Just incredible: the life and times of Just Fontaine

just fontaine

Just Fontaine holds the record for the most goals in a single World Cup tournament. His 13 goals in 1958 came in the sixth World Cup. Qatar has just hosted the 21st, and still his record stands.

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France’s Kylian Mbappé has just won the Golden Boot at Qatar 2022. He scored eight goals in the tournament to end as the leading scorer. He now has 12 World Cup goals before the age of 24, which is quite an achievement. But it’s not even the record for France, thanks to Fontaine.

It’s an accepted part of sport that human progression and achievement means records are ultimately broken. But this goalscoring record may well never be broken.

Fontaine played six games in that tournament, compared with the seven Mbappé played in Qatar.

In history, just three players have ever reached double figures in a single tournament with Gerd Muller (10 in 1970) and Sandor Kocsis (11 in 1954) joining Fontaine at the top of the charts.

What’s remarkable about Fontaine’s tally is not just the sheer weight of goals, but he went into the tournament with just five caps to his name. Add to that the fact he scored a hat-trick on his international debut and wasn’t picked for another three years, and his is quite a story.

Yet once he’d earned his second cap it was another year before his third. In fact, it wasn’t until he lined up in the two friendlies prior to the 1958 tournament that he made consecutive appearances for Les Bleus.

If you want to know what Fontaine was like as a player, think Papin, Butragueno and Rossi. He had pace, scored with both feet and had an ideal creator in Raymond Kopa.

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Born in Marrakech, Morrocco, it is a matter of fortune the world heard about him anyway. In 1912 Morocco was divided by France and Spain. Marrakech was part of French Morocco. He began his career at USM Casablanca before moving to Nice in France in 1953.

In his first season in France, he won the cup. Two years later he won the league.

December 1953 saw him grab the attention of the national selectors.

Qualification for World Cup 1954 had seen France drawn into a group with the Republic of Ireland and Luxembourg. They put six past Luxembourg and five past the Irish. Once they then beat the Irish in Paris they’d confirmed their passage to the finals in Switzerland. Therefore, the final group game against Luxembourg was a dead match.

Consequently, the French side was made up of 11 players making their debuts. Four of them would never wear the French shirt again. Fontaine was one of just two who would go on to represent their country more than 10 times.

Fontaine scored a second half hat-trick as they ran out 8-0 winners. Only three of that team made it to the World Cup squad. Fontaine wasn’t one of them.

France didn’t make it past the group stage with only a win over Mexico the highlight.

In 1956 he moved to Stade de Reims. He was bought as a replacement for the legendary Raymond Kopa, who was off to Real Madrid. Kopa had just played in the Reims side which was 3-2 up against Real in the inaugural European Cup Final, only to lose 3-4. Kopa played in the iconic Real side with Puskas and Di Stefano and won three successive European Cups, including a second meeting with Reims in 1959. Fontaine was in the French side that day but Real won comfortably. Kopa then returned to Reims to strike up a potent attacking partnership with Fontaine.

Fontaine’s second cap came in October 1956 at home to Hungary. The 1954 runners-up still contained many of their golden generation, Puskas, Kocsis, Czibor, Hidegkuti, Sandor, Bozsik and Grosics. Hungary won 2-1.

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Hungary were again the opponent when Fontaine won his third cap exactly 12 months later, in Budapest. The Hungarians won again.

For the first international of 1958, Fontaine was in the starting line-up in the friendly against Spain. He could’ve played for Spain on account of where his mother was born. This was only his fourth cap in four years. By then they had confirmed their place in the 1958 World Cup to be held in Sweden. Spain had failed to qualify, finishing second in a group that saw Scotland reach the finals for the first time.

Four minutes into the second half, Fontaine scored the equaliser to earn a 2-2 draw. He was then in the starting line-up for the goalless draw against Switzerland a month later.

Despite just one goal in his last four appearances French manager, Albert Batteux was undeterred. He declared Fontaine would be the main beneficiary of the creativity Kopa possessed. Batteux had been a legend as a player at Reims and as manager had led them to three Ligue 1 titles. Fontaine was one of six Reims players in the squad, including Jean Vincent who’d made his debut in the same match Fontaine had. Even with just five caps to his name, there were 10 other players less experienced than Fontaine.

Their opening game was against Paraguay in Norrköping. It took him just 25 minutes to open his account. It was the equaliser after the South Americans had taken the lead from a free-kick on the edge of the box. He was sent clear of the defence and instead of rounding the keeper, he just lashed it first time into the net. Five minutes later he put his side in front, with almost a carbon copy. A ball played over the defence, his pace took him clear but this time his finish was more measured yet just as clinical. The South Americans levelled things before the break and then went in front soon after. Fontaine’s Reims teammate, Roger Piantoni, restored parity. After they went back in front Fontaine completed his hat-trick.

Kopa and Vincent added further goals and France won 7-3.

Three days later they were up against Yugoslavia, who’d drawn their opening game with the Scots. Once again Fontaine opened the scoring for his side, this time in the opening five minutes. But Aleksander Petakovic equalised in the 16th minute. Petakovic had scored the Yugoslav’s goal against Scotland.

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Just after the hour, Todor Veselinovic put the Balkan side in front. As the game moved towards the last five minutes Fontaine was again his country’s saviour with a dramatic equaliser. Were the points to be shared? Three minutes later there was another goal but for the French it was heartbreak as Veselinovic grabbed his second, to win the game 3-2.

With Paraguay beating Scotland, France knew they would only need a draw in their final group match against the Scots to progress to the knockout stage.

They were ahead midway through the first half thanks to Raymond Kopa’s goal. Fontaine was the creator, getting to the bye-line and pulling it back for Kopa to finish. As half-time approached Fontaine scored his fifth of the tournament. Put through he ran clear of the defence to lift it over Bill Brown in the Scottish goal. This came after the Scots had missed a penalty. In the Scotland side that day was tv presenter Gary Imlach’s, Dad, Stuart. His strike partner got the Scots back into the game just before the hour mark. But it wasn’t enough and France eventually won 2-1.

The other game was an exciting 3-3 draw which meant France had topped the group.

The Quarter-Finals pitted them against Northern Ireland. The Irish were at their first ever World Cup and had come through the group to win a play-off against Czechoslovakia and finish second to defending champions, West Germany.

Against a side containing Harry Gregg, Danny Blanchflower, Billy Bingham and Jimmy McIlroy, Maryan Wisniewski finally broke the deadlock right on half-time.

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Fontaine then added to his collection with goals in the 55th and 63rd minutes. Both were further examples of the Kopa/Fontaine combination, with Fontaine neatly switching the ball from right foot to left, before unleashing a shot too powerful for Gregg. Running away with it, Roger Piantoni completed the scoring five minutes later and France were comfortable 4-0 winners.

15 goals in just four matches and Fontaine had eight of them.

Five days later France were in action in the Semi-Finals. Their opponents were Brazil. Not only did they have to confront a side so utterly determined to win their first World Cup, but they also had to contend with one of the most exciting prospects the game had ever seen. Pele.

The 17-year old had scored the goal which knocked out Wales in the last round. Brazil were buoyant. When Vava put them in front after just two minutes, the French feared the worst. But then their goalscoring machine, Fontaine, equalised before the game was 10 minutes old. He’d already had a couple of chances before that and was a constant threat. Kopa played a pass through the defence for Fontaine to run onto. He took the ball past Gilmar with his right, and from a tight angle, fired a left foot shot into the roof of the net.

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The Solna crowd watched as two sides locked horns for the remainder of the half. Fontaine should’ve done better with a chance Wisnieski handed to him from the right wing. He had more time and space than he realised yet fired high, wide and handsome. Didi then gave Brazil the lead before the break.

The second half was then handed over to Pele. A legend was being born before the eyes of the world as he slammed home a hat-trick in 23 minutes and Brazil were out of sight. Piantoni grabbed a consolation goal.

The French then walked out in front of the biggest crowd they’d seen all tournament. But it wasn’t the game they’d dreamed of being involved in. The Third Place Play-off saw them up against West Germany. The Germans may have been shock winners four years earlier, but reaching the last four this time around rather underlined their talent.

Fontaine again opened the scoring when he gave France the lead in the 16th minute. A feature of France’s play was how quickly they attacked. This was ideal for a player of Fontaine’s pace too. It was his tenth of the tournament. Four years earlier the Hungarian forward Sandor Kocsis was the first player to reach this tally in a single World Cup when he netted 11. Fontaine then matched this record nine minutes before the break. It extended the French lead after Cieslarczyk had levelled soon after his opener, and Kopa had put them back in front from the spot.

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Yvon Douis scored the French fourth early in the second half before Rahn got one back.

The game was heading towards the final 10 minutes when Fontaine broke Kocsis’ record to complete his second hat-trick of the tournament.

These three goals illustrated his ability to score a variety of goals. The first was laid on for him after a swift attack. The second was a real poacher’s goal in the six-yard box, and the third was from the edge of the area.

Schäfer got the Germans third, and the final goal of a pulsating match was fittingly reserved for Fontaine. As the Germans threw men forward they inexplicably left him all alone on the halfway line. Kopa found him and he ran all the way to the area and slid it past the keeper. Four goals in one game.

It was his 13th in only his sixth match. Scoring in every game is pretty good, but the sheer weight of goals was what made people sit up and take notice. Seven goals in three knockout matches has never been bettered, let alone threatened. It had been an incredible nine days for the striker, even if they were a little disappointed with only reaching third place.

Brazil and Pele, of course, went on to lift the trophy for the first time and Pele was the name on everyone’s lips all around the world.

Fontaine was pretty unlucky that the 1958 tournament had always been remembered for being Pele’s World Cup, but in goalscoring terms, Fontaine was the star.

In 16 editions of the tournament since only Gerd Muller (1970) has managed to reach double figures for goals. Fontaine’s record will have held for 66 years by the time the next one tournament gets underway.

This is even more remarkable when you think he wasn’t wearing his own boots and had to borrow some from a teammate. He also wasn’t awarded the Golden Boot as that award didn’t exist in those days.

His international record was then 17 goals in just 11 matches. Only two other Frenchmen had, at that point, scored more for their country, Jean Nicolas (21) and Paul Nicolas (20). He’d eased past his teammates Kopa and Piantoni, whose careers had begun before his.

Domestically, he was very influential for Reims. He won three Ligue 1 titles in five seasons, twice ending as the league’s top scorer.

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He hit 30 goals in his first season at the club. The 1957-58 season was his most prolific. 34 goals in 26 matches. Add to that, 14 goals in nine internationals it gave him a computer-game like scoring record. In all competitions, he banged in 53 goals in just 41 games.

This remains a record for a French player.

That season was an absolute dream for the player. Domestically, Reims won the league and cup double. Internationally, he set a record World Cup goalscoring record as France finished third.

In the aftermath of his World Cup foray, he lead his club into the European Cup. Scoring ten goals they reached the Final where they took on Real Madrid in Stuttgart. He was up against his French teammate, Kopa as well as Di Stefano and Gento.

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Di Stefano scored one of the goals as Real won their fourth successive European Cup and Reims became one of their victims, for the second time.

The success of the ’58 tournament had propelled the World Cup into the echelons of top level sport. Now FIFA had their wish to have an event to rival the Olympics. Consequently, UEFA wanted a piece of the action.

France was chosen to host the very first European Championship named after the former secretary-general, Henri Delaunay, who originally thought up the idea back in 1927. In those days the finals section consisted of just four teams. Qualifying had only attracted 17 nations.

No need for a group format, qualifying was a straight knockout. France was drawn against Greece over two legs. The first was in October following the World Cup. Fontaine added a further brace to his burgeoning tally in a 7-1 thrashing.

Four days later they travelled to Vienna to take on Austria in a friendly. Fontaine scored for the eighth consecutive game as they came from behind to win 2-1. He was now just one goal from equalling the record for his country.

A friendly at the end of the month against West Germany saw Fontaine finally go through 90 minutes without scoring. But at the beginning of November, his goal six minutes from the end of a friendly against Italy put him level with Jean Nicolas as France’s top scorer.

Nicolas had scored his 21 in 25 matches between 1933 and 1938. Fontaine had played just 15.

He missed France’s next international, which was the second leg of their Euro tie against Greece which ended 1-1.

With the nation expecting him to break the record soon enough, he was missing for the friendly against Belgium in March. He was back in the starting line-up for the visit to Bulgaria, but it wasn’t a game to remember. He didn’t get on the scoresheet, they lost 0-1 and compounded his frustration with a sending-off in the closing minutes.

But the French had to wait just one more month when Portugal visited Paris. Three minutes into the game Fontaine became France’s record goalscorer. This was the same game where local boy, Roger Marche also became his country’s most capped player.

After racing into a three-goal lead, the Portuguese pegged them back with two goals. Cue Fontaine to rescue his team once again. Two goals in four minutes gave him his fourth hat-trick in national colours and France won comfortably.

December brought yet another hat-trick. The first leg of the Euro ’60 Quarter-Finals stage had them pitted against Austria. Once again he scored inside the opening ten minutes and by half-time he had two. He completed his fifth hat-trick with 20 minutes to go as they hit five goals for the second consecutive international.

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27 goals in 18 appearances was the slightly ridiculous looking stat that he had to his name. Four days later he finished off 1959 with a goal in the 4-3 win at home to Spain.

Seven goals in four matches was another impressive return and showed the World Cup was no flash in the pan. But little did anyone know his days were numbered.

1960 promised to be a big one for France. If they could defend a comfortable first leg lead against Austria there would be the first European Nations Cup Final stage to look forward to.

Fontaine missed the friendly defeat in Belgium, but returned in March to score two goals in three minutes and help his country to a 6-0 win over Chile.

This now gave him 30 goals in just 20 matches. But for the player disaster was to strike as he broke his leg.

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This left France to see off Austria without him. This they managed and were through to the inaugural tournament. They were up against Yugoslavia, and in a pulsating game lead 3-1, only to lose 4-5.

They lost the Third Place Match to Czechoslovakia too and this saw them on a path to lose six in a row in Fontaine’s absence.

He was back in December for the World Cup 1962 Qualifying tie at home to Bulgaria, opponents he was sent off against during their last meeting. No breaking the rules this time as France won 3-0. It was Fontaine’s 21st and final appearance in international football. He didn’t find the net so his incredible tally of 30 goals was finally put to bed.

At the tender age of 27, his brief international career was over. 18 months later his professional one bit the dust too. He’d broken his leg for the second time and that put paid to any chance of further records.

France’s love affair with the prolific striker was such that they invited him to take over management of the national team in 1967. This was despite him never having managed any club. His role was as a caretaker and he handed debuts to six players in two matches, which both ended in defeat. After just three months he was dispensed with.

After a couple of club management roles, including Paris St. Germain, he returned to international management in 1979 with Morocco. He lead them to a respectable third place in the 1980 African Cup of Nations and almost into the 1982 World Cup in Spain. They were beaten by Cameroon at the final stage, with Roger Milla scoring in both legs.

He left soon after and that was him for football.

Fontaine is suitably proud of his record, and he has every right to be. He dismisses any notion goals were easier to come by in his day

“No, it wasn’t easier to score in 1958. The state of the ball, the length of the trip over and the amateurism of the backroom staff made everything much more complicated than today. I had somebody else’s boots as well. And the last great World Cup scorer, Ronaldo, played against teams such as China and Costa Rica. Above all else, referees protect strikers much more than they did in my day. So let me repeat it: 13 goals is an enormous total. Beating my record? I don’t think it can ever be done.”

When you analyse his record you discover how incredible it was. 21 caps, nine at home. He failed to score in just six of those games, four of them at home. He scored five hat-tricks including one on his debut. He was on the winning side 12 times, losing just five. France lost just twice when he was on the scoresheet.

His professional career lasted nine seasons in France after three in Morocco. He won the league title four times, the French Cup twice, French Super Cup twice and a European Cup runner-up.

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It really was one of the great careers in football.