The Tricolore is synonymous with the French national team in any sport. The country, whether they’re donning their home or away kits, have never strayed too far away from the famous red, white and blue, and no team embodies that statement more prominently than the country’s football side. Whether it was Zinedine Zidane’s exquisite virtuoso in the World Cup final of 1998, the infamous images of Didier Deschamps’ hoisting the Henri Delaunay trophy in Rotterdam two years later or Kylian Mbappé’s magic in Russia, the three colours that come to mind when the national team is the topic is the Tricolore of France.
However, on the world stage, there was one administrative blip that forced this tradition to be temporarily ditched. This came in the controversial World Cup of 1978, hosted by Argentina, where errors in logistics, planning and several mishaps by the French Football Federation (FFF) led to France wearing an uncharacteristic green-and-white, much to the surprise of the world. The story behind this relates to the slowly-improving media and a club from nearby.
Les Bleus switched to Les Verts et Blanc for a World Cup match against Hungary. However, this match was, in the grander scheme of things, rather pointless. Competing in a group consisting of hosts and eventual winners Argentina as well as Italy, the clash between the French and the Hungarians was dead rubber due to the fact that they were already set to fly back home no matter the outcome of their match. So, when the two were set to square off at the Estadio José María Minella in Mar del Plata, they knew it was a match merely to boost pride on their way back.
Another key factor to keep in mind is that this is 1978, and colour television was still rare in most households. Black-and-white TV was doing the rounds, and to accommodate fans in the stadium as well as those watching from home, the playing teams, no matter where they were or what competition they were participating in, had to compete with one team in light kits and the other in dark. With that noted, FIFA, in preparation for the tournament, wrote to the Hungarian and French football associations in the February leading up to the finals, telling them that the former was to wear their red home strip while the latter were to play in their white kit.
Three months later, though, another communique was sent by the beautiful game’s governing body, reversing their decision and informing the French that they would play in their more traditional blue while Hungary was to switch to white. This message, however, did not go through the French hierarchy. The President of the FFF at the time, Henri Patrelle, apparently forgot to send the message down to the team supervisor and when the teams showed up at the finals, there was hysterical pandemonium.
On a warm, sunny afternoon in the east of Argentina, the two teams walked out with confidence. Hungary was donning a red tracksuit top above their white shirts, while France was wearing a white tracksuit top over their unassigned white shirts – the playing staff had no idea about the change that was imposed. The two sides did their final warm-ups and lunges, belted out their country’s respective anthems and all seemed normal. The Hungarians were ready, but when the French took their tracksuit tops off to reveal their kit, the game had to be postponed.
What was supposed to be a bland afternoon seeing as it was a clash being played out for mere formality was now set to dominate the front pages. When the French were asked where their blue shirts were, they informed officials that it was 400 kilometres away in the capital of Buenos Aires and that it was, obviously, unreasonable to expect them to bring it to the venue at that time. To combat the issue, a few folks from the French staff were dispatched to find a few striped shirts for the team to wear, and they stumbled across nearby Atlético Kimberley, who wore a unique combination of green-and-white stripes.
Getting the shirts proved to be a rather simple task, what caused the vast delay was that these Kimberley shirts had no numbers on them, and they had to be ironed on. This small detail, too, has a fair bit of interesting history behind it. The set of Kimberley shirts was only enough for 14 outfield players; the French had 16 on their roster. This caused a problem with their numbering.
The shirt numbers one and 12 were reserved specifically for goalkeepers in Argentina, which meant that the only applicable numbers available for use by the French ranged from two to 11 and 13 to 16. As a result, several players would have one number on their shirt and another on their shorts.
It could be said that the varying shirt numbers were a matter of pride for some. Dominique Rocheteau, the forward for France, was assigned to the number 18 prior to the tournament, but for this match against Hungary, he wore the prestigious number seven on his back – something fit for his role. His partner in attack, Olivier Rouyer, was bumped from his standard number 20 to a more recognizable number 11. The most enlightened, however, would have been Claude Papi. He was a beneficiary of Argentina reserving the number 12 for goalkeepers as his squad number was ditched for the more popular of them all – the famous number 10.
The three mentioned above got some of the more prominent numbers and could consider themselves fortunate. However, the fans could stake a claim that they were luckier. Sitting on the bench was Didier Six, who, disappointingly, was not given the number six shirt prior to the tournament, instead donning the number 19. He was given a number more apt to his fascinating surname as he was awarded Kimberley’s number 16 shirt which was still, however, 10 more than what the universe would’ve wanted.
What really made the fans lucky was Bernard Lacombe’s role as an unused substitute. Given the number 17 shirt prior to the tournament, he had to make do with the number two of Atlético Kimberley. What made this disappointing was that Lacombe was an attacking midfielder and seeing a player of that calibre doing what he does best while donning an underwhelming shirt number would certainly have disappointed many, or at the very least, the pure football shirt aesthete.
France, however, was unfazed by the hastiness on the afternoon and put in their best showing of that summer. Having come into the clash on the back of two defeats by two goals to one, first to Italy and then to Argentina, they improved and impressed greatly against Hungary, as the game kicked-off 45 minutes later than scheduled. Christian Lopez, Marc Berdoll and Rocheteau all scored in the first-half to seal a 3-1 victory, while Michel Platini, still a fair few years away from his prime, also played in the second-half in the green-and-white stripes as the national side ended their ’78 campaign on a positive note.
This was the fourth and final time a club shirt would be represented on international football’s grandest stage. The first time would be in 1934 in Italy when Austria and West Germany’s clash of white would mean that the wonderful blue of Napoli would come in handy for the Wunderteam. Sixteen years later in Brazil, Switzerland’s red shirts clashed with Mexico’s burgundy and that would result in nearby Cruzeiro helping out. Their blue-and-white was worn by the Central Americans. The penultimate occasion came in 1958 in Sweden, where Argentina wore the yellow of IFK Malmö for a group stage match against West Germany.
The common denominator for all these teams was that all their efforts went in vein. The three lost when donning a changed strip. Austria fell to West Germany in an enthralling 3-2 encounter. Meanwhile, Mexico would lose 2-1 and Argentina would lose to perennial changed-strip overcomers West Germany 3-1 despite taking the lead. So, when France got the job done against Hungary in 1978, not only did they get some pride to take home, they also became the first and last team to change their shirts and end up with a victory at the end of the match.
And for Atlético Kimberley, they got a piece of history as well with that win. In the grander scheme of things, the scenarios mentioned above are a good endorsement for how an event as magnanimous as the World Cup was encouraging for the nearby community. Naples, Belo Horizonte, Malmö, and Mar del Plata – cities that love their football – all got a shout on the grandest stage in football via some of their proudest representatives.
In terms of shirt colours only, Costa Rica represented Turin and Juventus when they played at Italia ’90 in a black-and-white away shirt on two occasions, while Germany wore a red-and-black hooped shirt in Brazil in their successful 2014 campaign, a sight synonymous with Flamengo. Both these nations paid a fair tribute to their esteemed hosts.
For France and Atlético Kimberley, the win against Hungary in 1978 was great and should be cherished. With modern technology and several people following up on the most minute details, it’s unlikely an error of that scale shall occur again, so while it did last, the confusion, madness and subsequent intuition was well worth it and a great example of the drama during a World Cup.