Michel Hidalgo survived kidnapping to lead France to the 1978 World Cup
Even in times of victory, there always was an air of world-weariness about Michel Hidalgo. Not that the kind, gentle, unassuming Hidalgo appeared to suffer the existential torments of a Sartrean anti-hero. He looked more like a puppy whose favourite toy had been taken away for reasons it could not comprehend. You wondered: could French football be shaken up at long last by the man with the moon-shaped face, the benign PE teacher with the slow monotonous delivery, the manager with an almost complete lack of managerial experience at any level? Surely not. His predecessor, the Romanian Ștefan Kovács, had gravitas (a fine sense of humour, too), allure and a formidable CV: seven major trophies, including two European Cups with Ajax, the second of which had been won just before he accepted the French FA’s proposal to replace the unpopular George Boulogne at the helm of les Bleus. Kovács, in whom so much hope had been placed1, had failed in as much as he’d failed to produce a miracle, when everyone agreed a miracle was called for. France, with one win in six matches against fairly moderate opposition, had missed out on qualification for the 1976 European Championship just as they had missed out on every single international competition since the 1966 World Cup. Ah, well. Better next time. Or maybe not.
Hidalgo had been a player of some distinction with Stade de Reims and Monaco, winning the double with the Monégasques in 1963, but had shown close to no interest in a coaching career until he was asked to serve as Kovács’s assistant. He’d had a one-year stint with the minuscule Rapid Omnisports de Menton in 1968, of which nothing is remembered, and that was that. It seemed absurd that a man with such a modest pedigree could achieve more than a European Cup-winner had. Had Kovács not said that, provided that French football re-built its “amateurish” structure from top to bottom, it would take “eight or ten years” to assemble a decent, competitive national side? But miracles do happen. On 16 November 1977, a gorgeous long-distance strike by the 22-year-old Michel Platini, his sixth in twelve games for France, gave Hidalgo’s ultra-attacking team2 a two-goal cushion against Bulgaria in their decisive qualifier for the 1978 World Cup. The Bulgarians, who only needed a draw to earn their passage to Argentina, scored late in the game. But France held on – just, adding a third goal in the dying seconds through the substitute Christian Dalger, signalling the end of “12 years of penance”, to quote from L’Équipe’s front page the day following that cathartic victory.
Even then, Hidalgo cut an odd, downbeat figure, as if he didn’t quite belong in a world of winners, as if his team did not either. 24 hours after being held aloft in triumph on his players’ shoulders in an ecstatic, disbelieving Parc des Princes, as the special guest of France’s most popular French sports TV programme Hidalgo gave an interview which was especially remarkable for its lugubriousness. “We’re too naive,” he sighed, referring to a string of missed chances in the first 45 minutes of the game. When his questioner, the equally lugubrious Pierre Cangioni, made the suggestion that France were suffering from a “dearth of new talent”, Hidalgo nodded in assent, as if he wished to present his apologies in advance. France had qualified, which was unexpected and wonderful, but there it would end. France had far too far to go to be considered contenders. Strange. That same year, in 1977, they had given West Germany their first taste of defeat since winning the World Cup three years previously. France had also held Argentina and Brazil to deserved draws in the Bombonera and the Maracanã. Somehow, that didn’t seem to count; our lack of confidence ran so deep that success could only be seen as a cruel trick played by the gods. We were “the world champions of friendlies”. We froze when the competitive heat was on. Then we melted.
True to type, France’s 1978 World Cup campaign was a shambles. The tone was set before the actual tournament by a tragicomic episode which must rank among the most bizarre in the history of the competition. On the morning of May 23, driving with his wife to Bordeaux, 24 hours before his team was scheduled to leave France on a Concorde flight, Michel Hidalgo was the victim of a kidnapping attempt which he described with such preternatural calm that you had to wonder whether the incident had really occurred or was just a figment of his imagination.
“I was asked to step out of the car and to follow a man who was holding a handgun, to a small stretch of woodland about 50m from the car. At the same time, another man took my place at the wheel, next to my wife, to do… I don’t know what with my car. I reacted after we’d walked fifteen or twenty metres, because… I felt the gun in my back and thought I only had a short time left to live. I grabbed the muzzle of the gun and managed to make the man drop it on the ground and to pick it up before him. When he saw that, he ran away and they drove off in their car. I’d asked them, ‘But what do you want? What do you want?’ All they said was, ‘No, no, let’s have a walk in the woodland.’ In this type of situation, you wonder, ‘What has sport to do with this?’ I couldn’t see the point [of going to Argentina] anymore. The great joy of November 16 had been erased in one fell swoop. I thought of my family and told myself, ‘It isn’t worth it’… Then sport took over and the thought that I’d be with the players3, and I believe that we have to carry on with our pacifist [sic] mission, to unite rather than to divide.”
A few hours later, an anonymous caller contacted a state television channel, claiming that the objective of the botched attack had been “to expose the hypocritical complicity of the French government who supplies weapons to Argentina”. The identity of the culprits remains a mystery to this day, although the suspicion quickly fell on Coba, a group of left-wing militants who’d convinced 150,000 people, the Communist trinity of Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Aragon and Simone Signoret among them, to sign a petition calling for the boycott of the “Coupe du Monde des généraux”. “Football can’t be played next to torture centres,” was one of their slogans. A significant proportion of French public opinion, though far from a majority (a poll conducted just before Hidalgo’s misadventure found that 65% of the respondents supported France’s presence in Argentina), viewed this World Cup as a means to prop up the regime of General Videla and his “cohort of murderers”. Some former footballers, Just Fontaine, for example, had expressed their discomfort. Of the current crop, Dominique Rocheteau, the ‘Green Angel’ known for his left-leaning sympathies as well as for his flowing locks and darting runs on the right wing, jersey floating loosely around his hips, was rumoured to support the idea of a boycott, but ultimately kept his counsel and boarded the plane to Buenos Aires.
This hadn’t been the most auspicious of beginnings for the French. It didn’t get much better once they got to Argentina. Look at images of their opening game, a 2-1 defeat against Italy on June 2 in Mar del Plata. Look closely. Look at their boots. The three white stripes of France’s official kit supplier have disappeared. The reason is that Platini and his teammates had painted them black before kick-off, following a dispute about match bonuses with Adidas. These bonuses were judged far too low by the players, who nominated Marius Trésor to negotiate a new deal with the German firm’s representative, former France international goalkeeper François Remetter. Adidas had paid the equivalent of £150 per man, per game, before the tournament, an amount that had risen afterwards by £1.50 (an hour’s labour at the rate of the minimum wage in France at the time), then £10, which the footballers deemed too modest. The talks which had started three days before the inaugural match of France’s campaign collapsed only a few hours before the team lined up for La Marseillaise in the Estadio José Maria Minella. In truth, nobody, neither the TV and radio commentators nor their audiences back in France, had noticed the stripe-less boots. The matter would’ve been laid to rest quietly if France’s team doctor, Monsieur Vrillac, trying to explain the defeat against the Italians – when Bernard Lacombe had opened the scoring within 37 seconds of kick-off – had not spilled the story to a reporter. It didn’t go down too well with the fans at home.
France’s brief stay in Argentina was bookended by another farcical episode, which demonstrated that Kovács was right to express his doubts about the professionalism of the French federation. Fifa had requested les Bleus to play in blue for their final game of the competition, their opponent Hungary donning white jerseys for what was a farewell to Argentina for them too. France’s kitman Henri Patrelle failed to read Fifa’s pre-match instructions with the attention they merited; as a result, Hidalgo’s team exited their dressing-room clad in a kit the same colour as that of the Hungarians. As Patrelle had also forgotten his second set of strips at the squad’s hotel, the game’s referee, the Brazilian Arnaldo Cézar Coelho, had no choice but to delay kick-off until France had come up with replacement jerseys. Forty minutes went by before a solution was found. A local club, Atlético Kimberley, loaned a set of green-and-white striped shirts to the French, some of whom found them a difficult fit: those jerseys were normally worn by Kimberley’s Under-19 team. The game was far less embarrassing than the comedy of errors which had preceded it, ending 3-1 in favour of France4. Victor and victim had had no chance of progressing to the second phase of the tournament, but that didn’t make it as inconsequential a result as might be thought. It had been nearly 20 years since France had last won a game in the finals of a World Cup (or a European championship, for that matter), when West Germany were beaten 6-3 in the third-place play-off in 1958. Small mercies? No. Far more than that.
Shambolic as it had been, this World Cup had not just given Hidalgo’s young team the experience of a major tournament: they went home with the conviction that they were not fated to satisfy themselves with the roles of extras when called on a bigger stage; that conviction, which their supporters shared, rested on one factor, one game, the most disappointing, the most encouraging of the three they played there, even if it signalled the end of their World Cup campaign. On June 6, a clearly anxious Argentina won a highly controversial encounter by two goals to one in front of 77,216 spectators who’d started heckling their own team before half-time. To see off the French, which was indispensible for their progress, they’d had to rely on the award of a dubious penalty for an accidental handball by Trésor and the refusal of the referee Jean Dubach to punish Leopoldo Luque when he clearly bundled Didier Six over just inside the Argentinian box. France, with Platini at the heart of every move, showed more skill, more heart, more daring and more imagination than the future world champions. Six and Rocheteau waltzed on the wings, Trésor galloped forward majestically, even Maxime Bossis, a man not blessed with the most graceful of physiques, eluded tackles with a drop of the shoulder. Every pass, it seems, was brushed with the outside of the foot, making fun of a dreadful surface. This, at least, was how we saw it at home. Watching the game again 36 years later, it is clear that we were not deluded. It had been an exceptional performance in a match of exceptional technical quality, the like of which is seen very rarely in contemporary international football. The nervousness we’d felt all through the 3-1 win over Bulgaria seven months earlier had vanished. In France’s first game in Argentina, despite Lacombe’s early strike, the Italian comeback had been accepted with grim resignation; les Bleus had last beaten the azzurri in August 1920. To us, losing had become more than a habit – a strand in our DNA. But something shifted that evening in the Estadio Monumental. We started to believe in ourselves. We deserved better, we were angry and that anger felt good.
It intensified when a number of stories started to circulate. Argentinian players were said to have popped mysterious blue pills before kick-off. To the astonishment of a Fifa official, one of these players returned drugs test results which could only be those of a pregnant woman (whereas a prominent ‘name’ of that squad had been excused the post-match test despite the protestations of the French camp). Luque was spotted winking at the referee after Six’s appeal for a penalty had been waved away. Malicious or not, these stories were ultimately footnotes to a far more significant one, however. There was no “dearth of new talent” in French football, quite the opposite. Seven of the players5 who started the game in Buenos Aires took part in Sevilla 1982, the 3-3 draw with Germany which gained an unequalled status in French football mythology. Six of them still featured in the squad which won France’s first major international trophy, the 1984 European Championship. The time had come to look beyond a narrative of repeated failure and self-loathing. France had also found their style, even if it was more of a re-discovery of the principles Jean Batteux had instilled in the class of 1958, who’d unfortunately turned out to be the result of the coming together of a unique generation of players with a unique manager, rather than the harbinger of things to come. The national team suffered from a ‘physical deficit’ (a phrase repeated ad nauseam in reports of the time); we now knew that this could be compensated by technical excellence and playing ambition. Who dares does not necessarily win, but there are worse places to start from. And 1978 was that start, despite the kidnapping attempt, the blacked-out boots and the wrong set of shirts; despite the elimination and the raging at the injustice of it all; and despite ourselves, who’d finally found hope when we did not expect it. In defeat, for a change.
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