After the nations of Great Britain, France was the next country to establish football clubs and a governing body.
The first place that football was observed in France was in Paris. The match took place in 1863 but was quite different from the modern game, it was contested by two groups of British immigrants. It wasn’t until 1872 that a group of British residents living in Le Havre (on the north coast) created a club that played rugby and soon after, football. At the time, it was reported that the main sport of the club club was in fact a mix of football and rugby and was called “combination”.
Due to the trade links with Britain sailors, immigrants and merchants either stopped there or set up to live in the vicinity and a large group of British residents was created. Naturally, when a social group develops it develops interests and clubs that will strengthen the core and bring its members together. With its variety of sport, Le Havre Athletic Club became an important social glue. Football was played regularly by the club in 1894 and the club appeared in the first ever French Championship in 1899.
In 1896 football began to be more popularised in Normandy; regular games had started to appear in Dieppe just over 65 miles east of Le Havre and 50 miles south of the city in Rouen. Both had English roots; FC Dieppe was established in 1986 by a group of English students led by Paul Robert and a Mr Willing, a local English merchant introduced the game to Rouen.
Whilst the north coast developed a liking for the game, so did the capital. In 1890 Standard Athletic Club was created by British workers, a rival club name White-Rovers was established in 1891 and Club Francais was set up in 1892. Standard dominated the first 5 years of the Paris regional league winning 4 out of 5 seasons. As with many first championships however, the first three years were played as a knockout competition. Standard’s rivals, White – Rovers featured predominantly English or American players and although finished second in the first four years, the club dissolved in 1898.
The Championship was exclusive to teams in Paris until 1897 however there were other regional divisions; The North and Normandy. The teams from Le Havre, Dieppe and Rouen competed in Normandy and the North featured Iris Club Lillois which went on to become part of today’s Lille OSC. The competitions did have play offs however the games were frequently cancelled or won by default due to Parisian teams refusing to take part as the Championship trophy was not supposed to be allowed to be won by a team outside of the capital.
From then on football continued to grow in France: in 1902 there were seven regional leagues and in 1906 it had spread to the French Riviera, encompassing a total of 15 regional championships. Due to the overwhelming interest in clubs for participation the Coupe de France was introduced in 1917 which featured both amateur and professional teams. The present competition format which features teams from all over the country was implemented in 1933 as “National”, the title was changed to “Division 1” after a year and then to “Ligue 1” in 2002.
Football in France helped spread the game, from there it reached further parts of the continent and also gained popularity throughout the French colonial empire. The importance of the economic power of the country and the widely used language is a major factor in the growth of association football.
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