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The Catholic visionary who founded the World Cup

Rimet (left) presents the first World Cup trophy to a representative of Uruguay in 1930

Three lions on a shirt
Jules Rimet still gleaming
Thirty years of hurt
Never stopped me dreaming

– Three Lions by The Lightning Seeds with Frank Skinner and David Baddiel

The decades of hurt plaintively recalled by Skinner and Baddiel on the eve of the Euros in 1996 have crept remorselessly onwards. It is now more than 50 years since England, inventors of the game, last won a major international football tournament. Russia 2018 is upon us and the Three Lions are about to have another shot at glory.

But while the English may have invented the game, they did not invent the World Cup. That was the work of Jules Rimet, the Frenchman who gave his name to the statuette that Bobby Moore rather shyly held aloft as he was carried on his teammates’ shoulders in the Wembley sunshine all those years ago.

Rimet was a child of the Franche-Comté in eastern France who spent most of his life in Paris. A successful lawyer and self-made man, he was also a Catholic whose view of society, and the role of sport within it, was heavily influenced by Church teaching.

He was born in 1873, shortly after the Franco-Prussian War, in the village of Theuley. His father, Séraphin Rimet, was a former farmer, forced to sell his land in the economic crisis that followed defeat. When his parents, still in search of a secure living, moved to Paris a few years later, Jules stayed behind in the care of his grandfather, becoming an altar server and choirboy.

Despite the absence of his mother and father, Jules was, according to his biographer Laurent Lasne, a happy child. Until, that is, economic catastrophe shook his life again: his grandfather was forced to sell his mill. And so, on a summer’s day in 1884, 10-year-old Jules left the countryside of his childhood, boarded a train to Paris to rejoin his parents, and began life in the working-class quarter of Gros-Caillou.

As a youngster, Rimet tested himself with his Catholic schoolmates at kickboxing and barres, a rough-and-tumble game with origins in the Middle Ages. But his social conscience, marked by memories of his own family’s trials, was awakening too. The appearance in 1891 of Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII’s encyclical on labour and capital, came at a critical juncture for the 17-year-old. Jules and his friends were as appalled as the pope was by the misery endured by the working classes and the failure of economic liberalism to find a remedy. But they would have no truck, either, with Marxism, attending instead the local association of Catholic workers to hear talks about labour reforms.

Rimet and his companions formed an organisation offering social and medical help to the poorest. They established a review to promote Pope Leo’s reforms, which later came under the wing of Le Sillon, the movement founded by Marc Sangier, an advocate of Catholic social thought in turn-of-the-century France. (Pius X condemned Le Sillon in 1910 for its perceived modernism.)

Rimet also joined Sangier’s organising committee for the Conférences de la Crypte, meetings about the plight of the workers, held in a subterranean chapel in Paris. In short, Rimet became a social reformer in the Catholic mould, seeking to reconcile Church and republic.

In the turmoil surrounding the passing of the law of separation between Church and state in 1905, Rimet seems to have re-directed his activist energies towards football, seeing it as a powerful way of promoting social harmony. His career as a sports administrator had begun with the creation in 1897 of the Red Star club (its name seemingly inspired by the British shipping line). The intention was to divert working-class youth from the left-wing anti-clericalism present in other teams. Discussions of politics were expressly forbidden.

Red Star would grow to become one of the top clubs in France, winning the French Cup three times in a row in the early 1920s. Rimet was on the first rung of the ladder that would lead to the heights of international football administration, though his ascent was interrupted by World War I. For four years he served at the front, earning the Croix de Guerre.

After the war ended, he became president of the Fédération Française de Football and then, in 1921, of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa).

Under his leadership, Fifa proposed a world championship for national teams. Rimet, the ardent Catholic and war veteran who believed that football could “propagate understanding and reconciliation between the races of the world”, travelled by ocean liner to the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930, carrying the trophy that would later be named in his honour in his bag. He served as Fifa president for 33 years and was terribly proud that the organisation emerged unscathed from the divisions of the Second World War. In 1956, the year he died, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Rimet believed from the outset that players should be paid. The Olympic ideal of amateur athletes was fine as a means of leading men towards perfection, but, he asked, “Can perfection be found in this world?”

He saw no reason why working-class footballers should be denied the chance to make a living away from hard labour in workhouses and factories, using their individual talent rather than simply selling their physical strength for a miserable wage. Those who talked endlessly about the amateur spirit sought to “seal off, at the heart of the great democracy of sport, a sort of state within the state, a kind of closed, disdainful oligarchy”.

But the rampant commercialisation of football, and the gross materialism that has infected it (in which Fifa has played no small part), and, above all, stories of worker exploitation in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, would have dismayed him.

In a 2006 interview with The Independent, Yves Rimet said that his grandfather “would have been disappointed with the money-dominated business that football has become. That was not his vision.”

……

On the other hand, Rimet was an optimist who would, I think, have counselled against despair, resisting the urge to dismiss all modern footballers as overpaid, over-entitled show ponies, and looking instead to the example of those such as England’s Harry Maguire and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Maguire mucks in at home with his brothers and sisters (“my parents don’t make allowances for me and I’m grateful for that”). He also goes back to his old school, St Mary’s Catholic High in Chesterfield, to speak to pupils and run training sessions, and helps to raise money for protecting children from measles in Djibouti. “St Mary’s clearly makes good people, and good sports people,” concluded The Times.

Alexander-Arnold, who first came to Liverpool’s attention playing for St Matthew’s Catholic Primary School, is a volunteer for the Merseyside charity An Hour for Others, delivering food hampers and visiting community centres.

Above all, Jules Rimet knew the value of peace. In his lifetime, he had seen a lot worse than footballers amassing Bentleys. Russia 2018 will play out under all kinds of political storm clouds, but Rimet believed passionately in placing football at the service of friendship between the nations. Now hardly seems to be the time to give up on his ideal.

Michael Duggan is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the June 15th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here