Jules Rimet: The man who kicked off the World Cup

He never kicked a ball in anger. But Jules Rimet believed football had the ability to unite nations. John Lichfield reports

Monday 05 June 2006 00:00 BST

In the small village of Theuley-les-Lavoncourt in eastern France stands a monument to a local man who changed the world.

The monument takes the form of a grassed football penalty area, complete with a replica goal, and a portrait of a man who never kicked a ball in anger in his life.

His name was Jules Rimet. Of all the Frenchmen who touched the consciousness of the world in the last century - Charles de Gaulle, Henri Matisse, Marcel Proust - M. Rimet reached more people, in more countries, more lastingly than any other. His child - or monster - will make one of its four-yearly explosions into the world's rapt gaze from this Friday. M. Rimet, a grocer's son who became a lawyer, invented the World Cup.

His grandson, Yves Rimet, 74, who remembers his grandfather well, describes him as a "humanist and idealist, who believed that sport could unite the world. Unlike many others in his time, he realised that, to be truly democratic, to truly engage the masses, international sport must be professional. All the same," M. Rimet said. "my grandfather would have been disappointed with the money-dominated business that football has become. That was not his vision." To the end of his life in 1956, Jules Rimet predicted that international football would re-create the spirit of medieval "chivalry". Sport - and above all football - would be the means to teach the world's masses to appreciate the Christian virtues of hard work, honesty, obedience to rules, comradeship and fair play.

Oh dear. M. Rimet helped to change the world but not quite in the way he intended. International football and the World Cup will unite the globe for the next month. Some of the "Rimet" qualities will be on display. But a new chivalry? The name Jules Rimet has not been forgotten by English people of the 1966 generation, the only generation to see the World Cup won by the country of football's birth. It will always be "the Jules Rimet trophy" which was held aloft by Bobby Moore at Wembley in July 1966.

This absurdly small, winged statuette was stolen in London in the run-up to the 1966 World Cup and later rediscovered by a dog called Pickles.

When M. Rimet crossed the Atlantic in a steamship to the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930, he carried that small trophy in his bag. It was later presented permanently to its serial-winners, Brazil.

But who was Jules Rimet? And how did a man who never played football (his sports were fencing and running) come to invent a competition that transformed football into the international business, and obsession, which we know today? M. Rimet was born in Haute-Saone in eastern France in 1876. He was the son of a poor grocer, who migrated to Paris when Jules was 11 years old. Unlike many of the figures who dominated the administration of international sport at that time - such as Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman who re-invented the Olympic Games - M. Rimet was not an aristocrat but a self-made man. That fact enormously influenced his attitudes to sport.

M. Rimet regarded the obsession of M. Coubertin, and others, with the preservation of amateurism in sport as a form of snobbishness and social exclusion. He believed, like them, that sport could channel and mellow the virulent nationalism which had disturbed the 19th century but only if it reached out to all social classes.

Young Jules studied hard and became a succesful lawyer in Paris. In 1897, when only 24, he started a sports club in the Paris suburbs called Red Star, which offered a number of activities and did not refuse members on the grounds of class. Crucially, M. Rimet decided that one of the sports played at Red Star should be football, which was spreading fast across Europe and the world from its beginnings in English public schools and the first professional league - the Football League - in the north and midlands of England.

Football's reputation in polite society in France at the time was appallingly low. It was looked down on by the French middle classes as a game for thugs, professionals and Englishmen.

M. Rimet and others were instrumental in developing the game in France and in the first efforts to create a world football body, the Federation International de Football Association in 1904. From the beginning, Fifa had vague plans for a world football competition but allowed itself to be sucked instead into an amateur football tournament within the Olympic Games.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 exploded the efforts to create a codified, world game. M. Rimet fought as an officer throughout the war, winning the Croix de Guerre. Paradoxically, the war showed that football had already become a world game. British and German soldiers played football in No Man's Land at Christmas in 1914.

After the war, in 1919, M. Rimet became the first president of the Fédération Française de Football (FFF) and, two years later, the head of the revived world body, Fifa. He remained president for 33 years, until 1954, taking the number of member countries from a dozen to 85.

He pushed once again the idea of a world football tournament but was opposed bitterly by both Baron Coubertin (and the militant amateurs) and by the Football Association in England. The FA had left Fifa after the war, partly because the English game (and the Scottish and Welsh games) did not want to associate with former enemies, partly because there was an assumption that the "foreign" game was weaker and, therefore, irrelevant.

M. Rimet pushed on regardless. "My grandfather was a gentle man but also a tough one," said Yves Rimet. "He was a lawyer. He was difficult to argue with because he never gave up. He got on with the English officials individually but found them impossible as an institution. But then, that is the story of Anglo-French relations, isn't it?" In 1928, Fifa decided to go ahead with the first World Cup competition. Because the Uruguayan government offered to pay all travel expenses - and because the professional game was highly developed in South America - Fifa agreed to stage the tournament in Uruguay.

The decision was bitterly opposed by many European federations. There was no air travel in 1930. Clubs would lose their players for almost three months as they sailed across the Atlantic and back again. Only four European countries participated: France, Belgium, Romania and Yugoslavia.

The final - won by the hosts, Uruguay, against Argentina - caused riots in both countries. The tournament was nonetheless judged a great sporting and commercial success. The World Cup never looked back. Controversy muddied the next two tournaments. Benito Mussollini turned the 1934 competition in Italy - the first to have qualifying rounds; the first final to be broadcast on radio - into a fascist jamboree.

M. Rimet was criticised for turning a blind eye to this "politicisation" of football. There were even, unfounded, suggestions that he had fascist sympathies.

Politics invaded the pitch again four years later. The German team gave Nazi salutes before the 1938 games in France. Austria had qualified to take part but had been swallowed up by Nazi Germany before the finals began.

M. Rimet pushed on regardless. His vision of a football World Cup as a force for peace survived the Second World War. According to his grandson, he was terribly proud that Fifa had emerged unscathed from the conflict while the League of Nations disappeared.

In 1950, in Brazil, even England joined in, proving the native game's effortless superiority by losing 1-0 to the United States.

Jules Rimet was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1956 but was rejected by the Norwegian jury. No prize was awarded that year. Some say that the controversy over the 1934 "fascist" World Cup ruined his chances.

Yves Rimet remembers his grandfather as a man who was more interested in literature than in sport. He was a devout Catholic and a Christian Democrat, who rejected politics as "too dirty" and tried to achieve humanist goals through football without, it is said, being very impressed by football as a spectacle.

"I remember him taking me on to his knee and he would talk to me about poetry, about books, about music, about nature, but never about football and never about his achievements at Fifa," says Yves Rimet .

In terms of uniting the world, and blunting xenophobia, M. Rimet's vision could be said to have been achieved beyond his wildest dreams. There are now 300 million registered football players in the world. The commercialisation of the game has internalionalised it as never before.

What would M. Rimet have made of Old Trafford singing the Marseillaise to honour Eric Cantona or Arsenal fielding a team entirely composed of foreigners? On the other hand, the behaviour of some players, and some supporters, over the next month, can be confidently expected to fall short of M. Rimet's standards.

He once predicted that, through football, the human race would one day achieve a state of humanist grace in which "men will be able to meet in confidence without hatred in their hearts and without an insult on their lips."

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