Football for footballers: When protesting players occupied the French Football Federation

We footballers belonging to the various clubs in the Paris region have today decided to occupy the headquarters of the French Football Federation. Just as the workers are occupying their factories. Just as the students are occupying their faculties. Why? In order to give back to the 600,000 French footballers and to their thousands of friends what belongs to them: football.

In January 2017, France international Dimitri Payet left West Ham for Marseille. The Hammers didn’t want to lose their star player, but after Payet vowed he would never again pull on the claret and blue shirt, the club were forced to sell for £25m. In what could be seen as an inconsequential footnote, the playmaker’s £125,000-a-week contract hadn’t been due to expire for another four years.

The Payet affair is one of many examples of player power in the modern game – of footballers escaping contracts, driving up wages or even forcing a change of manager via threats to their employers. What players want, players tend to get.

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In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find an employee with greater freedom to dishonour the terms of a contract than the elite-level footballer. Not only do these players earn huge wages, they also — now more than ever — get to decide exactly how and where they earn those wages.

That flexibility rarely goes both ways. For a player, a contract means guaranteed money and, depending on circumstance, leverage to ask for more. From the club’s point of view, the contract can guarantee little more than some transfer fee when the player decides it’s time to move on. In Payet’s case, that fee probably should have been higher.

But while it can be frustrating to see a club at the mercy of one of its players, the alternative — unfettered power to the employer — can be much worse. So much worse, in fact, that a group of amateur footballers in Paris once went to radical lengths to eradicate it.

To find those revolutionaries hatching their plan, you’d have to travel back exactly 50 years to May 1968 and find your way to the Latin Quarter of Paris. Such a journey would lead you to into the eye of a political storm whose consequences stretched far beyond football.

In May 1968, France was on the brink of revolution. A sequence of strikes, protests and occupations around the country were being carried out in a largely uncoordinated attempt to reorganise the power structures of French society. The movement started with universities, but eventually spread to workplaces and factories too, culminating in two-thirds of the entire French workforce taking action against their employers.

For the briefest of moments, the May ’68 movement appeared so powerful, so potentially destructive to the French system, that president Charles de Gaulle secretly fled the country, hid his family jewels and prepared for resignation. In the midst of the action, barely visible to all but the most attentive, was this group of footballers.

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Their numbers may have been few, but among the molotov cocktails, overturned cars and tear gas, the footballers had a plan to kick-start their own revolution.

The foundations of that group can be traced to both the football pitch and the printing press. Between 1958 and 1979, the communist-leaning Miroir Sprint group published a football monthly called Le Miroir du football. Its authors, many of whom were amateur players themselves, wrote vociferously in support of the rights and welfare of players.

The paper also opposed the power structure of football in France, often criticising the French Football Federation and high-ranking officials such as general secretary Pierre Delaunay, national team coach Louis Dugauguez and national instructor Georges Boulogne.

As Paris began to simmer with the tension of its imminent protests, a group of amateur players, including writers from Le Miroir, spied an opportunity. With workers ready to occupy their factories, couldn’t footballers occupy the workplace responsible for their own welfare? Couldn’t they, without even having to raise their fists, simply take over the French Football Federation?

It happened on 22 May 1968. During a week in which 10 million French workers went on strike, and just a few days before the Paris Stock Exchange was set ablaze in a frenzied attack, a group of 60 dissidents calling themselves the “Footballers’ Action Committee” sneaked into the headquarters of the FFF, located on the tree-lined Avenue d’Iéna in aris.

Without force, the group used its numbers to infiltrate the Federation, escorting some 30 employees out of the premises. Two key targets for the protesters, national instructor Boulogne and general secretary Pierre Delaunay (whose role had been passed down from his father), were briefly held hostage within isolated rooms of the federation.

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Having captured their prize, the invading footballers unfurled banners across the facade of the building. One of them, hung between two of the Federation’s first-floor windows, proclaimed “LE FOOTBALL AUX FOOTBALLERS!”: football for footballers. Like so many other workplaces around France, the FFF had been taken captive by a popular movement.

To understand the motivations of the Footballers’ Action Committee, one has to consider what life was like as a footballer in France in the 1960s, when today’s player power was unheard of.

That was partially down to the nature of contracts. Wages were lower, but that was only half of the issue. More problematic was the duration of contracts, a matter with which thousands upon thousands of players took issue.

During those years, the duration of a deal was not a matter of discussion between club and player. All contracts, which players were obliged to sign in order to play, tied players to their club until they reached 35 years of age — the likely end of their career. On this there was no leeway: the rule was enforced by the FFF, and ultimately allowed clubs to retain or dispose of players as they wished, giving players minimal control over their careers.

Such a situation certainly didn’t favour the player. In fact, so skewed in favour of the club was this long-term pact that French football icon Raymond Kopa publicly denounced it in 1963, describing French players as, essentially, “slaves.” Kopa received a suspended six-month ban for his words, but he had been heard loud and clear by those who would eventually occupy the headquarters of the FFF.

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Abolition of the “slave” contract was, however, just one of the Footballers’ Action Committee’s demands. Other stipulations included scrapping the B Licence required by players wishing to make a transfer, and ending the eight-month limit on the footballing season, a ruling imposed by sports minister Maurice Herzog in 1961 in order to promote athletics and other bourgeois sports over the summer period.

The most dramatic demand was for “the immediate dismissal (by means of a referendum of the 600,000 footballers, controlled by themselves) of the profiteers of football and the insulters of the footballers.” Such action, the protesters believed, would free the game “from the tutelage of the money of the pathetic pretend-patrons who are at the root of the decay of football.”

With their banner hanging in view and a pamphlet handed out to visitors, the occupiers invited footballers and fans to join them at the headquarters. A handful of professionals, including Andre Merelle and Michel Oriot of Paris-based Red Star Football Club, came to Avenue d’Iéna to offer their support, as did many amateur players. Others offered approval from afar.

Former national team player and manager Just Fontaine, scorer of the most goals in a single World Cup tournament and founder of the National Union of Professional Footballers, would lead the movement in the aftermath of the occupation.

But while sections of the press came to report on the unusual events at the FFF, many were understandably more interested in happenings elsewhere. The Footballers’ Action Committee may have presented a strong case for its actions, but their demands were less newsworthy than the torching of the Stock Exchange.

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As such, the protesters ended their occupation after only five days. They had made their feelings known and their power felt; they would now seek to achieve their goals through dialogue and other means.

Whether they did that is up for debate. In part thanks to the work of the protesters, the “slave contract” was abolished in 1969. In its place came contracts of variable duration, to be negotiated by player and club. While clubs fought this ruling and attempted to lower wages to offset potential losses, player unions fought back, and by the early 1970s the contract for life was consigned to the past. The B Licence was also abolished.

Less pliant was the footballing hierarchy so vigorously criticised by the protesters. While the FFF would eventually accept some of the group’s demands concerning player welfare, the organisation would never dismantle itself or, as the Footballers’ Action Committee had suggested, bring active footballers within its ranks.

As for whether “football for footballers” was ever achieved, you might simply look at the conditions enjoyed by many of today’s professionals — even those below the top tiers — as evidence that the players eventually won out.

Yet with various “profiteers” of football still in strong force – albeit now exploiting fans more than players – one can imagine the Footballers’ Action Committee gladly repeating its actions if given the chance today.

Football for footballers: When protesting players occupied the French Football Federation
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