only as from east Africa, unclear if it is a club or a national team. Under it, Gamblin asks “will we one day see in our team one or more players of colour? Nothing is impossible”. Ninety years later, the second line of the caption is a still-used and uncomfortable characterisation : “d’excellentes dispositions physiques pour le football” (“excellent physical aptitude for football”).

In fact, six years later, Raoul Diagne was the first black player to play for France. Given his stress on positional specialisation, M. Gamblin may have looked a little askance at the player described by La Fabuleuse Histoire du Football as: “Arrière souple très adroit et difficile a tromper, il fut aussi un tres bon gardien de but” (“a flexible defender who was very skilful and hard to beat, he was also a very good goalkeeper”) and his French wikipedia page lists his positions as “défenseur, milieu, ailier, gardien” (“defender, midfielder, winger, goalkeeper”). Playing 18 times for France, he made his debut in midfield (the 3 in the 2-3-5 formation), was used in defence in the mid-1930s, before moving back to midfield for the 1938 World Cup and to the end of his international career in 1940. Quite something, even in the modern age of polyvalence.

The header photograph here shows Diagne as one of “a French team rebuilt for a few hours in February 1940, with footballing soldiers”, just a month after his final game for France, beating Portugal 3-2 :

Fabulous History 1940 EdF in the army

What is fascinating for me is how old commentary, magazines, books, can both be a world away from current coverage, and also strangely familiar.

Tres Sport 1925 datavizAre we still wondering whether France has the right type of centre forward ninety years after this was written? Whether directness or dribbling is the best form of attack? Whether positional specialisation or polyvalence is preferable? How black players are described? Whether data analysis is worth a damn when a very familiar approach was taken elsewhere in Très Sport to analyse a rugby match between France and New Zealand?

The main take-out from this, for me, is mentioned above. That the former captain of France said kids playing football should be allowed “à executer toutes les fantaisies qui leur passent dans la tete“. Without dreams, what is football?

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