An exceptional career, cut short

FRENCH soccer legend Just Fontaine's 1958 record for goals scored during a World Cup still stands today. And no one — not even Ronaldo — can top it, he says.

FRENCH soccer legend Just Fontaine's 1958 record for goals scored during a World Cup still stands today. And no one — not even Ronaldo — can top it, he says.

Former soccer legend Just Fontaine (middle) of France is flanked by other former soccer players (from left), Portuguese Ferreira Eusebio, Michel Platini and Roger Piantoni (both France) and Yugoslav Josip Skoblar, at a party to celebrate the record 13 goals Fontaine scored at the 1958 World Cup. — Pic. AFP-

"Had Ronaldo been 100 per cent fit he might have beaten it last year, but his chance has gone now," said Fontaine, who scored 13 goals in just six games as France reached the World Cup semifinals.

At age 70, Fontaine held a huge bash recently to look back on the good times of his career, dramatically cut short when he was only 28. Soccer lost one of its most lethal strikers the day Fontaine suffered a horrendous leg fracture after a mistimed tackle in March 1960. His impact has never been forgotten.

Soccer legends such as England 1966 World Cup winner Bobby Charlton, Portugal's Eusebio and France's Michel Platini were on the guest list for the gala party in the southern French city of Toulouse.

"You know, I'm getting old now," Fontaine said. "I won't have too many more chances to throw parties like this."

Only a few journalists were invited to the homage. Beforehand, Fontaine described his plans for reel images beamed on giant screens for the guests. Even on grainy old film, two things would surely have stood out — Fontaine's lightning pace and ruthless finishing.

Among the footage: Fontaine's hat-trick against Paraguay, his double-barrelled blasts against Yugoslavia and Scotland, his single strikes against Scotland and Brazil, and his remarkable four-goal feast against West Germany.

"I still get four letters a week from Germany," Fontaine said. "They ask me how I scored four goals against a German team. I don't think they can quite understand it. They think it is strange."

At Fontaine's sun-drenched holiday home along the French Riviera, among the reams of newspaper cuttings, framed jerseys and dusty French caps, a rifle takes a pride of place in the living room. The rifle has a special meaning.

"In 1957, there was no official award for the top-scorer, which is ridiculous," he said. "But a group of Swedes took me to one side and gave me a gold-plated rifle, to say I was the best shooter in the tournament. It was a remarkable gesture."

Fontaine was not alone in dominating the headlines in 1958. Just as he was reaching his soccer peak, another star was beginning his ascendancy — Brazilian legend Pele.

Pele was just 17 when he burst on to the world stage, inspiring Brazil to victory the year Fontaine obliterated scoring records.

Fontaine witnessed Pele's brilliance up close when the teenager scored a hat-trick as Brazil beat France 5-2 in the semifinal.

"As soon as he touched the ball, you knew he was destined for greatness," Fontaine said. "He had an incredible technical grace, he would flip the ball over people's heads and run around them. And he made it all look so ridiculously easy."

During an international career spanning from 1953 to 1960, Fontaine scored a total of 30 goals, including five hat-tricks, in only 21 games for France. "I was at my peak," he said, recalling the injury that dimmed his legacy. "Who knows how many goals I could have scored."