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Why Football May Still Be Coming Home…To France

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The author, Jonathan Ervine, is a Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies, Bangor University. This article was originally published in The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community.

When England hosted the 1996 European Championships, a song by Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds inspired the popular chant: “football’s coming home”. Ahead of England’s World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia, many fans were again talking about football coming home. But were they right to do so? After all, there is a chance that football will still be coming home – despite England’s elimination.

Given their team’s recent performances and their country’s role in the history of football, the French also have reason to feel that football may soon be “coming home”. This idea may be hard to swallow for some English fans, not least those who are getting the lyrics wrong.

Jules Rimet – the World Cup founder mentioned in the chorus of Football’s coming home – was French. So was Henri Delaunay, who is generally seen as the brains behind the European Championships. So was Gabriel Hanot, the L’Equipe journalist credited with founding the European Cup (now Champions League). Indeed, football’s world governing body the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, better known as FIFA, was founded in Paris in 1904 and its first president was another French journalist, Robert Guérin.

France has had a long history of establishing international sports tournaments and organisations. This in part stems from influential Frenchmen in the late 19th century such as Philippe Tissié, Paschal Grousset, and Pierre de Coubertin who became convinced of the educational and physical benefits of sport.

The first World Cup trophy was named after Jules Rimet, FIFA president 1921-1954. BnF

De Coubertin is best-known as the founder of the modern Olympics and he initially wanted the first games to take place in Paris, to coincide with the city’s 1900 Exposition Universelle. For De Coubertin and others, the development of international sport provided France with an instrument of soft power.

England were at this time somewhat suspicious of international sporting organisations, as the football sociologist John Williams has mentioned. It didn’t send a team to the World Cup until 1950, fully 20 years after the first tournament in Uruguay.

Nonetheless, England is often perceived as the home of football due to its role in the early development of the game. Sheffield FC (founded 1857) is heralded as the world’s first football team. The Football Association (FA), established in 1863, is the oldest national football association in the world and it is the FA that helped create the basis for the rules of football that exist today.

France’s oldest football team Le Havre were in fact created in 1872 by Englishmen working in the city’s port. Their sky blue and navy halved shirts represent the alma mater of the club’s founders, namely the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Le Havre’s club anthem even adopts the same tune as “God Save the Queen”.

Just Fontaine scored a record 13 goals for France at the 1958 World Cup. wiki

However, Williams was right that it is not easy to define where football’s true home is to be found. The line “football’s coming home” appears to hint at a sense of entitlement and ownership when it comes to England’s relationship with football.

Yet football is a global game. Its governing body FIFA may have been founded in Paris, but its headquarters are now located in Zurich, Switzerland. England is no longer home to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) that is responsible for the laws of football. Its headquarters are now also in Zurich.

‘Never understood anything about football’

Given the role that France has played in football becoming a major international sport, are many French people talking about football potentially “coming home” this summer? In short, they’re not. This is largely due to football occupying a very different place in French as opposed to English culture.

France has a larger population than England, but less than half as many professional football teams. Prior to the launch of cable channel Canal Plus in 1984, relatively little domestic football was shown on French television. Nevertheless, hosting and winning the 1998 World Cup led to increased interest in football.

Since then, high-profile failures in several major tournaments have led to France’s leading footballers facing lots of criticism back home over their bad attitudes. In 2012, French football magazine So Foot hit back and claimed that France was a “country that has never understood anything about football”. These comments appeared in a special issue on “Why France doesn’t like its footballers”. France was also described in the title of a book that year by the journalist Joachim Barbier as “This country that doesn’t like football”, or Ce pays qui n’aime pas le foot, subtitled “why France misunderstands football and its culture”.

At a time when France has faced economic challenges and an increased threat from terrorism, football has the potential to boost the national mood. This year’s World Cup Final will take place the day after a national holiday that marks Bastille Day. A victory by Les Bleus would give France good reason to claim le football revient chez lui two decades after its iconic 1998 World Cup victory.

Jonathan Ervine
Jonathan is currently conducting research into multiculturalism and humour in France, and also interactions between football and videogames in France and the UK.

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