::: Today we welcome a guestpost from Russell Berrisford, who you may remember from such gaily flickering difference engine lanterns as theVancouver Sun and Soccer Report Extra :::
Anybody who saw the 1983 football biopic “Being is Believing” will almost certainly have left the cinema with a somewhat romanticised view of the period that Jean-Paul Sartre spent as manager of Paris based side Stade Saint-Germain in the early 1960s. Yet, despite its historical inconsistencies, the film does at least manage to convey a tantalising flavour of the footballing revolution that took place in those astonishing few years when the unprepossessing Sartre transformed, in so many ways, how we perceive the beautiful game today.
“I used to think that football was more important than life and death” laughed Bill Shankly in a speech given at an FA reception in Sartre’s honour, “but Jean-Paul made me realise that, like everything else, it was totally without meaning.
The absent forward
From his very first season at the club it was Sartre’s obsession with tactical innovation that marked him out as one of the games most original thinkers and, long before the world had heard of “false number nines” or “inverted wingers”, he unveiled his revolutionary 4-4-1-0 “absent forward” formation. “The absence of a forward is in many ways as effective as his presence” he said in a rare interview. ” His non-appearance will haunt both the pitch and the opposition. Plus he can never get flagged for offside.
“The man assigned to play slightly behind the “absent forward” in this set up was the diminutive workhorse Serge Marchand. “I was surprised by the system at first,” he explained to me in broken English from his current home in Montpellier, “but once Jean-Paul told me that he expected me to fluctuate between being and nothingness, it sort of made sense. The negation of my fellow striker seemed to emphasise my own freedom in some way.” The British thinker Barry Davies later put this theory into simpler terms by explaining that it was possible to “use a player by not using him”.
Sadly the matches in which the “absent forward” system was used would frequently descend into farce when Sartre tried to replace the non-existent player with one who was “present” in the game, triggering heated protests from confused rival managers. Things eventually reached a crisis point when Sartre tried to bring on an “absent forward” in the last few minutes of a tight French Cup quarter-final.
“I was the player being replaced” says Marchand, taking up the story: “and Jean-Paul held up the game by insisting that the “absent forward” wasn’t yet ready to come on as he wasn’t wearing the right studs. The game became chaotic and eventually had to be called off”. Stade Saint-Germain were handed a 3-0 loss by the French FA and Sartre was subsequently banned from the touchline for five games.
Bad faith football
Perhaps his most lasting legacy to the modern game however was his extensive use of the “Pro-zone” technology to analyze his players movements during a match, and he quickly became obsessed with what he called “Bad Faith Football” and was furious when his team simply seemed to be following a series of precise and predictable runs and passes that, though traditional for their various positions, displayed little individuality.
“He pretty much gave the same speech when we were losing at half-time”, laughed Marchand:”You have discarded your real natures!” he would scream at us “You are merely identifying yourselves with the role of being a footballer! I want to see less in-itself and more for-itself out there!”.
Outlandish though they may have been at the time his theories seemed to work, and he was voted French manager of the year in both 1964 and 1965. This success gave him the courage to embark on his most ambitious idea of all.
The Problem with Other Players
“I wanted to stop people thinking of football as a team game.” he wrote in his autobiography ‘The Problem with Other Players’. “To me the match was simply a series of individual battles in which the opposition were attempting to deny my players freedom simply by predicting their future actions based on what their past actions had been. That is why I preached the infinite choices that were available to the lads at all times, whilst of course accepting the limiting facticity of both the rules and the pitch.”
“You are condemned to be free,” he would tell his players before a big game “so you might as well make use of that out there on the field.”
Stade Saint-Germain were magnificent to watch that year and many people who saw them will tell you that, as a pure footballing spectacle, they have never been bettered. Sadly, unbeknownst to Sartre, the board had been in secret discussions with Paris FC, and the two clubs announced a merger midway through the season. Sartre felt betrayed and, despite protests from the fans, announced that he was too old to put his heart into another footballing project with a set of players who were strangers to his philosophy.
Even after that disappointment though he could still be found sitting outside one of his favourite left bank cafes pouring over results from across the world and happy to chat with passers-by about the tactical rigidity of so many of the managers that followed in his footsteps.
I consider it a genuine tragedy that so many of his contributions to the more esoteric sides of the game seem to have been forgotten by the modern fan, but if you approach a Frenchman of a certain age and mention the name Jean-Paul Sartre, then he will almost always describe him as “The best manager that the national team never had.”
For me though the best summation of his footballing philosophy comes from the handwritten sign that he pinned to the wall in Stade Saint-Germain’s dressing room, a sign which now sits on display in the French Football Hall of Fame.
“Anybody can be alone in a meaningless universe, but it takes real skill to be alone in a crowded penalty area”.