It was a dark day for French football on Wednesday when the passing of the legendary Just Fontaine was announced.
Fontaine – who was born in Morocco to a French father and a Spanish mother but represented France internationally – is best known for scoring the most goals in a single World Cup after he netted 13 times in just six matches in the 1958 edition in Sweden.
His exploits at that tournament were part of a superb, but all too-short international career where he scored 30 goals in just 21 caps.
Fontaine was always destined for stardom for Les Bleus after netting a hat-trick on debut against Luxembourg in 1953.
His performance at the 1958 World Cup – where France eventually lost in the semi-finals to Brazil – sees Fontaine in fourth place in the list of all-time goalscorers at the World Cup, despite featuring in just one tournament.
Legendary former France forward Just Fontaine tragically passed away on Wednesday
Fontaine was best known for scoring a record 13 goals in just six games at the 1958 World Cup
Behind Miroslav Klose, the Brazilian Ronaldo and Gerd Muller, Fontaine is level with Lionel Messi on 13 goals, despite the Argentine playing 20 more matches across five World Cups.
In the 1958 tournament, France beat defending champions West Germany 6-3 in the third place play-off, with Fontaine netting four times in an all-time World Cup classic.
The final goalscorer standings saw him score seven times more than second placed Pele.
Ironically, Fontaine almost missed out on selection by France, but injuries to Thadee Cisowski and Rene Bliard saw him make the squad and then the starting line-up.
‘It was only at the airport before leaving for Sweden that Paul Nicolas (part of the national team staff) and Albert Batteux (the France coach), who didn’t really want me, told me I would be playing as centre-forward,’ Fontaine told AFP in 2013.
Ahead of the 1958 World Cup, the former striker was barely known outside of France, but he managed to tear opponents apart with his pace and clinical nature in front of goal.
He was even forced to borrow someone else’s boots for the tournament, having damaged his own during training.
During the 2014 World Cup, he was presented with a Golden Boot for his record in 1958.
Upon receiving the award on stage from Ronaldo and the former UEFA president Michel Platini, Fontaine said: ‘I am very proud to receive this shoe, unique, it’s good because I too am unique, and the guys next to me who give me the price, are unique.’
Fontaine also enjoyed a prolific club career. After making his name with USM Casablanca in Morocco, he went on to enjoy superb spells with Nice – where he scored 42 goals in 69 appearances for the club – and Reims, netting 122 times in 131 games.
While at Nice, Fontaine spent his three years there mixing football with military service but he was still able to win a French Cup and league title.
Fontaine also enjoyed an extremely prolific club career with USM Casablanca, Nice and Reims
Heading into the 1958 World Cup, he was little-known outside of France but tore teams apart
He then moved on to Reims in 1956 who, at the time were the dominant French side and had just lost to Real Madrid in the first European Cup final.
Fontaine helped to inspire the red and whites to further glory, winning three league titles and a French Cup during his stint at the club.
He also featured in the 1959 European Cup final when – after scoring 10 goals during their run – Reims went down again to Real Madrid, losing 2-0.
The highlight of his time with the club was no doubt in 1958 when they completed a league and cup double and Fontaine netted a whopping 34 times.
However, his career was cut short by injury and Fontaine – renowned for his lightning pace and ruthless finishing – was forced to retire at the age of 28 due to a horrendous leg fracture he suffered following a mistimed tackled in March 1960.
He officially retired in 1962, but had barely played for the previous two years due to the serious injury.
‘We talk a lot about my record but I would definitely have swapped it for another five or six years, because football was my passion,’ he told AFP in 2013.
‘I was at the very top, and I was earning a lot of money at the time. It was not the money you see nowadays, it was five times the minimum wage, whereas now it would be more like one hundred times that.’
This didn’t stop the French legend leaving his mark on the game as he enjoyed managerial stints in charge of France, Luchon, PSG, Toulouse and Morocco.
However, rather bizarrely, he lasted just two games as France boss and was replaced following two friendly defeats.
His spell with PSG was much better as he guided the Parisians into the top flight of French football in 1974.
The high watermark of Fontaine’s time in the dugout though saw him guide Morocco to third place in the 1980 African Cup of Nations.
After leaving the Atlas Lions in 1981 when they were unable to qualify for the 1982 World Cup, the French legend retired to live in Toulouse.
His legacy continued to live on and back in 2004, he was named by another former great Pele as one of the 125 greatest living footballers.
However, Fontaine was heartbreakingly forced to retire after a horrific leg injury aged 28
Fontaine (left) with Brazilian legend Pele (right) pictured in Paris during the 1998 World Cup
Similarly, he was also selected as France’s best player of the last 50 years by the French Football Federation in 2003 at the UEFA Jubilee Awards, beating Platini.
His mark on the game wasn’t limited to the on-pitch success though and in 1961, along with Eugene N’Jo Lea – he founded the National Union of Professional Football Players in France – the French equivalent to the Professional Footballers’ Association.
There is no doubt that French football has lost an absolute giant on and off the pitch, and Fontaine was a player that had his career cruelly cut short by injury when he had so much more to give.
But through it all, his legacy will live on and his exploits at the World Cup alone mean he will go down as one of the greatest French footballers of all-time.
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