History Corner : Parking the bus 1950s-style ?

Kopa v Germay crop

After picking up some helpful tips about how to improve French football from the 1920s, a couple of further forays to Montpellier’s book market (every Saturday on the Esplanade, also Peyrou Sundays – if it isn’t raining) produced ten copies of the periodicals Mirroir Sprint* and But Club – Miroir des Sports, dated between 1950 and 1955. These trace an interesting series of results in the French international team’s development. Also, some very familiar approaches to reporting on their exploits…

The football grumble

In December 1950, France managed a 5-2 win over Holland. This was the national team’s first win in over a year, but it came against a side that was missing key players, had recently been beaten 7-2 by Belgium, and had a defence « lente, lourde et raide » (slow, heavy, and stiff). Even then, and despite the scoreline, Francois Thebaud reports that the Dutch counter-attacks showed up France’s defensive weaknesses, grumbling that les Bleus only really played well for the first 15 minutes of the second half.

France, he continued, really should have been better, given their superiority in the ‘triple plan’ of individual technique, tactics, and athleticism. Holland’s powerful shooting and more direct game had posed the home team problems. What they lacked, he concluded, was organisation, which they would need to overcome Scotland and Italy in away trips scheduled for the spring.

France lost both those matches.

Punditry as poetry

Roll on a year and M. Thebaud is much happier. In fact, he is practically purring. France had drawn 2-2 with ‘Wunderteam’ Austria, which provoked an almost poetic response in the match report.

« Ocwirk privé de la balle, courant dans le vide, mystifié par les dribbles de Boniacci, et la défense autrichienne aux abois sous les yeux impuissantes de sa fameuse ligne d’attaque réduite a l’inaction »

“Ocwirk, deprived of the ball, was running in the void, mystified by Boniacci’s dribbles, and the Austrian defence was held at bay, under the impotent eyes of their famous attacking line, reduced to inertia.”

The difference, this time, was two-fold; not simply the organisation and game intelligence identified as lacking the previous year, but also psychology, to get the team to play with ‘guts and joy’. Austria seemed to have everything – individual technique, a collective approach, physical presence, a calm mastery of the game – but « une certain lenteur de reflexe » (slowness to react).

tactics-1951This slight flaw was enough as France made up for their technical inferiority with audacity, vivacity, breaking quickly, and « promptitude de reflexes » – but this was never to the detriment of the collective. The word Thebaud stresses maybe most of all is « abnegation » – self-sacrifice. Because in this match, it was France who were the lesser team on paper – so their approach was something known as ‘concrete’. Beton.

Given the usual formational approach at the time (2-3-5), this might not have looked quite like parking the bus does now, but the language is clearly describing a very defensive approach – the Austrians were stoppé, and complained that France were « les meilleurs destructeurs d’Europe ». This was not, editor Maurice Vidal opined in his take on the match, to be taken to mean that France had played negatively, but that they had a wonderful understanding of how to overcome their tactical and technical deficits. His focus was less on this particular game but a series of matches that autumn – la belle trilogie – that had seen France take on England, Switzerland and now Austria, and remain unbeaten: « L’edifice resta intact ».

Harsh on beton

Another year later, and in October 1952 and the first game of the new season, France beat Germany 3-1 (as Raymond Kopa made his international debut). This time it was the Germans who used beton to try to overcome stronger opponents – and perhaps predictably copped a rather different reaction for doing so.

The man waxing lyrical this time was Albert Batteux. He was a one-club man who after finishing his playing career at 31 had gone straight into management – at the same club. And that club was the giant of French club football in the 1950s, Stade de Reims. It is perhaps understandable that the manager of the team that featured Kopa and won so much might be resistant to a defensive approach, but Batteux rather went for it.

“A useless and retrograde tactic” sniffed the headline. He didn’t even refer to playing for the draw.

« Cherche-t-elle, en appliquant le ‘beton’ a limiter au minimum les effets de cette superiorité en se contentent d’une défaite honourable, sans aucun espoir de victoire? »

“Do they, by applying ‘beton’ to minimise the impact of (French) superiority, seek to content themselves with an honourable defeat, with no hope of victory?”

There are some drawbacks to Batteux’s exclamation-mark laden analysis that occasionally breaks into caps-lock; his main thesis is that the approach gives you almost no chance of scoring, and the Germans did. This was also not a late consolation while the French were jogging happily around 3-0 up, but an early equaliser, in the 16th minute. The French did prevail, but it sounds like a nervy affair, their winning goals coming in the 81st and 89th minutes.

This aside, he sets out a very reasonable combination of effects that a defensive approach produces to make it highly unlikely that the team employing them can hold out. Sitting deep invites attackers on, and by moving more players back to defend, this causes a ‘crowd’ in the danger area that is more prone to deflected shots, unsighting the goalkeeper, and goalmouth scrambles.

1951-beton-cartoonIt does feel like the approach praised for its realism when France did it was being criticised for its negativity when Germany did it, but the descriptions of the two matches do imply that the approaches were different, albeit of the same name.

France’s beton was ‘well-armed’, according to the cartoon on the back cover of the issue about the Austria game. Thebaud’s description of it sounds like it would today use words like ‘high line’ and ‘playing on the counter’. Germany, on the other hand, do sound like they parked a bus, and not very effectively.


The team they deserve

France didn’t play in Brazil 1950 – after drawing 1-1 in both legs of the qualifier with Yugoslavia, they were beaten (after extra time) in the decider on neutral territory. An invitation to turn up anyway apparently came too late to do the necessary admin. But the next World Cup would be much more accessible, in Switzerland.

France romped through qualifiers against Eire and Luxembourg – played four, won four, scored 20, conceded four. But in the group stage, they faced Yugoslavia again, losing 1-0, so, despite beating Mexico 3-2, were knocked out, as Yugoslavia and Brazil (who also beat Mexico) played out a 1-1 draw.

The ‘F.T.’ who wrote the op-ed on this exit is certainly Francois Thebaud, but the article is not the hatchet-job on the players than the headline might suggest. Not on the players, at least.

« Nos footballeurs ont d’immenses possibilités, qui ne sont pas exploitées parce que l’organisation et la direction de notre football est aux mains des gens qui se servent du sport au lieu de le servir »

“Our footballers have immense potential, which is not realised because the organisation and management of our football is in the hands of people who serve themselves from the sport rather than serving it”

There’s also some harsh words thrown in the direction of « les chauvins, les sots, et les incompetents » particularly about the criticism of Kopa, which may also sound rather familiar – that each time his team loses, people criticise his excessive dribbling; but each time they win, they agree that his dribbling was key to the result. Batteux is brought in to agree that this is a daft approach, there is a reference to « pseudo-techniciens » (“football Einsteins”?), and you do wonder if much has changed in football in sixty years apart from the formation, the ball, the money, and the hair.

Kopa, un grand Kopa

The next match France played was in October 1954. They won (again) 3-1, this time away in Hanover, against Germany, the World Champions. It was a bitter-sweet moment; a fine victory (despite ex-England captain – and co-founder of the Football Writers’ Association – Charlie Buchan’s sniffy verdict that it was a “good match, but average football”), but also the game in which Larbi Ben Barek was taken off injured after about half an hour, which effectively finished his career. His view after the match : “better give the place to someone who has the means; you can’t play extras against adversaries that resolute”. He was replaced by Jacques Foix of Saint-Etienne, who scored a brace.

Just KopaMiroir-Sprint finished 1954, as is traditional, and still familiar, with a round-up of the best players in the world. In all of the angles they took, individual talent, creative players, ‘consecrated’ players (including Stanley Matthews), elite international players, only one Frenchman made the cut – Kopa.

Raymond Kopa died on 3 March 2017 at the age of 85, the first of four Frenchmen to win the Ballon D’Or (with Platini, Papin, and Zidane). You can read our tribute to the great man here.




* Miroir-Sprint is described in Wiki as ‘a weekly sporting magazine close to the French communist party’ so you have to know we’re intrigued by that…



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