France’s 1978 dalliance with green and white

We were delighted when Jess Cully (@moonhot97) got in touch recently with the story of how France coped in the infamous 1978 World Cup game against Hungary, when they had the wear the shirts of local club side Kimberley. With his permission, here it is:

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. Henri Michel noticed something suspiciously white-looking under the Hungarians’ red tracksuit 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 400 km away in Buenos Aires.

A couple of World Cup gophers were rapidly despatched in a car to ask the local football club, Atletico Kimberley, if they had a set of dark strip to lend  the French. Fortunately Kimberley played in green and white stripes and agreed.

Here is where the story gets interesting from our point of view – the Kimberley shirts had no numbers. France’s squad of sixteen for the match included Bernard Lacombe (number 17), Dominique Rocheteau (18), Didier Six (19 – 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. Kimberley 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.

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.

Just in case you thought we always gave the impression it was better in the past

We never thought that we’d become one of those ‘everything were better in my day’ merchants, but the truth of it is that we have, especially when it comes to shirt numbering.

If it were up to us, we’d get rid of squad numbers and make everyone go 1-11, or at the very least limit the numbering to 1-25 and dispense with names on shirts (we are aware of the commercial realities which mean this will never happen). Every so often, though, it is good to get a reminder that the past shouldn’t always be viewed through rose-tined glasses either.

A game between Arsenal and Liverpool towards the end of the 1989-90 season provides a good example of this. Both sides had number 1 in goal (obvs) and 9 and 10 up front but, beyond that, there were a few discrepancies. Let’s look at Arsenal first:


Not a whole lot wrong, with David O’Leary wearing 8 at right-back the stand-out according to ITV’s pre-match graphics. That shows a 4-4-2, with Lee Dixon pushed up to midfield, but there is a chance that Arsenal actually played a sweeper system, which George Graham was fond of.

The presence of Perry Groves – more of a winger than a midfielder – would seem to endorse the 4-4-2 idea. In most of his Arsenal career, Paul Davis wore either 4 or 8, and 7 playing in the middle in Graham’s time wasn’t completely unheard of but it was something of a rarity. If Arsenal’s numbering was out of the ordinary, though, then Liverpool’s certainly raised an eyebrow:


Let’s be honest, it looks fairly incongruous, doesn’t it? And yet, it can be explained, kind of.

As our starting point, we have to accept Liverpool’s esoteric numbering of that time – Argentine-esque – as an article of faith. In that regard, 2 and 6 playing centre-back and 11 and 5 alongside each other in midfield are all present and correct, along with 3 and 9 in their the conventional spots.

Liverpool were trying to ward off Aston Villa in the title race and a forgotten quality of Kenny Dalglish was that he was well able to set up a side to get a draw (which they did here, 1-1). John Barnes playing off Ian Rush was a better MO than someone like Peter Beardsley or Ronny Rosenthal as Barnes could drop back into midfield. Therefore, it was logical that the extra centre-back – the late Gary Ablett in this case – would take the number 7 normally used by the support striker.

Steve Nicol was an outstanding right-back, but he was a real Swiss Army knife of a player and during his career with Liverpool he played in every outfield position. Not matter where he was sited, he had number 4 on his back, having kept it when he initially moved from centre-back to right-back.

In a game like this, his defensive qualities would come in handy in midfield as he could add extra heft to the back five when required. He played in midfield quite a bit in this season and the ‘proper’ right-back – Steve Staunton here, despite being left-footed, or Ablett or Gary Gillespie – would then take the number 8 which Ray Houghton generally wore.

That’s how you end up with a defence of 8-2-6-7-3. Seems simple now, doesn’t it?

The Many Numbers of Ray Houghton

We will indeed run a feature in the future on how Liverpool’s numbering system evolved from the 1970s to the 1990s, but this post will look at one particular player, Republic of Ireland international Ray Houghton.

While Irish readers of a certain may now think of Houghton as a co-commentator completely lacking in optimism of any kind, he was a more-than-useful right-sided midfielder for Liverpool in the late 80s and then later for Aston Villa. Of course, he also featured in both the 1990 and ’94 World Cups, scoring against Italy in the latter and famously got the winner against England in the 1988 European Championship.

In his time with Liverpool, there seemed to be something of a hierarchy in that certain players had preferred numbers which they always wore, with others then having to switch to whatever was free. Houghton, Jan Molby and Steve Staunton were among those ‘other’ semi-regular players who indulged in musical numbers. The Liverpool Annual 1992 – essentially a review of the 1990-91 season – had a feature looking at Houghton’s various switches:

Most of Liverpool’s players wear the same number week in, week out during the season – Glenn Hysen at No. 2, Steve Nicol at No. 4, Ronnie Whelan in the ‘lucky’ No. 5 strip he inherited from Ray Kennedy, Peter Beardsley at No. 7, Ian Rush at No. 9, John Barnes at No. 10 and Steve McMahon at No. 11.

Ray Houghton? Yes, he usually does wear the No. 8 jersey – but in his time at Liverpool he’s also switched from No. 7 to No. 8 to No. 9 to No. 10 to No. 11 to No. 12 and on to No. 14.

He made his first-team debut for Liverpool in the No. 9 shirt when he lined up for the game against Luton Town at Kenilworth Road on October 24, 1987; and when he scored his first goal for Liverpool at Wimbledon, early the following month, the number on his back was 12. By that time, he had also figured on the bench while wearing the No. 14 jersey, and later he had a run of 22 consecutive matches with No. 9 on his back.

The following season he kicked off at No. 9, switched to No. 8, then to No. 7, then to No. 10, changed again, to No. 8, and then to No. 9, went back to No. 10…all in the course of the first eight matches. Later he wore the No. 11 shirt, alternated between Nos. 8, 9 and 10, was on the bench again wearing No. 14, switched back to No. 7, played 18 games wearing No. 9 then rounded off the season with two outings in the No. 7 shirt.

In season 1990-91 things changed, as Ray pulled on the No. 8 jersey for the opening games, and stuck with that shirt while Liverpool were clocking up their record-breaking unbeaten run. At last, it seemed, Ray Houghton had been able to stop playing the numbers game…but even if he did switch non and again, one thing remained constant…and that was no matter what number he wore his role was always to ply [sic] up and down the right-hand side of midfield. Except of course, when he was cutting inside to make – or take – a scoring chance!

Houghton wearing 12 and 14 is hardly revolutionary – with only two subs, it was almost inevitable that players would end up wearing both numbers over the course of a season. Aside from the nonsensical padding in the last paragraph, the article also fails to look at why Houghton had to switch around so much.

The wearing of 9 when Houghton arrived first in 1987-88 was down to the fact that centre-forward Ian Rush had left to join Juventus. Kenny Dalglish felt that giving 9 to his replacement, and lookalike, John Aldridge would put too much pressure on him and so he took 8. Interestingly, Aldridge had actually worn 7 while playing up front with Rush in the final game of 1986-87 against Chelsea. That season, 8 was generally the preserve of Craig Johnston.

It was the return of Rush in the summer of ’88 which was the real reason for Houghton having to wear a variety of numbers. In his book Liverpool From The Inside, 1988-89, co-written with Brian Woolnough, Houghton muses at the start of the season on what Rush’s re-signing might mean for him:

Now that Ian has returned it will be interesting to see what shirt I am given to wear. I wore No 9 last season but, when he is in the side, Ian like to wear that number and so I will probably be handed another one. It seems I get the number no-one else wants and the only one I refuse to wear is No 4, a throwback to my West Ham days when the future looked bleak. Ronnie [Moran, we assumed, rather than Whelan] says I shouldn’t care what shirt it is, as long as it is not No 12 or higher.

By and large, 88-89 saw Houghton alternate between 8 and 9 depending on whether Aldridge or Rush led the line alongside Peter Beardsley, who wore 7. As mentioned at the start of the article in the annual, John Barnes always had 10 when he started and Steve McMahon was 11. When both Aldridge and Rush started together, Houghton’s number was determined by which one of Beardsley, Barnes or McMahon wasn’t playing.

When Aldridge left, 8 effectively became Houghton’s number, which was also the case at international level. He left Liverpool for Aston Villa in the 1991-92 season and generally wore 7 there, with it being his squad number in 1993-94 and 94-95 before he left for Crystal Palace.

The Netherlands’ World Cup Rehabilitation

We’ve already looked at alphabatical numbering at the World Cup and the role the Netherlands played in that.

While the 1974 numbering was acceptable (bar Johan Cruyff’s ego), the 1978 system – or lack of it – was a bit of a mess, with the veterans from ’74 keeping their numbers and others taking what was free. While subsequent World Cup appearances by the Dutch had the numbers fairly normal, there was the occasional questionable call, such as Ronald de Boer wearing 9 in 1994 and Dennis Bergkamp 8 in ’98 with Clarence Seedorf 10.

Since then, though, the Netherlands have been very impressive in how they have done things numbers-wise. Having missed out on the 2002 World Cup, they returned in ’06 and manager Marco van Basten – or someone at the KNVB – had taken great care in allocating the numbers.

While the players from 1-11 never appeared together, they could be arranged in the classic Dutch formation. But for right-back Khalid Boulahrouz wearing 3 – he would go on to wear another non-RB number at Chelsea – and central defender Kew Jaliens having 2, it would have been perfect.

The Dutch went a step further with the rest of the squad, however. Back-up goalkeepers Henk Timmer and Maarten Stekelenburg wore 22 and 23 respectively, with every other player wearing a number 10 greater than what he would wear if he were in the first 11. For instance, as the notional second-choice right-winger to number 7 Dirk Kuyt, Robin van Persie was 17 (though van Persie would start more games there) while left-back Tim de Cler was 15, behind the 5 of Giovanni van Bronckhorst.

Interestingly, while regarded as a centre-back and wearing 14, John Heitinga played at right-back for much of the competition, though as the alternatives were Boulahrouz and Jan Kromkamp, that’s hardly surprising.

2006a 2006b

Come 2010 and the Netherlands would continue to do things right. Rafael van der Vaart’s request for 23 upset the pattern of the 11-plus numbers slightly (goalkeeper Michel Vorm wore 16) but he lost his place in the knockout stages and in the last-16 game against Slovakia, they fielded 1-11.

While there were changes to the side for the quarter-final against Brazil and the semi-final against Uruguay, the final saw them 1-11 again – the first time since the introduction of squad numbers in 1954 that a team in the final had done so:

  1. Maarten Stekelenburg
  2. Gregory van der Wiel
  3. John Heitinga
  4. Joris Mathijsen
  5. Giovanni van Bronckhorst
  6. Mark van Bommel
  7. Dirk Kuyt
  8. Nigel de Jong
  9. Robin van Persie
  10. Wesley Sneijder
  11. Arjen Robben


It was a more pragmatic approach by Holland as they didn’t win too many fans in reaching the final, but it was effective and, just as importantly, the numbers fitted the system. Having lost 1-0 to Spain in the decider, the Netherlands’ next World Cup game almost four years later was against the same opposition and again they fielded 1-11:

  1. Jasper Cillessen
  2. Ron Vlaar
  3. Stefan de Vrij
  4. Bruno Martins Indi
  5. Daley Blind
  6. Nigel de Jong
  7. Daryl Janmaat
  8. Jonathan de Guzman
  9. Robin van Persie
  10. Wesley Sneijder
  11. Arjen Robben


While the 4-2-3-1 wasn’t a million miles from what we were used to with Holland, this three-man-defence system employed by Louis van Gaal was a change. Numerically speaking, the left-back (5) shifted to wing-back with the rest of the defence ‘sliding’ across and 7 dropping back to play right wing-back.

The Spanish game turned out to be a 5-1 win and this system took them all the way to the semi-finals, where Argentina beat them. Apart from Spain, the 1-11 was also used against Australia but the team changes thereafter.