In the 1970s the French National team earned an unwanted nickname: ‘The World Champions of Friendlies.’ Despite Les Bleus’ tendency to capitulate when the pressure was on, French influence on footballing history was profound. It was L’Équipe who first instigated a European Cup, France Football’s Ballon d’Or began in 1956 and it was during the presidency of Frenchman Jules Rimet that FIFA first made plans for a World Cup. But for decades, tangible French on-field success was limited. The Champagne football of Stade de Reims however was a crucial outlier. Albert Batteux’s seminal team of the fifties bequeathed French football its identity and, in all likelihood, are largely to thank for the two gold stars now emblazoned on Les Bleus’ shirt.
Between 1949 and 1962, Stade de Reims won six French league championships, a pair of Coupe de France titles and made two European Cup finals, all under the stewardship of Albert Batteux. Batteux, an attacking midfielder and local boy, joined Reims at 18 in 1937 and eventually captained the side to their first title in 1949. Following the Coupe de France win of 1950, Batteux retired but, foreshadowing one of his most famous disciples – Robert Herbin of St Étienne, Batteux was immediately appointed manager by club president Henri Germain.
Understandably, there was internal concern over the then 31-year-old Batteux’s complete lack of coaching experience and the effect his close relationship with what was now his squad would have on performances. However, despite a pair of comparatively underwhelming fourth place finishes, Germain persisted with Batteux who rewarded his president’s faith with the 1953 and 1955 titles, only finishing a point adrift of champions Lille in ’54.
In establishing a dynasty that would last for a decade, Batteux’s team popularised their famed fluid, short-passing, interchanging style known simply as jeu à la rémoise or, more commonly since, Champagne Football.
“We were the disciples of beautiful football, of football à la rémoise,” explained midfielder Michel Hidalgo, as quoted by World Soccer, who spent three seasons at Reims in the mid-fifties. “A short game, played with vivacity and technique. It was sparkling football. Everything was done with quality of play in mind, for the sake of having the ball at your feet and attacking.’”
‘Bébert la Science’, as Batteux was known, would later describe his close relationship with his players as “essential”,stating in his memoirs that “a football team should be managed like a family, we must introduce a sentimental side.”Not strictly wedded to a specific formation, although Reims loosely lined up in the W-M shape characteristic of the period, Batteux focused on style and, pivotally, prioritised emboldening players to carry out his ideas. Batteux’s aim was to “persuade the players that [the coach’s] ideas became their own,” he explained, “and that they play with the feeling that they no longer follow directives, but of obeying their own principles.”
“He was a football intellectual,” explained Aimé Jacquet in L’Équipe, France’s 1998 World Cup winning coach who played under Batteux at St Étienne, “but he had the eloquence to explain his ideas. His words never left me during my coaching career.” Famed France and Reims forward Just Fontaine meanwhile described Batteux as “the best coach I have ever had.”
The Reims side Batteux assembled remains one of France’s best and included imposing centre back Roger Marche, a team-mate of Batteux and known as the ‘Boar of Ardennes’, who was capped 63 times by France and captained the national side at two World Cups. Fellow France stopper, the more refined Robert Jonquet was capped on 58 occasions and captained Reims in both European cup final defeats; Roger Piantoni, who signed from Nancy in 1957, was described by Keir Radnedge of World Soccer as one of the “last great inside forwards” and Just Fontaine, whose 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup remains a seemingly unbeatable record. However, it was forward Raymond Kopa who would become Batteux’s fulcrum.
Born in Nœux-les-Mines as Raymond Kopaszewski, the son of a Polish miner, Kopa’s path to becoming one of French football’s greatest was a meandering one. Having stolen footballs as a child from occupying Nazi forces in World War II, Kopa initially looked to become a carpenter while working as a miner alongside his father and brother during his teens. “I knew that this horrible life would soon be my life, too,” he recounted in his autobiography, as referenced by The New York Times. “I wasn’t at all comforted by the prospect but I was 14, and I knew that my parents expected me to work. They needed the extra money.”
Kopa however found a way out of the profession that would contribute to his father and brother’s early deaths of silicosis at 56 and 64 respectively. After losing a finger in a mining accident, he competed in national football trials, finishing second. “I thought I would get a contract from one of the big northern clubs, Lille OSC, RC Lens, Valenciennes or Roubaix,” Kopa told UEFA.com. “So I was really disappointed when a second division side from Western France, SCO Angers, made me the only offer.” Despite his disappointment, Angers would nevertheless become a home to Kopa, enjoying two superb seasons with the club and living in the city after his retirement. Such was Kopa’s impact, Angers renamed their stadium Stade Raymond Kopa shortly after his death in 2017.
Later nicknamed the “Napoleon of football,” by a British journalist, Kopa was a stocky deep-lying creative forward, an elusive dribbler and boasted the vision and intelligence to dictate games and provide an endless stream of chances. “Dribbling was my key ability, where I could really make a difference.” Kopa remembers. “The media and public at first thought I dribbled too much. But what could I do – this was my main weapon, my way to play the game.” Despite criticism over extensive dribbling, Batteux was so keen for Kopa to express himself that he famously told Kopa he would be dropped if he stopped taking on defenders. “I never dribbled for pleasure but in the interest of the team. I was the greatest collective individualist in French football!”
Despite only playing second tier football with Angers, after 15 goals in 60 games, Reims signed Kopa in 1951. Creating many of Bram Appel’s 30 goals and adding 13 himself, Kopa soon led Reims to the 1953 title before contributing 11 strikes in the 1954/55 league winning season. “We played wonderful attacking football, so-called Champagne football,” Kopa recounts, “We were popular all over France. When we played in Paris, we had twice as many supporters as the Paris clubs.”
Although European success was nothing new to Reims as the first French side to win the Latin Cup in 1953 – a tournament between the champions of France, Spain, Italy and Portugal – as 1955 champions, Kopa and Reims were to be the first to represent France in the new European Cup.
After some declined invitations for this new-fangled competition, English champions Chelsea and Hungarian heavyweights Honved being notable examples, Reims didn’t face a reigning national champion until the final as they dispensed with Aarhus of Denmark 4-2 on aggregate, Hungarian runners up Voros Lobogo 8-6 and Scottish representatives Hibernian 3-0. As a result, the inaugural European Cup final with Real Madrid at Paris’ Parc des Princes on June 13th 1956 was something of a step up.
Although their European exploits heavily affected their domestic form, finishing tenth that season, Reims came excruciatingly close to being crowned European football’s first champions and were 2-0 up on the Madrid of Alfredo Di Stefano and Paco Gento inside ten minutes. Reims’ famed slick pass and move style and some rash goalkeeping from Juan Alonso aided Michel Leblond and Jean Templin in adding early strikes.
But by the half hour mark, Madrid were level. Di Stafano ghosted into the box to slam home on 14 minutes, before Hector Rial’s close range equaliser. Undeterred, Reims again took charge in the second half, Hidalgo’s header making it 3-2 just after the hour but Madrid again counter-punched. An incisive reverse ball from Di Stefano led to a goal-mouth scramble and Marquitos’s scuffed, deflected shot eventually bobbed home five minutes later before Rial slotted a fourth to complete Madrid’s second comeback on 79 minutes. Madrid were champions.
The despair of defeat would soon be doubled for Batteux. Having impressed in France’s surprise 2-1 win over Spain at Real Madrid’s Chamartin stadium in a March 1955 international, Real president Santiago Bernabeu made Kopa a primary transfer target. Despite advances from AC Milan, who approached Kopa’s wife Christine, a huge sum of 52 million francs, obliterating the 38,000 francs Reims paid Angers for Kopa’s services initially, was agreed days before the final in Paris for The Napoleon of Football to move across the Pyrenees to Madrid.
“I was the first French player to leave the country.” Kopa said. “At the time many people took me for a traitor. It was just wrong to be a pioneer.” Over the next three seasons Kopa, paid five times his Reims wage, won three European Cups and a brace of La Liga titles. “Today the media call Real Madrid the Galácticos. I don’t want to take anything away from the present team because I believe Florentino Pérez has done a great job, but really I do believe we were better.” Kopa said in 2011. “We had the greats, Di Stéfano, Puskás, Gento. Our team was better balanced, our defence was excellent with Marquitos, Santamaría, Santisteban.”
Batteux meanwhile masterfully rebuilt Reims to win the title again in 1958, filling the gap left by Kopa with Fontaine. A pacey, exacting finisher, Fontaine, who joined from Nice, offered something different to Kopa’s graceful dribbling, but proved no less effective. Later voted by readers of France Football as France 5th best of all time, Fontaine would grab the footballing world’s attention at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Forming a lethal double act with the creative Kopa, the Moroccan born striker contributed a mammoth 13 goals as France, then also managed by Batteux, charged into the semi-finals.
“I scored 34 goals in 26 league games, ten goals in the cup and we won the double,” Fontaine remembered in France Football, having only found his way into the national team due to injuries. “Then I scored 13 World Cup goals and I got goals at the start of our European Cup campaign, finishing the competition as top scorer with ten – what more could I have done?!” That devastating strike rate continued across Fontaine’s career, scoring 30 times in just 21 internationals and 256 goals in 284 club games, including 143 in 153 during six seasons with Reims. “When I was one on one with the goalie, I didn’t think about what I should do next,” Fontaine explained to the AP. “I didn’t need to because I knew I would score.”
Having won Group 2, thrashing Paraguay 7-3 along the way, and dispensing with Northern Ireland in the quarter-finals, France met Brazil and a 17-year-old Pele in the last four. Brazil ran out 5-2 winners but Fontaine and co. remained rueful after, in the days before substitutions, Jonquet suffered a terrible leg break in the first half with the scores at 1-1. The burgeoning Kopa-Fontaine partnership had proven slippery for the eventual winners, but France’s ten men were unable to cope. Batteux’s French team, heavily influenced by his Reims side also featuring Roger Piantoni and Roger Marche amongst others, put six past Germany four days later to finish third. A performance not surpassed by Les Bleus until 1998.
Roommates for the tournament, Kopa and Fontaine became fast friends and fostered a telepathic understanding that would benefit both France and, eventually, Reims. “He [Kopa] was like an older brother,” Fontaine later explained to France Football. “In ‘58 we shared the same room, we spent nights talking football. Raymond had character, I did too and we made a magic duo… He dribbled and I scored.”
As ‘58 French Champions, Reims again headed for Europe in the 1958/59 season. After simple 10-3 and 7-0 aggregate early round wins over Ards of Northern Ireland and HPS of Finland, resistance came via Belgian champions Standard Liège in the quarter-finals. 2-0 down from the first leg, one from Piantoni and a brace from Fontaine at Reims’ Stade Auguste Delaune in the return put Batteux’s charges through to the last four where they again overcame a first leg deficit to oust Young Boys Bern.
Reims would again meet Madrid in the final, this time in Stuttgart. On this occasion however, with Kopa starting for Madrid, Batteux’s side would fail to trouble the three times reigning champions as Di Stefano again led the charge, scoring the second to aid Madrid’s comfortable 2-0 victory.
Having won the 1958 Ballon d’Or before finishing second in ‘59 to Di Stefano, Kopa would repeat his decision before the ‘56 final and sign for the opposing team in the aftermath. “Today’s professionals have an easier time when they retire. I was an exception in the late 1960s. I decided not to accept a second three-year contract with Real in order to come back to France and prepare for the next phase of my professional life.” And that Kopa did. Although he played professionally until 40 (and continued playing organised football into his seventies), Kopa became an influential member of the players’ union, started his own sportswear label, launched a fruit juice brand, later took part in the Paris-Dakar rally and was the first footballer to be awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 1970.
Although Kopa’s return aided two more on-field triumphs via 1960 and 1962 French titles, further European glory was not forthcoming for Batteux’s Reims and Batteux eventually left in 1963. Although his now famed Champagne football was criticised, much as it later was at St Etienne, for being a little too neat, lightweight and polite, Batteux was offered the Barcelona job but declined to stay in France with newly relegated Grenoble before joining Les Verts in 1967.
Batteux’s departure marked a sharp decline for France’s most successful club. As many of Batteux’s key men left, Reims were disastrously relegated under new coach Camille Cottin in 1964, Kopa was the only stalwart to remain but eventually departed in 1967, his international career halted by injuries and disagreements with the FFF hierarchy. Fontaine meanwhile was forced to retire in 1962 at just 29 after a horrible leg break in a 1960 league match with Sochaux. “I was at the other end of the pitch,” Reims keeper Dominique Colonna remembered in France Football, “I can still hear the sound of the fracture in my head. It was terrible.”
After just one season back in the top flight during the sixties, Reims returned for nine years of mid-table mediocrity in the seventies before being relegated for good in 1979. Spiralling debts saw the club suffer judicial liquidation and dropped further down the divisions in 1991 before, after a 33-year absence, fighting their way back to Ligue 1 in 2012.
Regardless of their absence, the legacy of Batteux’s Reims and Champagne football played a pivotal role in revitalising French football in the final third of the twentieth century. Batteux again successfully implemented his ideas at St Étienne in the late sixties, spawning France’s next great dynasty, winning a hat-trick of league titles and a pair of Coupe de France trophies. One of Batteux’s greatest disciples and Les Verts’ captain, Robert Herbin, would assume command in 1972 and win four more titles, three more French cups and take his freewheeling St. Étienne to 1976 European Cup final.
Although ASSE were denied by Bayern Munich and Hampden Park’s square goalposts, St Étienne were – much like Reims – the only outlier in a fallow period for French football and Les Bleus in particular, who only qualified for two more World Cups between 1958 and 1982, winning just one finals game in that period. After a remarkable series of European comebacks at the boisterous Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Les Verts became France’s team and were paraded along the Champs-Elysee in front of tens of thousands despite the defeat at Hampden. “I applied the football of Batteux and [previous coach Jean] Snella because their conception of football was also mine.” Herbin later told Le Progrès.
Many of those nurtured by Batteux and Herbin would become key to a resurgent France in the 1980s. Ten of the 1982 World Cup squad that reached the semi-finals played under Batteux or Herbin at St Étienne at some stage, six (plus Rocheteau who had by then joined PSG) were drawn directly from Les Verts. ASSE alumni Michel Platini, Patrick Battiston, Dominique Rocheteau, Gerard Janvion and Christian Lopez all played a part in the last four defeat to Germany in Seville, a game infamous for Harold Schumacher’s assault on Battistion. Many remained for the Euro ‘84 title win and into the Mexico ‘86 semi-final run.
Masterminding the 82 and 84 successes was Hidalgo, as Batteux’s principles of free-flowing football and emboldened players endured. “He was the first coach to give us a lot of freedom on the pitch, trusting us and treating us like adults,” defender Maxime Bossis explained to L’Équipe. “He was very kind, he had great talent as a player and coach. He always knew how to find the words to motivate us before important games.”
Luis Fernandez, one corner of Hidalgo’s iconic Magic Square (Le Carré Magique) midfield agrees. “He was a great man, a unifier and a man of values. Obviously, he was attached to the beautiful game, it was he who gave a soul to the France team from the mid-1970s,” Fernandez told the sports daily. “He knew how to find the words to put people in the best mood. I took great pleasure in listening to his very calm talks.” After his death earlier this year, Platini described Hidalgo as “a gentleman, pedagogue and sincere humanist… mixing the benevolence of the educator with the affection of a father.”
Much like his mentor Batteux, Hidalgo built a strong relationship with his players and gave them the belief to overcome the “World Champions of Friendlies” tag and the courage to enact his ideas at the highest level. The lines between Champagne football and what was quintessentially French football became blurred. “To coach France, you have to be in love with les Bleus,” said Hidalgo, “you have to want offensive football, to show the beauty of it to the whole world. We’re representing the country.”
After five major trophies as coach of Bordeaux in the eighties, Aimé Jacquet, another Battuex/Herbin disciple after 13 years at St Étienne between 1960 and 1973, would lead France to their first World Cup triumph in 1998. “Batteux spoke football like I had never heard,” said Jacquet in L’Humanité. “He wanted to make football different. It was not, in his eyes, just a competition. I think I have integrated this idea too [in my coaching].”
After battling Alzheimer’s, Batteux passed away in 2003. Both Hidalgo and Jacquet were pallbearers at his funeral. Although its definition has evolved, the spirit of Batteux’s brand of Champagne football persists and has become the defining characteristic of French football’s identity. Without Batteux, football à la rémoise and those like Hidalgo, Herbin and Jacquet who were inspired or nurtured by the philosophy of Champagne football, Les Bleus would now be lacking a persona, courage in their ideals and, as a result, likely much success.
All French football’s greatest triumphs can be traced back to Batteux and his glorious Stade de Reims side of Kopa, Fontaine, Piantoni, Jonquet and Hidalgo. Les Bleus were once the ‘The World Champions of Friendlies.’ Now, thanks to Batteux, they’re just World Champions.