Lucien Laurent: France’s forgotten World Cup pioneer

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 4, 2018
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Lucien Laurent did not feel the need to celebrate. That was not his way. Instead, as snow fell on the pitch and the crowd shivered, he turned and walked back towards the centre circle. His teammates offered him a pat on the back. And the 1,000 fans in attendance were quiet.

Back home in France, the next day, there was just a brief mention of Laurent in the papers. Few were aware of what he had done and few thought it of great importance. Had they known the significance of his goal, however, things might have been different.

Laurent, on 13 July 1930, had scored the World Cup’s first goal. He was, it seemed, an unlikely man to have done so. Laurent, a rugged inside right, scored only once more during the remainder of his international career. But his name, thanks to a 19th minute strike against Mexico at the Pocitos Stadium in Montevideo, is deeply embedded in football’s history.

Laurent, lucid and cogent even in old age, was fond of describing the goal. “Our goalie kicked it to the [central defender] who switched it to our right winger [Liberati]. He beat the full back and sent over a cross which I managed to volley from about 12 yards into the corner,” Lucien said in a 1998 interview with the Independent.

“Of course, back then I couldn’t have imagined the significance the goal would have. We didn’t even know the World Cup would last. Soccer was in its infancy.”

In the context of the 1930 tournament, Laurent’s goal had little impact. France beat Mexico 4-1 but went on to lose against South Americans Argentina and Chile. Laurent was the victim of a typically robust challenge from Argentine defender Luisito Monti during his side’s second game. He injured his ankle and spent the remainder of the match hobbling – substitutes were not yet permitted.

Laurent would have been forgiven for feeling frustrated. He had taken two months leave from his job as a factory worker for Peugot in Sochaux just to travel to Uruguay. As an amateur footballer, he was not paid. He was given only basic expenses from the French Federation.

But that did not discourage Laurent. Nor did the journey to and from Uruguay. The distance between Europe and South America had deterred other nations: Austria, Hungary, Italy and Spain all passed up the opportunity to take part in the inaugural World Cup. France, though, braved the adventure.

The Conte Verde, a Scottish-built boat, set sail from Genoa in late June 1930. Players of the Romanian national team were on board, and they were soon joined by the French. The boat stopped at Villefranche-sur-Mer, where Laurent and his teammates were picked up. Three referees and a group of officials, including the FIFA president Jules Rimet, also got on. It took three weeks to arrive in Montevideo, by which time the Belgian and Brazilian squads had joined the contingent.

“There was no talk of tactics or anything like that, no coaching,” Laurent said. “It was just running about the boat on the deck. Running, running all the time. Down below we would do exercise – stretching, jumping, running up stairs, lifting weights. There was also a swimming pool there, which we all used until the weather got cooler. And we would be entertained by a comedy act or a string quartet. It was like a holiday camp. We didn’t really realise the full enormity of why we were going to Uruguay. Not until years later did we appreciate our place in history. It was just an adventure. We were young men having fun. The journey on the Conte Verde took 15 days. It was 15 very happy days.”

The players were not alone on the boat. Every morning, they trained on the decks, but they needed to avoid the other passengers – including famous opera singer Feodor Chaliapin – who were intent on enjoying their luxury cruise.

To ensure that they kept up to date with the outside world, newspapers were provided by Augustin Chantrel and Marcel Pinel, two intellectuals in the French squad. By the time they arrived in Uruguay, the players were mentally stimulated, in good physical shape and happy. Laurent later recalled his memories of the journey: arriving at night in the bay of Rio de Janeiro, where fans greeted them from the Sugarloaf mountain; crossing the equator and the fancy-dress ball held in celebration.

Thousands of fans awaited the Conte Verde’s arrival in Montevideo. France were not expected to succeed in South America but, led by Laurent, they impressed in victory over Mexico. Their elimination could not quell the enthusiasm of the players, all of whom had experienced something unforgettable. They were not stars and they did not think of themselves as such. In France, their achievements were hardly recognised. But they had played for the enjoyment of football and travelled in the company of friends.

Laurent was no different. After the World Cup, he continued his amateur career with Mulhouse, Rennes and Strasbourg. He was capped ten times in total for France and scored his second goal in a 5-2 win over England in 1932. The later years of Laurent’s career were interrupted by war. He was called up by the armed forces but fought only briefly. He was captured in 1940 and spent three years as a prisoner of war in Saxony. When Laurent returned, he discovered that his possessions, which had been placed in furniture depository in Strasbourg, had been stolen by the Germans. His 1930 World Cup jersey had gone, too. “Happily, all my memories were there,” he said, “well established in a corner of my old head. No one can steal those from me.”

The experienced hardened Laurent, but he remained the same as ever: a modest, simple man, who seemed indefatigable even as he aged. He briefly coached following his playing career, before becoming a bar proprietor in Besançon.

But he still played football. Every Tuesday. Shouts of “Lulu!” could be heard from a small pitch overlooking the centre of Besançon. When he was interviewed by FIFA magazine in 1989, Laurent was 82-years-old. He remained the best player on the pitch and he was as sprightly as ever.

“My secret is quite simple,” Laurent said when asked about his endurance. “Always keep your sense of humour, take life as it comes, and make the most out of it.” He died in 2005, at the age of 97, the last remaining member of the French team of 1930, and the scorer of the first World Cup goal.

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