Should you ever happen to be in Besancon, the pretty watch makers' town in eastern France at the foot of the Jura mountains, try to make sure you are there on a Tuesday. Make a small detour to the pitch adjacent to the Leo Lagrange stadium on the heights overlooking the town.
If you get there between noon and two o'clock you will see a crowd of football-infatuated people of all ages, half of them in yellow jerseys and half in red, going hammer and tongs at each other in a fervently contested game of football. The weekly stakes are a lunch to which the losers have to treat the winner.
In the goal of the yellow team is a man whom everyone calls "Lulu". He is constantly in action. Shouts are heard of: "Lulu, give me the ball! Lulu pass the ball over here", and Lulu manages to do what is required of him with his magical left foot. The amazing fact is that Lulu; who incidentally only took up goalkeeping at an advanced age; will be 82 next December.
His football colleagues are also old timers, but they are still at least 20 years his junior. Lulu's correct name is Lucien Laurent. He could easily be enjoying his retirement in peace in his nice little cottage in the Rue de Belfort with his two grandchildren attending to his comforts. But he wants to show the "boys", what stuff footballers were made of in the old days when the first golden chapters in the annals of the World Championship were written.
One could say that Laurent was one of those who wrote the first lines. On 13 July 1930, the day of the opening match of the first World Championship in Uruguay between France and Mexico, he made history in the Pocitos Stadium in Montevideo at 15.12h.
But why not let him describe this great moment in his own words. "During the first ten minutes the game swayed backwards and forwards with neither of the teams actually taking the lead. Then, all of sudden, Delfour made a breakthrough and passed to Liberati on the right wing. Liberati outran the Mexican outside back and centred the ball. I took the ball straight out of the air and shot it past Bonfiglio, scoring 1-0. In those days, congratulations were not so exuberant as they are nowadays. I got a few pats on the back and that was it".
That was the modest way he went down in history as the first man to score a goal at the World Championship. Although, Laurent was never really a great goal-getter, he was definitely a man, whose presence was felt on all the big occasions.
However, after his historical first goal, he only scored one more in all of the 11 matches he was selected for between 1930 and 1935. This was in 1931 when France beat England 5-2. He was mostly deployed as an outside left or right on the wings, a position which corresponds today to an attacking midfielder.
With his left foot just as strong as his right, his style could be compared to that of Alain Giresse. Lucien Laurent began his career in 1921 in a youth team of the C. A. Paris. There were a few future internationals in the team, including his brother Jean; his peer by 11 months; and Jean Gautheroux. He stayed with C. A. Paris until 1930, after losing in the final of the French Cup to Red Star in 1928.
In 1930, he transferred to F. C. Sochaux and achieved his first cap against Portugal, before being selected for the first World Championship in Uruguay.
A voyage to South America was a veritable adventure in those days. Jules Rimet, who was President of the FIFA and the French FA. at one and the same time, had a lot of trouble trying to get four European countries (Belgium, Yugoslavia, Romania, and France) to compete.
In France, full professionalism had not yet been introduced (this did not come about until 1933), and permission for six weeks' leave had to be obtained from the players' various employers. Laurent had no difficulty here for, along with his three other team mates from Sochaux, he worked for the car manufacturing company Peugeot, which did not wish to stand in the way of its player-workmen participating in the Wold Championship.
They were, in fact, already semi-professionals in as much as they worked in the factory in the mornings but were allowed time off for a two-hour training session three times a week.
The voyage across the Atlantic to Uruguay took weeks. Every morning, the four teams had to share the decks of the Italian liner "Conte Verde" with the other passengers for their football training.
One of these was the famous Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin. The team travelled alone without any accompanying journalists and, therefore Chantrel and Pinel, the two intellectuals on the French team, supplied the Paris news papers with their latest news. There were two events which Laurent remembers vividly, namely their night-time arrival in the bay of Rio de Janeiro and the reception given on the Sugarloaf mountain, as well as the equator crossing and the fancy-dress ball held to celebrate it.
Apparently, spirits were so high and everyone got so merry that the customary morning training session had to be skipped the next day so that the whole crowd could sleep it off. When the "Conte Verde" sailed into Montevideo harbour on July 4, there were thousands of football enthusiasts waiting to welcome the players from Europe, who were all in good shape after their training camp on the high seas.
The draw took place in Montevideo, and France came out with Argentina, Mexico and Chile in the same group. Thanks to a goal by Laurent, followed by three further goals (two by Maschinot and one by Langiller) France came clearly out on top with a 4-1 victory against Mexico before being beaten, after a brave struggle, by the South Americans with the same score of 0-1 each time.
Right at the start of the game against Argentina, Laurent was brutally fouled by the notoriously menacing Monti. This meant that France was compelled to play out the rest of the game with only ten men because the regulations at that time did not provide for the substitution of players. After their elimination, Laurent and his team mates returned to France only to find that their heroic deeds had passed practically unheeded in the press. Things have certainly changed a lot since that first World Championship, when we see what a spectacular event the forthcoming World Cup in Italy promises to be.
Laurent continued his career with Mulhouse, Rennes and Strasbourg, but the war put a temporary end to it. He was taken prisoner by the Germans and spent three years as a prisoner of war. After the liberation, he became player-coach for Besancon. Up to 1957, he coached small amateur clubs until becoming a bar proprietor in Besancon. In 1972, he went into retirement.
He has, however, never once stopped playing. As he proudly points out: "My son is a chemist, but he has never sold me as much as an aspirin. My secret is quite simple, always keep your sense of humour, take life as it comes and make the most out of it. That must be the reason why every Tuesday on the dot of 12 o'clock there is always a ray of sunshine on one of the goals on the sand training pitch of the Leo Lagrange stadium in Besancon. Keep it up Lulu, we hope you will be passing us the ball for a long time yet!
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