“Des filets de guerre,” explained Emmanuel Aznar when quizzed about one of the more unusual incidents of an extraordinary career. “Nets of war.”
It is a level of modesty one would not necessarily attribute to a forward capable of drilling a shot past a goalkeeper and through the net in a major cup final, but Aznar’s reticence says much about his footballing career.
He sits fourth in Marseille’s all-time leading scorer charts, but his peak years were disrupted by conflict, collaboration and occupation. He captained his side to a league and cup double but his achievements have fallen by the wayside due to their wartime nature. A two-time French champion and one-time forward for the national side, Aznar was born in the Algerian town of Sidi Bel Abbès but died in a Marseille shirt in the relatively modest surroundings of his adopted city’s Stade Flotte.
Moving from French Algeria to the South of France in 1937, Aznar’s attacking talent was quickly spotted after making a name for himself with his hometown club, SC Bel-Abbès. Slight of stature and fleet of foot, he was a prototype modern goalscoring winger in the mould of Eden Hazard. His debut season in 1936/37 brought just one goal but his name was irrevocably etched into the club’s history books as he helped l’OM to their first league title of the professional era.
28-goal top scorer Mario Zatelli was the hero that year as Marseille pipped Sochaux to the title on goal difference, but Aznar’s ten appearances established him as a player of some potential. In the following two years, he missed just ten games and plundered 23 goals from wide on the left.
It was this eye-catching form which won him his sole international call-up and, while he found the net in typically bombastic fashion, it was hardly the stuff of childhood dreams. Chronically under-recognised on the international stage, Aznar’s career for France was limited to a 6-1 friendly thrashing by a Bulgaria side which struggled to qualify for major tournaments.
Despite this disappointment, the diminutive winger’s domestic form persisted. He opened the 1939/40 season with three goals in three games, but this promising start was prematurely extinguished by the outbreak of the Second World War as France crumbled in the face of the German blitzkrieg. In Marseille, left as the largest city and only functioning major port in the Unoccupied Zone, football was left far down the agenda as attention turned to resistance.
At this point, it would have been understandable for Aznar to flee back to his Algerian homeland. The port was still a major trading post for the empire and elsewhere, and served as a gateway out of a France which grew increasingly collaborationist under the puppet government of Vichy. Ships to Algiers and beyond were frequent but the colony remained under Vichy control and the country would become one of the key battlegrounds of the Allied fightback during Operation Torch and the eventual liberation in 1942. Aznar had little choice but to remain.
In the years which followed, football returned to a state of near-normalcy and offered some respite from the day-to-day reality of life under Philippe Pétain’s authoritarian regime. The 1942/43 season which coincided with full Nazi occupation was in fact, in personal and collective terms, the finest of Aznar’s career.
Appointed club captain by his fellow Algeria-born manager Joseph Gonzales, he was switched to a more central role to magnify his goalscoring talents and he notched 56 goals in all competitions as l’OM marched to a league and cup double. The standard of opposition afflicted by the wartime loss of personnel and resources undoubtedly played a role in this meteoric rise; he became the only player to score nine goals in a match in French football history in 1942 in a 20-2 evisceration of Avignon Foot 84, and it was in the final of the Coupe de France that year in which he scored his legacy-forging net ripper.
The Coupe de France took an unusual shape that season, with initial knockout tournaments within the Zone Interdite, Zone Occupée, and Zone Libre. The winners of the two former competitions then played each other in the ‘finale interzones’ before a two-leg grand final in Colombes, a North-Western suburb of Paris.
Bordeaux swept to an entertaining 6-3 replay win in the Zone Occupée final, Lens scraped past OIC Lille in the Zone Interdite and an Aznar-led Marseille sauntered past CO Perpignan in the Zone Libre. Bordeaux overcame Lens in the finale interzones for the privilege of facing Les Olympiens as the season reached its crescendo.
Marseille stormed into a two-goal lead and looked to have the first leg under control before a late Bordeaux fightback saw the game finish level in front of 32,000 spectators. Two weeks later, the teams took to the same field once more and played out the match which would prove the pinnacle of Aznar’s career.
It was his opening goal which cemented his legacy as the Cannon of Marseille, slamming past goalkeeper André Gérard and slicing through the net behind him to put his side a goal up just after the half-hour mark. He scored again 30 minutes later, with further goals from Georges Dard and Félix Pironti securing the sixth of Marseille’s record ten Coupe de Frances.
The following season saw Marseille play out their fixtures under the guise of Équipe Fédérale Marseille-Provence but, while Olympique returned in 1944/45, the aging Aznar’s influence began to wane.
Aged 30 by the time the war came to an end, he returned to the wing and only played more than ten times in a season once more, spending an unproductive season at Toulon as his footballing career wound down and he turned his attention to business. He had an eye for that, too – he accrued a small chain of shoe shops in Marseille as he enjoyed his status as one of the city’s favourite adopted sons.
Despite his new-found entrepreneurial spirit, Aznar never quite hung up his boots and continued to play football every weekend. On the fourth of October 1970, twenty-eight years to the day since his nine-goal masterpiece against Avignon, he suffered a heart attack on the pitch during a Marseille veterans’ match. He died on the pitch, still wearing the Olympique blue and white.
Aznar’s career is a difficult one to assess for reasons not of his own making. If Pelé’s goals in friendlies are disputed, nine goals in a match against a club wracked by the struggles of war must surely also fall into something of a grey area.
Yet, his story is one of resilience and desire in an era of true horror. Football may have seemed, and indeed may have been, a frivolous exploit in wartime France but for one afternoon in 1943, 32,000 war-weary Frenchmen were able to gather around a field and watch Emmanuel Eznar leather a ball through a goal.