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.

World Cup block party

Following on from alphabetical numbering and Scotland’s idiosyncratic 1990 style, we take another look at different World Cup numbering systems, with France and Italy in the spotlight for their ‘block’ styles.

The first time that countries were mandated to give players set numbers at a World Cup was in 1954 and various approaches were used. Most teams tried to stay true to what they normally did with 1-11, though unsurprisingly there was no pattern followed with the higher numbers.

France and hosts Switzerland did something novel, though. Both selected three goalkeepers and numbered them 1-3, with defenders next, then half-backs and the forwards taking the higher numbers. If you look at the Wikipedia page with the squads from ’54, the blocks look to be a little bit out of kilter, with a midfielder among the forwards or vice-versa. However, it can be assumed that these positions relate to those that we perceive today, as each ‘block’ in the squad is arranged alphabetically.

Switzerland weren’t at the 1958 World Cup, leaving France as the only side with that block method. In ’62, the USSR and Colombia did something similar, albeit without the players sorted alphabetically within their position. Spain’s goalkeepers were 1, 2 and 3 but the rest of players were done alphabetically. For the 1966 World Cup, France were properly alphabetical and it was Argentina – who would later popularise the alphabetical style – who had something resembling the block format. Italy made the first steps towards the block as their goalkeepers were 1 and 2 and the outfielders alphabetical while Portugal had 1-3 as goalkeepers but no logic beyond that.

Italy returned to a straightforward system in Mexico in 1970 and only the Soviets had a goalkeeper wearing number 2 (though, oddly, Lev Yashin was 13). In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1978 that the Italians would first utilise the blocks as France had, though this numbering excluded goalkeepers. They were 1, 12 and 22. Defenders were 2-8, midfielders 9-11 and 13-17 and forwards 18-21, with each position sorted alphabetically – for example, Paolo Rossi would become associated with 20 after his Golden Boot in 1982 but he was 21 in ’78.

They would continue with the block-numbering until the 1998 World Cup. One point of interest with the ’82 squad was that wingers were separately grouped, with Franco Causio, Bruno Conti and Daniele Massaro wearing 15, 16 and 17 respectively. France also adopted the system in 1982 (goalkeepers 1, 21 and 22) though, as we have seen with Argentina and the Netherlands and alphabetical numbering, egos could get in the way – Michel Platini was allowed to wear 10 when he should have been 13.

In 1986, Alain Giresse followed Platini’s lead and sought a change too, coincidentally also avoiding 13, which was worn by Bernard Genghini while Giresse got 12. Individual demands would also eventually affect Italy’s numbering too. Franco Baresi had worn 2 in 1982 and ’90 (he didn’t play in ’86 though his brother Giuseppe wore 11 as the first-named midfielder) but for the 1994 World Cup he was allowed to wear his favoured 6 instead of 3 (Luigi Apolloni was 2). Roberto Baggio also bucked the trend as he wore 10.

At France ’98, Baggio had fallen into line as he was 18 (he also wore that number at AC Milan) but he should actually have been 17 as Alessandro Del Piero had now taken 10. Captain Paolo Maldini followed Baresi’s example from ’94 as he wore 3 when he should have been 5, as he had worn in America. France had missed the 1990 and ’94 World Cups and when when they returned, as hosts, their numbering was logical-ish (if we overlook Marcel Desailly wearing 8 at centre-back, Didier Deschamps’ 7 as anchorman and Youri Djorkaeff as an attacking midfielder with 6).

Looking at their games, Italy didn’t appear out of place, however, as their first-choice back three of Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Costacurta and Alessando Nesta wore the ‘correct’ 4, 5 and 6, with Maldini wearing 3 on the left. Maybe it was this which persuaded the Italian federation to relax things for the 2002 World Cup (also the first time a manufacturer’s logo was seen on an Italy shirt at the World Cup) and subsequent editions. Maybe it wasn’t. Whatever the reasoning, World Cup numbering is certainly a lot more boring since then.

Alphabetical numbering systems at the World Cup

First off, a confession. Here at this blog, we’re awful snobs with an inflated sense of self-worth.

If you read any article about numbering in football, the chances are that it will include a reference to Ivan Zamorano putting a plus between the digits on his number 18 shirt at Inter as he was piqued at having to switch so that Ronaldo could wear 9. Mention will also be made about the the 1978 World Cup final being played between two teams who had alphabetical numbering (only half-right) and there’ll probably be some reference to Nicklas Bendtner’s number 52 as well (it’s the cover pic on the @squadnos Twitter account but that’s more taking the piss out of him than anything else).

We wanted to go further than the usual surface-scratching, to provide something different, something informative and also interesting. Some of the things always mentioned in the identikit articles on numbers are important, though, and, in the interests of fairness, they must be examined at some stage too. We will start with one of those now, viz. the alphabetical numbering, part of a wider examination of World Cup systems. It warrants special attention as, for so long, the Mundial was our only exposure to squad numbers.

Okay, let’s start with the first instance of a team numbered alphabetically at the World Cup. Not the Netherlands or Argentina, but rather Chile, France, Italy and Switzerland in 1966. France and Switzerland made concessions for goalkeepers, 1, 21 and 22 in the case of France while the Swiss had 1, 12 and 22. Chile attacker Pedro Araya had the distinction of being the first outfielder to wear 1 at a World Cup while Italy’s method may have gone unnoticed or misinterpreted.

At the time, many countries had their goalkeepers as the first two or three players numerically, and coincidentally Enrico Albertosi and Roberto Anzolin wore 1 and 2. The third keeper, Pierluigi Pizzaballa was 18. Of those four countries, only Italy were in Mexico in 1970 and this time they seemed to have no joined-up approach – 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10 were defenders, 6, 7, 8 and 9 were midfielders and 11 was an attacker. No other country went alphabetical but in 1974 that style was seen again.

Argentina gave their goalkeepers 1, 12 and 21 but everybody else was alphabetical – apparently, there had been disagreements about who’d wear what – and the Netherlands also tried it (insert clichéd line about it being appropriate that numbers didn’t represent positions in Total Football). Surnames with ‘van’ (which means ‘of’) or ‘de’ (‘the’) were considered as beginning with the first letter of the next word, so Wim van Hanegam was 3. Only one surname began with any of the first six letters of the alphabet but, as that was Johan Cruyff and he wanted 14, Ruud Geels wore 1. Captain Cruyff was the only exception.

In 1978, Argentina went the whole hog so midfielder Nolberto Alonso was 1, with goalkeepers Hector Baley and Ubaldo Fillol 3 and 5 respectively. First-choice goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed retained 8 for the Dutch but that was because the survivors from ’74 played in the same numbers but otherwise there was no pattern. Back-up goalkeeper Piet Schrijvers wore 1.

fillol5 fillol7

Alphabetical numbering would last for two more World Cups, but never again would it be practised in an undiluted form. England got in on the act for Spain ’82 (true to form, 16 years after the trend began) but 1, 13 and 22 were goalkeepers and captain Kevin Keegan was allowed to wear his favoured 7. Argentina didn’t make goalkeepers exempt – Fillol was 7 now – also allowed a key player to deviate as Diego Maradona would have been 12 but he was allowed to swap with Patricio Hernandez so that he could take 10. The very reason the country had introduced the system was being ignored.


For Mexico ’86, the discrepancy was highlighted further, as Daniel Passarella demanded 6 and Jorge Valdano sought to wear 11. Maradona was again 10 but otherwise the rest of the squad – those who wouldn’t or couldn’t speak up for themselves, in other words – were done alphabetically. We suppose that it should be recorded that Argentina managed to win this World Cup despite the fraying of the fabric of their numbering.

If you look at the 1990 Argentinean squad, on first glance it might appear alphabetical but 2 was midfielder Sergio Batista and striker Abel Balbo was 3 with Jose Basualdo 4. There might be some logic there but we’ll have to examine that further.

Edit: The 1990 scheme was similar to the Netherlands in 1978, in that the survivors from ’86 retained their numbers, though, unlike the Dutch, everybody else was alphabetical. The exception to this was goalkeeper Nery Pumpido, who switched from 18 to 1 as the netminders were 1, 12 and 22. The players to buck the alphabetical trend were Batista, Jorge Burruchaga (7), Maradona, Ricardo Giusti (14) and Oscar Ruggeri (19).