Bonne anniversaire to the French Football Federation (FFF) – it’s certainly looking good for a centenarian!
French football’s national governing body was founded on April 7, 1919, and one hundred years later the FFF is stronger than ever. The fédé, to use the shorthand often employed in the hexagone, is riding high, still high on winning the FIFA men’s World Cup while preparing to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer. In two months, the first whistle of that tournament will sound in Paris’ Parc de Princes, kicking off the France vs. South Korea match and four weeks of frenzied competition. It’s easy to fête French football on this anniversary, but important to note that this feel-good story was decades in the making.
Nobody in 1919 would have predicted the highs and lows French football would experience over the course of a century. A leisure time activity of the upper classes prior to 1914, the Great War democratized the sport and even birthed a short window of football féminin in the 1917-1938 era. During the 1920s and 1930s football was embraced by the country’s factory and mine owners, particularly in the north (Nord-pas-de-Calais), as a means to foster community among their workers, build ties to their enterprises, and assimilate the waves of economic migrants who arrived on French soil to build a better life (and help the nation rebuild).
But football (soccer for us Americans) was the first team sport in France to professionalize—and this was a problem. Remember that the father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertain, was a Frenchman and his adulation for amateurism was shared by the opinion-makers and elites. Which is why football in France was long stigmatized and looked down upon as a working-class and immigrant sport, one tarnished by the act of being paid to play. Moreover, France wasn’t as enthusiastic about unbridled capitalism and flashy money as others where football flourished (at least, in public).
The tide began to turn in the 1980s with the rise of the Platini generation. Michel Platini, the original French magician, and his carré magique of Alain Girasse, Jean Tigana, and Luis Fernandez, generated excitement on the field as France began to win. 1982 World Cup runners-up, third-place finishers at the 1986 World Cup, in 1984 they won the European Championship for the first time while a team composed of different French players won the gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Then of course there was 1998, when Zinédine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and their cohort won the World Cup, earned France’s first FIFA star, and firmly put football into the fore.
The fallout, however, was quick and toxic. I’ve written extensively about that, most recently here, including the national team, Les Bleus’ strike at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (though I argue that going on strike is one the most ‘French’ things to do, ever!). French football’s road to redemption has been long, but what so many people overlook when celebrating last summer’s World Cup win is that the sport’s image and popularity has been greatly aided by the women’s team, Les Bleues.
As we celebrate the FFF’s 100th and prepare for #WWC kickoff on June 7, this is one of the most important aspects to keep in mind in the larger story of the ebbs and flows of French football. Stay tuned for more on this from me :)