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April 26, 2014

Player mobility in the 1930s: the case of France

Guest contribution by Keith Rathbone, PhD candidate in French social and cultural history at Northwestern University. His dissertation, tentatively entitled Playing Soccer during Vichy: Sports, the State, and Society, examines sports in order to better understand civic life under the dual authoritarian systems of the German Occupation and the Vichy Regime.

The French multicultural rallying cry ‘Black-Blanc-Beur’ may no longer be used following some disillusions since the World Cup victory in 1998, but in 2014, as for all previous World Cups, France will line up a team which integrates players of different origins. In fact, France, more than any other country, has long benefited from the movement of football talent across national borders, and not only from its colonies and overseas territories. As early as the 1930s, concurrent to France’s emergence as Europe’s premier immigrant destination, a real trend of immigrant footballers was emerging.

Gusti Jordan, Hector Cazenave, and Miguel Ángel Lauri - three destinies of the 1930s. (Photos: FFF archives).

For the period between the start of professional football in France in 1932 and the Second World War, Marc Barreaud identified, in his Dictionnaire des footballeurs étrangers, 540 foreign players that played for French clubs. The average number of foreign born footballers in the league exceeded 100 annually, with approximately 50 new immigrant players entering and leaving the league per year. Each club commonly employed around seven immigrants, both naturalised and non-naturalised, at any given time. (1)

French teams, both large and small, but particularly the so-called ‘grand clubs’, sought out top foreign talent. Buoyed by the support of their municipal and departmental administrations, clubs used their financial resources to go on spending sprees across Europe, attracting players in countries where professional football remained prohibited or where living conditions lagged behind those in France. A report dated 11 November 1934 and entitled ‘Les Systèmes de recrutement’ from the bimonthly publication of Racing Club de Calais called Le Racing, outlined how French sporting associations identified, developed, and eventually recruited foreign talent, often ‘by correspondence through Viennese, Praguian, or Parisian intermediaries.’ Taking advantage of the political and economic dislocations, these recruiting agents became virtual pipelines of players such that in the 1930s, Austria alone, where football remained amateur only, saw more than one hundred top players leave for France.

In a longitudinal analysis of the transfer market from the 19th century until the present, as provided by the company EyeSeeData (http://eyeseedata.com/football-player-transfers/), a clear pattern emerges: immediately following the professionalisation of football in France in 1932, the number of transfer players to France jumps significantly, making France, throughout the 1930s, Europe’s number one destination for transfers.

The arrival of star immigrant players into French football raised as many difficult questions at that time as it did after the 1998 World Cup victory in Paris. The cases of August ‘Gusti’ Jordan, Hector Cazenave, and Miguel Ángel Lauri are particularly instructive. Jordan, born in Linz, Austria, in 1909 and part of Austria’s ‘Wunderteam’ football generation, was recruited by Racing Club de Paris at the start of the 1933/34 season. In 1938, Gaston Barreau, the long-time coach of the French National Team, persuaded Jordan become a French citizen and to accept a call to the French National Team.

Jordan’s naturalisation spurred a vicious debate in the French sporting press over foreign players. Many French sportsmen accepted it, particularly because of his talent, provided that he professed some minimum commitment to the French nation and its institutions. In an article dated 2 January 1938 and entitled ‘What is a French football player?’, the sports paper L’Auto conceded that bringing Jordan onto the team seemed ‘indecent’ but that since he had spent a significant time in France and ‘came into his own as a midfield policeman in France,’ his naturalisation was acceptable. In fact, the addition of the Austrian, they added, might benefit the French team because he ‘inherited the long football tradition of [Austria].’ Likewise, the great Gabriel Hanot defended Jordan in the extremely popular Football (19 January 1938), laying out his qualifications as ‘Français à tous égards’: he had lived in France for more than five years and fallen in love with the country. He served with the French army for a period of two years – a normal period of enlistment. Hanot rejected the notion that a nation needed to be pure of blood and suggested instead that France needed new blood to deal with their falling natality and their relatively poor performance on the football field. Unsurprisingly, on the extreme right of opinion, others disagreed with Jordan’s naturalisation. The reporter Lucien Dubec thought it was ‘indecent to play Jordan, Austrian for three decades, who just abandoned his country for ours. Not knowing what it means to be French, he cannot hold high our national colours.’ (2)

French fans felt much more comfortable with the naturalisations of ethnically French immigrants. Both Hector Cazenave and Miguel Ángel Lauri immigrated to France from South America where they were born to French emigrés. Sporting (30 November 1937) considered Cazenave an ‘extremely correct man’ who was ‘able to produce papers attesting to his French parentage.’ Lauri, by contrast, had a shaky back story, studiously avoided his mandatory service in the French military, and refused to publically renounce his Argentine citizenship. In spite of Lauri’s inflexibility, no one in the sports press complained about Lauri’s foreignness or attempted to stop him from playing on the French National Team. Unfortunately, as soon as the ‘clarion call’ sounded for Lauri to join the French Army, he fled back to Argentina and re-became Argentinean…

Three quarters of a century later, polemic debates on the ‘Frenchness’ of immigrant players may still be revived once in a while by the Front National. But now that France has no mandatory military service anymore, a story like Lauri’s is no longer likely to happen.

(1) Marc Barreaud, Dictionnaire des footballeurs étrangers: Du Championnat professionnel français (1932-1997) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000), 18-56.

(2) Yvan Gastaut, ‘Auguste Jordan: un Autrichien sous le maillot tricolore au temps des années noires’, http://www.wearefootball.org/PDF/auguste-jordan.pdf)

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