Not only did he break new ground with his incredible 13 goals at the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™, but former France legend Just Fontaine still holds the record 50 years on, making his the longest-surviving benchmark in sport. The erstwhile Stade de Reims striker has watched every single FIFA World Cup since then and, as he prepares to celebrate his 75th birthday on 18 August, he admitted his mighty haul half a century ago now seems like "a spectacular gag".
Born in the Moroccan city of Marrakech to a Norman father and Spanish mother, Fontaine first cut his teeth in the professional game with US Marocaine de Casablanca from 1950 to 1953, before notching 44 goals in three seasons for Nice. In 1956, he joined Reims, the most important club in France at the time, where his remit was to replace Real Madrid-bound forward Raymond Kopa. He succeeded beyond expectations, finding the back of the net 121 times in six seasons, including one year almost entirely lost to a serious leg injury.
In total, the instinctive finisher fired 165 goals in 200 top-flight games, giving him an average of 0.825 strikes per match. He also topped the French scoring charts in both 1958 and 1960, coming second in 1957 and 1959. At the root of his prolific socring rate was an ability to score from any angle, with both feet and his head. "I jump so high to head the ball that when I come down again I have snow in my hair," he joked.
It was with his national team that Fontaine really hit the heights, though, going down in history for his exploits in Sweden. Since 1958, his name and record have been given fresh attention every time the FIFA World Cup rolls around, but that landmark tournament actually began in inauspicious circumstances for the French. As the squad arrived in Scandinavia, many in the national press were backing them to become the first team packing their bags.
Still buzzing after completing a league and cup double with Reims, meanwhile, Fontaine was too distracted to notice that one of his football boots had kicked its last ball. "We only had two pairs at the time, and no sponsors," he said. "I found myself with nothing. Luckily, Stephane Bruey, one of the second-choice strikers, wore the same size as me and lent me his boots. Six matches and 13 goals later, I gave them back. I like to think some of my goals were inspired by combining two spirits inside the same shoe."
"'Justo' was the striker who best suited my style of play," added Raymond Kopa, voted Best Player at Sweden 1958, a tournament which also marked the dawning of a new talent by the name of Pele. "He knew exactly what I was doing and I could be sure of finding him at the end of one of my dribbles."
Sure enough, Fontaine soon began rattling in goals with unerring accuracy, starting with a hat-trick in the 7-3 win over Paraguay and following that up with two more in the 3-2 loss to Yugoslavia. He struck again as France ended the group stage by beating Scotland 2-1 and hit the target twice to help his team eliminate Northern Ireland 4-0 in the quarter-finals. The semi-finals proved a step too far, as France succumbed 5-2 to Brazil, but Fontaine still managed to score once and rounded off his account with four as the French claimed third place with a 6-3 triumph over West Germany.
It was a stunning achievement, made up of seven goals with his right foot, five with his left and one with his head, yet the player himself spared little thought for his tally. The disappointment of losing out to Brazil in the last four would linger for some time. "We lost that game 5-2 but we were playing with ten men for the second half," he said. "Just after I'd equalised to make it 1-1, Robert Jonquet got injured and, at the time, you couldn't substitute an injured player. That match remains a huge regret."
Given the intense emotion of falling short with the prize in sight, no goalscoring feat would have provided consolation: "You know, at the time no one really cared much about the scoring charts. I scored my goals because my understanding with Kopa was good right from the start, because we were all happy to be together and because the team played attacking football. In six games, we struck 23 times."
For Fontaine, that meant a goal in every single match, a record he shares with Jairzinho. His mammoth overall total of 13 could even have been higher too, had he taken the spot-kick against West Germany in France's final outing. "Kopa had been selected to take the penalties before the match," he recalled. "It never would have occurred to me to ask him if I could take it."
Naturally modest, ‘Justo' also believes his exceptional Swedish summer can be explained by the fact that players remained unknown to each other if separated by continents, something unlikely to happen in the modern age: "Everything is recorded and analysed and you know all there is to know about your opponents."
In recognition of his performance, a Swedish newspaper presented Fontaine with a rifle to symbolise his title as top scorer. His living room at Number 13 of a street in Toulouse does boast a golden boot, but it was a present from former England striker Gary Lineker, himself top scorer at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico.
Two years after setting the world alight, the talented marksman registered his 29th and 30th goals for France in a match against Chile in Paris. They would turn out to be his last. Between his debut hat-trick against Luxembourg on 17 December 1953 and his final cap as Les Bleus took on Bulgaria on 11 December 1960, Fontaine made a total of 30 appearances for his country and struck 21 times, resulting in an average of 1.43 goals per game.
He would surely have featured many more times had he not already suffered a severe leg injury earlier in his career, following a late tackle during a championship game with Sochaux. He suffered a double fracture of the tibia and fibula, and despite all the courage and hard work it took to bring him back to fitness, his leg gave way in the same place again on 1 January, 1961, during a comeback match against Limoges. Not yet 27, Fontaine was eventually forced to call time on his career on 5 July 1962. "It's a shame," he explained. "."
He stayed on in the game, though, and notably set up the National Union of Professional Footballers (UNFP), which remains an influential force in French football to this day. Added to that, he emerged with top honours after taking a coaching course and in 1967 became "the most short-lived France coach" of all time, guiding the team for just two friendly defeats before losing his job. In contrast with his scoring exploits, that is one record he would no doubt be glad to part with.
Clubs: US Marocaine (1950-53), Nice (1953-56), Reims (1956-62)
30 goals in 21 appearances for France
Coaching career: France (two matches in 1967), Paris Saint-Germain (1973-76), Toulouse (1978-79), Morocco (1979-81)
Honours: French championship 1956 (Nice), 1958, 1960 and 1962 (Reims), French Cup 1956 and 1958, French Trophy of Champions 1958 and 1960, third place at 1958 FIFA World Cup, top scorer with 13 goals, UEFA European Cup runner-up 1959 (Reims), European Cup top scorer 1959 (ten goals), French top scorer 1958 (34 goals) and 1960 (28 goals).
The French starting XI collected a bonus of 300,000 francs each (around 500 euros) for finishing third at Sweden 1958. The players shared the purse with the other members of the squad.
After breaking his leg twice in the space of nine months (on 20 March 1960 and again on 1 January 1961), Fontaine was forced to retire from the game for good. “I had to give up at the age of 27, an age when other players are coming into their prime,” he recently lamented.
Fifty years on from his record-breaking exploits in Sweden, Fontaine continues to receive around 20 letters a week from admiring fans around the world.
Fontaine’s tally of 13 goals at Sweden 1958 was one more than the entire France team scored in becoming world champions some 40 years later.
Just Fontaine almost missed the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™. After undergoing a knee operation in December 1957, he lost his place in the France squad to his Reims team-mate Rene Bliart. Just before the boat set sail for Scandinavia, however, Bliart severely sprained his ankle, leading to a recall for Fontaine. The rest, as they say, is history.