The Tricolore is synonymous with the French national team and the nation’s various sporting home and away kits have never strayed too far away from the famous red, white and blue. No team embodies that philosophy more prominently than the country’s national football team: whether Zinedine Zidane’s virtuoso performance in the World Cup final of 1998, the indelible image of Didier Deschamps hoisting the Henri Delaunay trophy in Rotterdam two years later or Kylian Mbappé’s magic in Russia; the colours that invariably come to mind when the national team is the topic are the ones that make up the Tricolore.
Historically, there was one administrative blip that forced this tradition to be temporarily ditched. This occurred during the controversial World Cup of 1978, hosted by Argentina, where errors in logistics and planning by the French Football Federation (FFF) led to France wearing an uncharacteristic green-and-white shirt. Les Bleus became Les Verts et Blancs for a dead rubber group stage match against Hungary. When they met at the Estadio José María Minella in Mar del Plata, both nations knew they would be flying home after the game regardless of the result with Italy and hosts Argentina already having secured progress to the knockout stages.
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 the norm and to accommodate fans in the stadium as well as those watching from home, teams had to compete with one team wearing a light kit and the other dark. Earlier that year in preparation for the tournament, FIFA wrote to the Hungarian and French football associations informing them that the former was to wear their red home strip while the latter should play in their white kit.
Three months later another communique was sent by the world game’s governing body, reversing the decision and informing the French that they would now play in their more traditional blue. This message did not seem to get through to the French administration however. The President of the FFF at the time, Henri Patrelle, apparently forgot to pass the message down to the team supervisor and when the teams showed up at the finals, there was pandemonium.
On a warm, sunny afternoon in the east of Argentina, the two teams walked out onto the pitch. Hungary sported a red tracksuit top over their white shirts, while the French wore a white tracksuit top over their unassigned white shirts – the playing staff still had no idea about the change that had been instructed. The two sides completed their warm-ups, belted out their 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 delayed.
When the French were asked where their blue shirts were located, the answer was 400 kilometres away in the capital Buenos Aires. To resolve the issue, several members of the French staff were dispatched to find alternative shirts for the team to wear and they stumbled across Atlético Kimberley, a local club which wore a combination of green-and-white stripes.
Getting hold of the shirts proved to be the simple part, what caused the considerable delay was that these Kimberley shirts had no numbers on them and those had to be ironed on. Another problem was the set of Kimberley shirts was only enough for 14 outfield players, whereas the French had 16 on their roster. This caused numbering issues. The shirt numbers one and 12 were reserved specifically for goalkeepers at this World Cup, which meant that the 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. The forward Dominique Rocheteau was assigned the number 18 prior to the tournament, but for this match against Hungary he wore the prestigious number seven on his back. His partner in attack, Olivier Rouyer, was bumped from his standard number 20 to a more recognizable number 11.
The most enlightened would have been Claude Papi. He was a beneficiary of FIFA reserving the number 12 for goalkeepers as his squad number was ditched for the famous number 10 shirt instead. 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, still ten more than the universe would have wanted. Bernard Lacombe’s role alongside him as an unused substitute brought him the new number of 2 instead of his nominated 17; it would have been most unusual to see an attacking midfielder with this number.
The French team seemed unfazed by the 45-minute disruption and put in their best showing of the tournament to come away with a 3-1 win. Christian Lopez, Marc Berdoll and Rocheteau all scored in the first-half while Michel Platini, still a fair few years away from his prime, also played in the second half in those same unfamiliar green-and-white stripes.
This was the fourth and, to date, final time a club shirt would be represented on international football’s grandest stage. The first time came in the 1934 tournament in Italy when Austria and West Germany’s clash of white would mean that the sky blue of Napoli would stand in as a handy replacement 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 when Argentina wore the yellow of IFK Malmö for a group stage match against West Germany.
The curious common denominator was that all three of these sides lost when donning their enforced change strip: Austria fell 3-1 to West Germany, Mexico lost 2-1 to Switzerland and Argentina lost 3-1 to West Germany despite taking the lead. So, when France got the job done against Hungary in 1978, not only did they salvage some tournament pride, they also became the first and last team to change their shirts and end up with a victory.
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 combo synonymous with Flamengo. Both these nations paid fair tribute to their hosts.
With modern technology and battalions of administrative staff following up on the most minute details, it’s unlikely an error of this kind shall occur again. And more’s the pity. It’s this kind of unusual quirk that gave older World Cup tournaments the sort of character and talking points that’s so often lacking in the immaculately managed modern editions.