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Football for football players

The idea for this article was born within the framework of the unfolding events in Bulgaria in recent weeks and months. With it we want to give an example of how it is possible for people to reclaim their usurped freedoms and to give back the love and pleasure that has been taken away from them. Or, if nothing else, at least to try – an act that would undoubtedly have repercussions and consequences in the future. For insolence, brazenness and recklessness have long since overflowed the cup of our perpetually puffed-up football bosses. 

The powerful wave of protest that swept France in the spring of 1968, when millions of workers went on strike, students occupied the universities, the President fled the country and it seemed on the verge of a revolution did not bypass football. The wave of strikes was at its height, on 24 th May, Paris became the scene of violent street battles between barricaded demonstrators and the police forces. The stock exchange was set on fire. The occupied headquarters of the French Football Federation (FFF) became part of the violent rhythm of the rebel movement and was transformed into a democratic agora.

From 22nd to 27th May 1968 the FFF was occupied by a group of protesting players. On 22nd May, at about 8 a.m, exactly two months after the student movement began, a small group of football players arrived in the posh Latin Quarter at 60 Jena Avenue with the firm intention of occupying the FFF headquarters and taking over the premises. Outside, leaflets were handed out to passers-by. Federation officials were gathered in a room inside the building. The secretary general of the federation, Pierre Delaunay, and Georges Boulogne, the national selector, were isolated in a separate room. The entrance to the building was barricaded, then two banners were lowered. They issued a communiqué:

“We, the players belonging to the various clubs in the Paris region, have decided today to occupy the FFF headquarters. Just as workers occupy their factories and students occupy their faculties. Why? To give back to the 600 000 thousand French footballers [at that time, that was the number of licensed French players] and their thousands of friends what belongs to them: the football that the members of the federation have taken from them to serve their selfish, profiteering interests. Now it is up to us: players, coaches, small club managers, countless friends and fans of football, students and workers to preserve the quality of our sport by joining us.
We demand the immediate sacking [by a referendum of 600,000 footballers, controlled by themselves] of the profiteers of football and the enslavers of footballers and free football from the corruption of the money of the pathetic self-proclaimed owners who are at the root of football’s decay. We also demand subsidies from the state to provide to all other sports and which the Federation’s rulers have never claimed. For football to remain ours, we call on you to immediately join us at the Federation’s headquarters, at 60 Avenue Jena in Paris, which has once again become your home. United, we will once again make football what it has never ceased to be, the sport of joy, the sport of tomorrow’s world that all workers have begun to build. All to 60th Avenue, Jena!”

The federation, owned by 600,000 footballers, Footballer Action Committee

This document denounced the commitment of football’ bosses to political power. Coach Georges Boulogne was described as the head of the coaching mafia who reserved the best paid positions for his cronies. As for Pierre Delonnet, he was compared to the vulgar Louis XVI, as he “inherited” the position of UEFA Secretary General (1956-1959) from his father Henri Delonnet, who was the first Secretary after the body’s foundation on 15 June 1954 until his death on 9 June. November 1955.

After the officials had been hastily “dismissed”, Georges Boulogne and Pierre Delaunay also left the building in the late afternoon. Discussions began inside. This continued for several days. All went well, heated arguments take place about what football should look like. Films of international matches were shown. It’s was topped off with a game of tag.

The idea for this coup actually came from sports journalists from the monthly ‘Le Miroir du football’ (The Mirror of Football), which was left-wing. This magazine stood for the idea of a beautiful game that was creative, not physical. It criticised the imposition of domination and authoritarianism by the ‘chiefs’ of French football – businessmen, politicians and technocrats, always ready to exploit or manipulate athletes.

So who were the players that took the FFF by storm? What were their demands? Almost the entire group of protesters were from amateur clubs in the Paris region. Andre Merrell and Michel Oriot, the only two professional players taking part in this occupation, played for Red Star, the legendary club from the Saint-Ouen district. Unlike that of the students and workers, the players’ May ’68 was not a mass movement. Essentially, it remained confined to Paris and even Avenue Yenne. In the rest of the country, about 200 players gathered in Saint-Bryoc Brittany, but this was by far the only echo the movement encounters outside the capital. Both the student movement and the football movement, through the idea of more recreational football, dream of direct democracy and the rejection of all hierarchy.

“Players are slaves!” railed Raymond Coppa in 1963, earning him a six-month suspension and causing footballers playing in France to rebel against their professional status. One of their main demands was to abolish the “lifetime contract” which bound a player to his club until the age of thirty-five without any possibility of development. And added to this was  the issue of players’ wages, which were on average only 20% higher than the then minimum wage. Consequently, the footballer was just a mere commodity who had to follow the whims of his employer, with no right to negotiate.

But the fight did not stop. In the process, the Footballers’ Action Committee was transformed into the French Footballers’ Association, an organisation chaired by Juste Fontaine, former goal scorer for Reims and France. From then on, it was up to it to implement the demands of the movement.

This episode, although modest, was enough to shake up the structure of French football. As for what was achieved, we can see the same results as with the other strikers: immediate concessions, in longer or shorter terms, by the FFF and, especially, many reforms were carried out in the following months and years to a greater or lesser extent in line with the demands of May’68. This is how it was achieved until the abolition in 1969 of the “contract for life”, replaced by a free fixed-term one. In 1972, club presidents resisted to challenge it, which was followed by a players’ strike, which in turn succeeded in uniting them.

Another notable change was the resignation of the controversial Pierre Delaunay, until then secretary general of the federation. The authorities also tried to keep the amateur protesters away from the field. The League of Paris suspended their licenses for a time. It was trying to hold up the start of the 68-69 season. So the 1970s became a great moment of revolutionary offensive, where the Progressive Football Movement (PFD) tried to attack the firm and rigid foundations of French football.

It was a breath of fresh air, both in terms of the direction the game should have been heading and the way in which the authoritarian governance of the clubs was challenged. But struck not only by its internal constraints but also by the capitalist organisation of both football and society, the PFA gradually disintegrated in the late 1970s.

Football is but one reflection of modern capitalist society and it seems impossible to attempt to change it without also attempting to change society itself. Nevertheless, the PFA remains a significant example of political intervention in football.

It is up to us, ordinary working people, to think about the ideas and actions we want to take against capitalist relations, exploitation and, in particular, the football they offer us, beyond the clichéd slogans of ‘For a popular sport’ or ‘Against modern football’.

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