When, in a coffee conversation, the best footballers in history are discussed, Just Fontaine hardly appears on the table. And it doesn’t even appear if the discussion is limited to advanced players. And there are reasons for that, even if this Wednesday, with the news of the former goalscorer’s death, aged 89, the world will give him a special spotlight.
The most obvious reason for this decline in discussions of football immortality is the antiquity and the few references to who was a hero in the distant 1950s. But that does not explain everything – Pelé, Eusébio or Charlton to say the least.
The main reason why “Justô” is a fog in these discussions is the infamous aura of who, in the song, would be defined as “one hit wonder” – and the appropriation of musical expression is not trivial, since Fontaine became a singer. Here we go.
Fontaine only appeared in one World Cup, in 1958, and ended his career early, aged 28, due to two fractures in the tibia and fibula. “He was only 27 years old, when other footballers reach the best years of their careers. I tried rehabilitation and nine months later I came back, but my return didn’t last more than five games. I broke the leg again in the same place. It was terrible. My career was over ”, he recalled, saying that he would trade the famous goalscoring record for a few more years of his career.
Despite bad luck at age 28, before that, that summer of 58 in Sweden, Fontaine was big – the biggest ever. But immortality asks for a little more than that.
Scorer with another’s boots
Another explanation for this phenomenon of forgetting Fontaine is more football than generational – and few players in the history of football explain as well as Fontaine the premise according to which context is as or more important than talent.
Fontaine was defined as someone short, slow and even not very agile. Today, it would be unthinkable for a player of this type to be the top scorer at a World Cup – let alone with 13 goals, a record still in force, and achieved with the famous curiosity of not even having been with his own boots, but with ones borrowed from a substitute regular colleague.
“I was fast, but not the fastest. I was good in my head, but not the best. He could play with both feet, but he wasn’t the best. But I had a good set of qualities, and above all, a great help: having played basketball throughout my youth. There’s nothing better than basketball for movement”, explained a player who wasn’t even the greatest French talent of that era – that was Raymond Kopa.
But it was with those movements learned in basketball that the Frenchman, born in Morocco, made the best possible use of the context around him, in a different type of football. And by “context” also read fortune – because every minute as a French striker, in Sweden 58, was supposed to be a minute on the bench.
With the luck of René Bliard’s injury, Fontaine stepped up to the plate – literally and metaphorically. In attack, he took the lead. And no one, in over 60 years, has known how to assume the role as he did.
Fontaine’s 13 goals in a single World Cup are a unique mark that lasts. also in ranking goals tally has a prominent position, as only Miroslav Klose, Gerd Müller and Ronaldo, the Brazilian, surpass the Frenchman’s 13 goals.
It is true that Fontaine was a key player in Nice, which were French champions and, later, in the great Stade Reims – three titles and a Champions League final lost to Di Stéfano’s Real –, but nothing he did for the clubs, which was not disdainful, it was, even so, not even similar to what he achieved for the French national team.
If we add to this detail the little money paid in that era, the early end of his career, with that leg injury, and the unprofitable career as a coach, we have a cocktail which explains the chants.
The Frenchman used the voice that was said to be soft and melodious for singing. He did it because he needed the money. “I know I’m not a great singer, but I’m paid very well and it’s not my fault that others, who can even sing better, listen to me”, he came to confess, after singing with Gil Bernard.
Off the pitch, Fontaine’s greatest achievement was the creation of the first French footballers’ union and his influence on improving the conditions given to footballers – and he gained a lot of respect, even more than what he already had, for the work done in this area.
He leaves, now, at the age of 89, as a hero of trade unionism, a globally appreciated and cherished figure and, above all, with a record to beat. “My record still stands. I think I’ll take it with me when I die.” And he was right.