The France national team which lined up against Spain at the Stade de Colombes on 19 June 1949 had very little to show for its season to that point. A weakened Switzerland had been beaten 4-2 a fortnight earlier, but the four previous games had brought three defeats and a draw1, while Yugoslavia lay in wait for a double-header that would send its winner to the 1950 World Cup. The last opportunity to build some momentum before then was given by the visit of Spain, who offered a much sterner test than the Swiss. That chance was blown, emphatically so. The French capitulated 5-1 in front of their public, giving the sports daily L’Équipe every reason to publish one of the most violent editorials in its history two days later. The headline summed up the belligerent mood of its anonymous author. 

“AN UPHEAVAL IS FRANCE’S ONLY CHANCE OF SALVATION!”

What followed was a two-page reform plan which addressed every single symptom of the disease at the heart of French football, from overpaid professionals (“120 000 francs and more per month”, almost ten times the minimum wage which would be introduced in France soon afterwards) to the reduction of the League calendar (“a maximum of 14 or 16 teams in the top division”, no games to be played less than three days apart), the prohibition of friendlies in the close season and the free access of children to stadiums (“under the constant supervision of a coach, even if there are cases of truancy” – no half-measures, then). But, lucid and visionary as this diagnosis of French football’s ills was at the time, it was not as striking as the identity of the man who suggested that nothing less a revolution was required to remedy them2 : he was none other than Gabriel Hanot, the paper’s editor – who’d doubled as the national team’s de facto manager since December 1945. And this is what he had to write about himself. In capital letters. On the front page.

“THE SOLE MANAGER HAS NOT SUCCEEDED THIS SEASON. IF THIS IS ENOUGH TO CONDEMN A MAN, LET US REPLACE HIM. IN THESE CONDITIONS, A NEW TECHNICAL ADVISOR MUST BE FOUND, SAYS ONE OF US, AS THE PREVIOUS ONE HAS NOT MANAGED TO GET THE NECESSARY PERFORMANCES FROM THE CHOSEN PLAYERS.”

In other words, Hanot (“one of us”) was calling for his own sacking.

His wish was fulfilled. His resignation from the position of conseiller technique du sélectionneur3 was accepted within twenty four hours. It’s not that the Colombes disaster had forced the hand of the French Federation’s panjandrums; it is more that they had no desire to stand in Hanot’s way, just as none of the journalists who’d written scathing reports of France’s obliteration in the columns of the paper he ruled over had had the guts to offend their patron. For fear was the foremost feeling Hanot inspired in those who came close to him. Respect and admiration were present too, but fear always came first – perhaps because he himself ignored the meaning of that word.

This was a man, after all, who, after escaping from a German prison camp in the First World War, volunteered to join the flying corps of the French army, the equivalent of playing Russian roulette with two bullets instead of one. Of the 17,300 French soldiers who climbed in their open-cockpit aeroplanes between 1914 and 1918, 5,533 were killed in action. That is a casualty rate of 31%. Once you’d lived through that, there are a number of social niceties you do without. Handshakes, for example (as Hanot put it: “not only are they unhygienic, but they serve no purpose whatsoever”). He was a man of few words, who did not mince them when he felt someone needed to be taken down a peg or two. Jean Prouff, one of the key players in France’s post-war team, has spoken of how, in April 1949, Hanot phoned him in his Rotterdam hotel room at 4am after a 4-1 defeat against the Netherlands. Prouff had been France’s captain for the first time on that occasion. “I hope you’re not sleeping after the game you’ve just played,” his manager said. “As for me, I can’t. Tomorrow, at breakfast, you’ll explain to your teammates why you’re not worthy to stay with us for the next game4. And you’ll take the first train home.” (Hanot used the formal vous, a sure sign a bollocking was to follow). A few hours later, Prouff happened to meet Hanot in the hotel lift. The conversation was brief. 

“You’re still here?” the manager asked. 

Yet Prouff’s admiration for and loyalty to Hanot were not blunted by that episode. “That was his way to convey his displeasure,” he recalled. “But as he was right, what could I possibly answer? Nothing. And perhaps he’d wanted to show all the players that even I, one of his favourites, was not granted special privileges. I find this remarkable. And it didn’t prevent him from phoning me several times after that.” Hanot, “tough” and “cold” as he was (two adjectives which pop up more often than not in the recollections of those who knew him) was neither a brute nor a bully. What he could be was impatient with those who had not been graced with as diverse an array of gifts as himself. He was opinionated, too, imperious, a man of convictions. Looking at his achievements, it is easy to understand why: he was a living embodiment of the maxim mens sana in corpore sano. He had achieved excellence in whatever he’d tried his hand at. Physical accomplishment, intellectual rigour and moral rectitude were what he expected from those who worked with him, be they journalists, football players or sports administrators – and especially from himself. If he could do it, why couldn’t others do the same? Which constitutes perhaps, come to think of it, the only form of egalitarianism such an exceptional man could espouse.

Hanot received as good an education as any lower-middle-class Frenchman could hope for at the turn of the century (he was born on 6 November 1889 in the northern town of Arras), showing an unusual aptitude for mastering foreign languages. He spoke English with some fluency5, but had an even better command of German, which made him a rarity in French society at a time of escalating tension with the victor of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war. His love of German culture made him move to Münster when he was only twenty years old, at no small cost to his football ambitions. It cannot be a coincidence that, having established himself as one of France’s best wingers (and an automatic pick for the national team) when he was only eighteen6, he wasn’t called once to the national squad during the two years he spent studying beyond the Rhine, despite winning the league title with US Tourcoing weeks before travelling to Westphalia7 and playing elite football for FC Preußen throughout his voluntary exile. It’s been said that he was a victim of the quarrel between the two governing bodies which were then vying for the right to be the sole administrators of the game in France, the CFI and USFSA, but it is difficult to see why this remarkably talented footballer would have been singled out when most of his other teammates were not. It is far more likely that the French football authorities didn’t want to reward a young man who’d chosen to live in the land of the Boches. Whether this exclusion bothered him unduly is another matter altogether. In any case, it proved only temporary. Hanot resumed his international career shortly after his return to France and, in all likelihood, given his age and his qualities, would have accrued considerably more than his twelve caps if war had not broken out – and if his playing career had not been curtailed by a flying accident shortly after he collected the last of them (as captain, for the first and only time) in a 2-2 draw with Belgium on 4 March 1919, when he was not yet 30.

To Hanot, typically, this sudden end to his playing days did not represent the end of the world, but the chance to enter several others. His status as one of his generation’s most accomplished players was beyond doubt; so was, soon, his reputation as a formidable journalist for L’Auto8 and Le Miroir des Sports, who did not restrict himself to football, but also covered golf and, naturally, aviation9. He went on to invent the Ballon d’Or, the European Cup, the Concours du jeune footballeur (a series tests for young players staged before the kick-off of the French Cup final, held from 1930 to 1979, which revealed talents such as Raymond Kopa, Jean-Michel Larqué and Christian Sarramagna); lobbied for the introduction of professionalism in French football (and was successful in doing so, as could be expected, in 1932); organised the first coaching seminars ever held in Europe; carried on bossing everyone as if it were his birth right, which he never believed it was, as he remained an elitist egalitarian, a son of the Republic, and this rarest of animals: a powerful man who had no time for those who defined themselves by the power they wielded. To wit, the blank years of the German occupation. The Vichy regime considered professional football to be a game played by degenerate cosmopolitan types, far too many of them Jews, hoboing from Budapest to Bordeaux, and preferred the wholesomeness of mass gymnastics. Hanot kept his counsel, lay low and waited for the Normandy landings.

You would think that such an extraordinary man, a towering figure who shaped the French and European game more than any other individual in the 20th century, and did so so wisely, so forcefully, so imaginatively, would be celebrated in his own country. After all, the French are not slow to wrap the tricolour flag around one of their own when he or she has achieved a measure of international recognition. But this is not the case with Gabriel Hanot, who achieved so much more. No street, no school, no stadium bears his name. 46 years after his death at the age of 77, no statue has yet been erected in the city where he was born. No portrait or photograph of the visionary greets the visitor at the headquarters of L’Équipe and France Football in Boulogne-Billancourt. And if you think that is a pretty poor show, wait for this: the official website of the French FA gives his date of birth as 13 December 1901. Hanot was therefore six years old when he earned the first of his 12 caps for France.