Fontaine playing for the national team.
Fontaine playing for the national team.

The other side of Just Fontaine

Just Fontaine: football legend and union leader

French football legend Just Fontaine passed away on March 1, 2023. This Moroccan-French striker will always be remembered for his astonishing performance in the 1958 World Cup, where he scored 13 goals, making him the record holder for most goals in one single edition of the cup. Fontaine, though, became one of those special players who continued to change the sport even after his retirement.

In this article, we pay tribute to one of the greats, and tell the story of Fontaine’s activism and fight for footballers’ rights.

Unrivaled on the pitch

Fontaine was born in 1933 in Marrakesh, part of the then French Protectorate of Morocco. After a brief stint at USM Casablanca, he was quickly recruited to play for the French side Nice (where he achieved 2 cup wins). He continued, and finished, his club career at Stade de Reims, where he managed to also win the Ligue 1 twice. Most impressive is his performance for Les Blues. Representing France he secured his record at the 1958 World Cup, and managed to score 4 goals against defending champions West Germany. Forced to retire due to a severe injury, Fontaine went on working in football from the sidelines, managing Toulouse, the Moroccan national team and managing PSG and helping it get to the Ligue 1. 

His other side: supporter of just causes

Fontaine was one of those players with a nose for societal issues. The bloody Algerian War of Independence was raging at the height of Fontaine’s football career. Several of his teammates at the French national team decided to leave Les Blues and instead start playing for the newly established team that Algeria was setting up, dubbed ‘the Independence Eleven’. A famous example of such a player was star striker Rachid Mekhloufi, who by leaving the team, ended up leaving his place to Fontaine. This initiative by Mekhloufi and a few more players who joined him was not exactly well received by the French public. Fontaine, being born in a French protectorate, had a natural sympathy with the cause and approached fellow stars Raymond Kopa and Raymond Piantoni to make a gesture. The three stars ended up publishing an open letter on behalf of Les Blues offering their support to Mekhloufi and his teammates. 

A fighter for football players’ rights

Nowadays we are used to reading stories about the luxurious lifestyles and exorbitant salaries top footballers have. But it took a long time until football became a professional sport with decent working conditions and sufficient protections for players. In the times of Fontaine, there were plenty of injustices players had to deal with. The most salient example was that players, when signed to a club, entered into an indefinite contract with no end date. This meant that they were forever linked to the club, limiting their career choices and putting them into a disadvantaged position should they ever want to renegotiate terms. Practically, it also gave disproportionate powers to managers, who could impulsively sell players if there was any kind of conflict with no further consequences. Inspired by these difficulties, Fontaine joined forces with fellow former player Eugène N’Jo Léa and founded the National Union of Professional Football Players in 1961. He presided over the Union from its foundation until 1964 and managed to get a few key improvements for players’ working conditions. This fight for better conditions led in 1972 to their greatest victory: the establishment of time limited contracts for players, granting them much more control over their own careers and greater protection in case of workplace conflicts.

Looking back on his career, Just told Le Monde “Les Bleus were my sole passion. In 1960, injuries forced me to retire from international football. It was a heartbreak.” Fontaine went on to own several sporting goods stores and lived for the last 60 years of his life in the city of Toulouse. Just leaves behind a great legacy, both for the football fans as for fellow football players. 

Thinking points

Just Fontaine is one of those figures who are remarkable on the pitch but also transcend it and make a difference beyond it. In that sense, he sits with players such as Platini, who led the UEFA, Rashford, who has gained fame both for his football and his charity work, and George Weah, who shone as a player and also got elected to his country’s highest office. Do football players have to take on tasks beyond their work? Is activism in football desirable? And how important is it that players use their fame, influence and platform for good? 

Find out more: 

Read here: Fontaine’s obituary on Le Monde
Read this thread by Twitter account Fútbol y Política (in Spanish).

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Fontaine playing for the national team.
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