July 12th 1998. France have just emphatically beaten Brazil 3-0 to claim the World Cup. Amongst the 80,000 spectators in the Stade de France is a 90 year old who is the only man left of a select brigade of volunteers. He is the sole survivor of the French team which travelled thousands of miles to Uruguay in 1930 to contest the first World Cup, and his name is Lucien Laurent.
His name is destined to remain as more than simply an arcane footnote in a dusty, fading and forgotten reference work. For Lucien is a history maker. It was on July 13th 1930 when he scored the first ever goal in the illustrious, dramatic and -above all -beautiful story of the World Cup.
Perhaps it was fitting on that memorable night in Paris twelve years ago that the scorer of the Original Goal was the one player left alive to see his successors become World Champions. As Didier Deschamps hoisted the cup into the Parisian night sky, what was Lucien Laurent thinking? Did his eyes glaze over, his mind drift across the South Atlantic, just like the ship that ferried him to the edge of the football world 68 years previously?
Several European countries had applied to stage FIFA’s new-fangled tournament. However Uruguay, its economy still buoyant thanks largely to the strength of its beef exports, was in a much better financial position to host the competition. When the government guaranteed to pay the expenses of all the participating countries and build a brand new stadium into the bargain, then the matter was settled. FIFA, perhaps in the manner of a hungry European eyeing up a succulent cut of Uruguayan beef, practically bit the government’s arm off and so the inaugural World Cup was off to South America.
Only four European teams were prepared to endure the three week trek to the bustling capital of Montevideo. Yugoslavia, Romania, and the Belgians joined the French as the football task force set off to conquer new territory. Unpaid of course. Laurent was given unpaid leave from his job at the local Peugot factory and received only minimal expenses for the duration of the trip.
The concept of a contemporary footballer preparing to face a three week boat journey to play in a tournament – with expenses only – is of course a non-starter. Managers frequently complain about player boredom during an extended event such as the World Cup and how difficult it can be to remedy this. Just don’t mention the bonuses.
Fifa President Jules Rimet and the European teams arrive in Uruguay
However these were simpler times, the pace of life and the speed of the game much slower. The French trained in the morning time (as best as you could on board a ship), and then availed themselves of whatever entertainment was on offer. That was usually the cinema or the swimming pool. Lucien recalled how much he enjoyed the journey:
“It was like a holiday camp” , he said.
Not exactly ideal preparation for a major tournament by any means, but this was virgin territory for European teams. South American sides like Uruguay and Argentina were already at the forefront of advances in ideas about physical preparation and training camps. This was confirmed as the results unfolded.
The Match and the Goal
When the Comte Verde docked in Montevideo in July 1930 the players and officials were given a noisy welcome and now, at long last for Lucien and his team-mates, the football could begin. The first two matches kicked off simultaneously as France played Mexico and the USA faced Belgium. Unfortunately the Centenario stadium was still a few days short of completion, and so the early matches were played at the grounds of the Penarol and Nacional clubs.
In what was possibly the only World Cup match to have been played in the snow (it was wintertime in the Southern Hemisphere), France and Laurent began the match with little concept of creating history. Would the World Cup even be around in four years’ time?
The defining moment of Laurent’s career occurred in the 19th minute. In a 1998 interview with a British newspaper, Lucien, then 91 years old, recalled with remarkable lucidity that the goal which literally kicked off the World Cup wasn’t “anything special.”
“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 told The Independent.
“Of course, back then I couldn’t have imagined the significance the goal would have. I remember when I got home, there was just a tiny mention in one of the papers. [Soccer] was in its infancy.”
How did his team-mates react?
“Everyone was pleased but we didn’t all roll around on the ground – nobody realised that history was being made. A quick handshake and we got on the with game.
A Gallic shrug of the shoulders in the face of football immortality. France went on to win the game 4-1.
That was the high point of the Frenchman’s World Cup. He missed his country’s third and final match against Chile after receiving a nasty ankle injury in the previous game against Argentina. In total he played ten times for France and scored just one other goal to add to his Montevideo volley. He died in 2005, aged 97.
The game of football, its tactics and trappings, is barely recognisable from the version of it played in 1930. At the time of the 1998 World Cup, Laurent was asked what he thought about the ‘modern game’:
“It has developed enormously in terms of fitness, technique and tactics. But today there is too much negativity and cynical play. We used to bump into each other, not much more than that, there was no real tackling. We had respect for our opponents and for the referee. In the modern game there are no wingers: it’s the fullbacks who penetrate down the flanks as they say, but they can’t replace a good winger.
Who could blame him for lamenting the demise of the classic winger? After all, it was from a wide man’s cross that he scored THAT precious goal.
It was a simple strike from twelve yards, the kind you‘ve seen a thousand times. Yet even though we’ll never have the privilege of seeing it on film, recollection of that goal must never be allowed to cease. It should be passed down by word of mouth and in print from generation to generation and carved forever on the marble of World Cup memories.