Reviewed by Corry Cropper, Department of French and Italian, Brigham Young University
23 december 2016 archive
In 1989, an American football team in Limoges, France, invited me to their practice to coach them and call plays. My football bona fides were limited at best: I rode the bench for one year of junior-high ball and I played trombone in my high-school marching band. What qualified me to coach this team in the eyes of the players was the simple fact that I was American. When I arrived at practice, I met about twenty young men anxious to learn. Some wore full pads with helmets, some had pads with no helmet, others a helmet with no pads, and still others had no protection at all. This equipment disparity did not dissuade them from running headlong into each other in what appeared to be more of an excuse to be physically violent than to learn the fundamentals of the game. My "coaching" experience opened my eyes to the fact that there was football in France, though I could scarcely say it was organized.
Russ Crawford's Le Football: A History of American Football in France follows the story of football in the Hexagon from the military leagues that competed during two world wars, through sputtering attempts to establish domestic leagues in the 1970s, to its current status as a sport for outsiders who play for the love of the game. It demonstrates that versions of organized football have been played in France for over a century but that it did not begin to garner much interest with the French until the 1980s, not long before I met my motley crew in Limoges.
Following an early barnstorming tour by an American team in 1909, football was introduced in France on a large scale during World War I, but, as Crawford notes, despite American enthusiasm and evangelical belief that the sport would catch on in France, most French spectators remained baffled by it. Football during the Great War did more to spread and popularize the sport in post-war America (through press coverage and via Doughboys who returned with a love of the game) than in France.
Even with more tours by American teams between the wars, football did not take off again seriously in France until American troops returned during World War II. As with the earlier conflict, though, football was played to boost the morale of American troops and to give GIs a way to keep in shape and it spawned little interest among the French.
During the Cold War, football leagues continued in France and Western Europe, but again, the game was played by Americans primarily as a means to "re-create the American way for those personnel and dependents at the strange locales where they found themselves." Crawford underscores the importance of football to servicemen and their families during the 1950s by identifying the large sums of money spent by the military to promote football, to pay for coaches to receive training, and to provide equipment.
Crawford has plunged deep into the documentary evidence (primarily Stars and Stripes, the French press, and memoirs written by American soldiers) to reproduce standings and scores from these early forays of American football on French soil. One learns, for example, that the Mudcloggers downed the Peacemakers 7-6 at the Mud Bowl held in Cherbourg on January 5, 1945 and that the Laon Rangers topped the Châteuroux Sabres in the 1953 European Air Force league standings. Crawford tries to glean what the interest from the French public may have been—with reports ranging from bewilderment to enthusiasm—and how many locals attended games—nearly none to tens of thousands depending on the event and the journalist. While it is difficult to pin down the level of interest from rather sporadic and cursory descriptions of fans, it is clear that American football did not take root in any lasting way with the French until the start of a homegrown amateur league in the 1980s. American teams again organized tours in the 1960s and 70s that often did more harm than good for the reputation of the
sport. Teams were frequently mismatched and, to keep the games close and the French interested, coaches scripted exciting plays and the stronger teams let the weaker teams score. This backfired, of course, with one newspaper calling a long touchdown pass "a setup that fooled no one," and bored fans became more convinced that football was too violent and suffered from too much "dead time" to be of any interest. This part of the book proves a fun read and this part of football's history in France is filled with some upstanding and some shady characters who at times had their own interests at heart more than the interest of sport, athletes or fans.
Though the book sometimes gets bogged down in details, Crawford's often-funny prose delivers a narrative of how the most American of sports managed to finally implant itself in a lasting way in France. The many military leagues and barnstorming tours proved decidedly ineffective at convincing the French to take football seriously. Instead these tours and leagues made football appear as a microcosm of the worst of American imperialism: violence, constant planning, a disregard for esthetics, and privileging size over savoir-faire. When football finally did find a foothold in France, it came about in a very un-American manner: France's first successful team, Spartacus—aptly named after the ancient slave-turned-rebel leader—was organized by Laurent Plégelatte, a Communist who insisted on a player-centered, amateur-only league, who led sit-ins when his team was mistreated, and who made it a mission to promote egalitarianism in football. Crawford sums up the difference between French and American ideas of the sport when he writes that for the French, football provides "a means to an end, not an end in itself." Football in France has become most popular among marginalized groups (second- and third-generation immigrants, people living in the poverty-stricken banlieue) who find a sense of belonging, identity, and meaning through a marginalized sport. In fact, the most successful team in top-flight French football, with nine championships, is Flash La Corneuve, a team located in the perpetually underprivileged department of Seine-Saint-Denis north of Paris. Crawford points out that the team "sponsors informational sessions and workshops in prisons" and systematically recruits ex-convicts to their club.
The book goes on to outline the different models (and different ideals) espoused by several of the most successful French teams of the last twenty years. Crawford, relying on press releases but also on interviews and online sources, examines some of the crises the fledgling sport has worked through including debt, professionalization, and the payment of foreign players. He then explores what challenges the association still faces: despite over 200 teams, football still lacks any real visibility in the Hexagon, is ignored or marginalized in the national press, and largely remains a "subculture" rather than a sport that captures wide public interest. Recent attention has been paid to women's teams and a new women's league that, according to some, relies too much on sex appeal and not enough on athleticism to garner attention. In coverage of this league, journalists continue to refer to football as a "new sport in France," even though, as Crawford has demonstrated, it has been played there for over a century.
In short, football has a long way to go in order to rival soccer, rugby, or cycling in France. But perhaps its proponents are happy to keep this sport as a subculture, where outsiders can find a home and where, somewhat ironically for this American sport, French ideals of égalité and fraternité can develop.
Le Football: A History of American Football in France. By Russ Crawford. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 366 pages. $39.50 (Hardcover).
Copyright © 2016 by Corry Cropper