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  • Last week marked the 40th anniversary of France having to wear green and white stripes against Hungary at the World Cup. He’s a look at what transpired, written by Jess Cully
  • For another game where Hungary and their opponents both emerged on to the pitch in white shirts, see here

Football anoraks of a certain age like myself will remember fondly how the French turned out in a green and white strip, some players with wrong numbers, for their final group game with Hungary in Mar del Plata at the 1978 World Cup, a match that was meaningless as both teams were already out. Here is the full story of how it happened.

In 1978, much of the world still watched TV in black and white so wherever possible televised football matches had to be contested by one team in light strips and one in dark. With that in mind, in February 1978, FIFA wrote to the French and Hungarian FAs to advise them that Hungary should play the World Cup game against France in their red home strip, and France should wear their white away kit.

However, in late April or early May, FIFA changed their minds, and decided that France should wear their blue home strip and Hungary their white away kit.

Alas, FFF official Henri Patrelle gave this communiqué only a cursory glance, binned it and forgot about it. So, come the day of the match, both teams turned up in Mar del Plata with only their white strips.

No-one guessed anything was up until the French took to the field to warm up, blue tracksuit tops over their white shirts. Their opponents were already out on the pitch – in a full red tracksuit, so even their white socks were covered.

Henri Michel noticed something suspiciously white-looking under their tops.

“White shirt?” Michel asked Peter Torocsik.

“White shirt,” came the reply.

The French officials were asked where their blue shirts were. The answer was 400km away in Buenos Aires.

A couple of World Cup gophers were rapidly despatched in a car to ask a local football side, Club Atlético Kimberley, if they had a set of dark strip to lend the French. Green and white stripes were, and are, their colours and they agreed.

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Here is where the story gets interesting from a squad numbers point of view – the Kimberley shirts had no numbers.

Aside from the goalkeepers, who wore 1, 21 and 22, France’s squad was numbered in positional blocks – 2-8 for defenders, 9-15 for midfielders and 16-20 for attackers (including wingers), though with one exception as striker Marc Berdoll wore 14 when really he should have been 15 with Michel Platini 14.

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France’s lineout with the players’ World Cup squad numbers

It wasn’t until the 1994 World Cup that teams were allowed to have all of the non-starting players on the bench, and so, for the Hungary match, France’s squad of 16 included Bernard Lacombe (17), Dominique Rocheteau (18), Didier Six (19 – though you’d think coach Michel Hidalgo would have given him 6) and Olivier Rouyer (20).

There were only 14 outfield shirts in the Kimberley set. They didn’t mind the French ironing numbers onto their shirts, but they drew the line at having gaps in their numeration. The shirts would have to be numbered 2-11 and 13-16 (in Argentina, 12 is for the substitute goalkeeper).

So, after kick-off was held up for 40 minutes for the numbers to be ironed on, the teams finally took to the field, with Rocheteau wearing 7, Rouyer 11, and Claude Papi, whose squad number was 12, wearing 10. On the subs’ bench, Six wore 16 and Lacombe, though an attacking midfielder, had to wear 2 as it was the only remaining shirt. He wasn’t brought on so we didn’t get to see a number 2 making surging forward runs from the middle. The French blue away shorts had numbers, so these five players turned out with one number on their shirt and another on their shorts.

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France’s lineout with the shirt numbers worn against Hungary

The French players weren’t put off by these shenanigans – they won 3-1. Some of the Kimberley players were in the crowd, flushed with pride at their shirts seeing World Cup action. Given the craze for referencing old kits with modern launch, perhaps Nike might one day give France a green and white away shirt?