Missing Medals: Just Fontaine in the 1958 World Cup

A World Cup has never seen the same explosive firepower from one man since Just Fontaine went to Sweden in 1958. The France striker had one of the greatest tournaments any individual has ever had at the international tournament. Fontaine rattled the net a record 13 times in the only six games he ever played at a World Cup, but ultimately this wasn’t enough to bring the Jules Rimet trophy back to Paris, as Fontaine and his side were knocked out at the semifinal stage by eventual winners Brazil. This meant that one of the greatest ever World Cup performances, Just Fontaine in 1958, went without the medal he perhaps deserved.

As odd as it may seem looking back at history, this performance may not have ever happened, as Fontaine made only five international appearances before the tournament in Sweden and scored only one goal for his national team in four years prior to it. One may think that scoring a hat trick on your international debut would put you in the spotlight, but Fontaine achieved this in a dead rubber 1954 World Cup qualifier against the lowly Luxembourg, where France ran out 8-0 winners.

Nonetheless, Fontaine was in spectacular form for his club. 39 goals for Stade de Reims helped the French club win a league and cup double. In Sweden, he formed a great partnership with Raymond Kopa, one of the best creative midfielders of the time and was an integral part of three of Real Madrid’s five consecutive European Cup victories.

France’s campaign got off to a shaky start. Paraguay took a 3-2 lead against them early in the second half of their Group 2 opener, but France recovered well and made a statement to the rest of their competitors by storming to a 7-3 victory with Fontaine scoring three. The French were then narrowly defeated by Yugoslavia in their next match, but Fontaine still put himself on the scoresheet twice, including an 85th minute equaliser to make it 2-2 before France were sucker-punched with a winning goal from Veselinovic three minutes later. Fontaine assured his team of progression to the knockout stages with his crucial headed goal against Scotland in a game that finished 2-1.

France played Northern Ireland in the quarter final, and they were probably the easiest opponents the French could have drawn, as the Irish had to win an extra group round play-off match with Czechoslovakia which went to extra time to qualify. Although they were exhausted from playing three games in five days, Northern Ireland did boast a talented squad that, under normal circumstances, may not have fallen to the 4-0 defeat to Fontaine’s side that they did. Nevertheless, Fontaine scored another two goals that took France to a semifinal date with Brazil, including one following a fabulous turn that Johan Cruyff would be proud of, leaving the defence for dead.

The Brazilians impressed massively in Sweden, with Didi, Vavá, Garrincha, and a 17-year-old Pelé in their ranks. Aside from their attacking threat, Brazil had a resilient defence which hadn’t been breached before their game with France. After making a brilliant run behind the defence that only the best finishers in the game could make, Fontaine collected a sublime through pass from Kopa, as though he knew the pass was coming before Kopa had even turned away from the first defender he fooled.

In the end, the Brazilian skill proved too much for Fontaine’s team, storming to a 5-2 victory, putting France into the third place playoff with West Germany. Four years earlier, Sandor Kocsis scored 11 goals in Hungary’s runner-up campaign, setting the record for most goals scored in a single World Cup. For Fontaine to achieve the record he needed to score three against the winners of the 1954 edition of the tournament. Fontaine did this and more, scoring four in a 6-3 win that guaranteed France their third place finish, and Just Fontaine’s place in history.

Since then, Gerd Muller came close in 1970 with only 10 goals, and Ronaldo scored 8 in Japan/Korea 2002, but it will take an incredible solo performance to better the record set by Just Fontaine.


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