Michel Hidalgo was chosen as coach for the French national team on the 27th of March 1976, three days after the coup d’État took place in Argentina. In the two years that passed until the 78 World Cup, the French learnt to value the man born in Normandy, in Upper France, that stood out during his years as a player on the AS Monaco, a club with which he obtained three local titles.
Hidalgo was the coach who managed to finally qualify the Gallic team after 12 years to the most important football championship in the world. He was also the protagonist of an kidnapping attempt during his trip to the Argentina of Rafael Videla.
A counter information scare
The 25th of May, 1978, the French national team had their tickets to travel from Paris to Buenos Aires and fight for FIFA’s most important title. Two days before, Hidalgo had gone out of his country house in the Bourdeaux suburbs, in the French south east. He was travelling by his car with his wife to the train station from where he’d continue to the French capital city.
In the middle of the journey, a car cut across him, forcing him to stop at the side of the road. The vehicle was carrying four men, who got down and walked in the direction of the French coach’s car. The only one of them who was armed spoke to Hidalgo and demanded that he accompanied him to a wooded area at the side of the highway; the other three stayed surrounding the car. The captors would tell Le Matin newspaper two days after, in a secret interview, that they had been planning the kidnapping for two months, waiting for the national team’s departure towards Buenos Aires.
Hidalgo, who had been out of the fields for 12 years, walked next to the kidnapper and, with just a couple moves, disarmed him. The four men ran away. The 45 year old coach came back to the car with his wife and drove to the nearest police station, where he recounted the events and left the gun. The Police would inform that the only gun the kidnappers had was unloaded and, in the face of the kidnapping’s complete failure, would propose two hypotheses: either they were four inexperienced thieves, or it was a political kidnapping.
That night, while Hidalgo was on his way to Paris, the news agency France Press (AFP) received an anonymous call from a person who identified himself as the responsible of the kidnapping attempt. The voice in the telephone underlined that he didn’t belong to any organisation and claimed that they only looked to raise awareness to the dissappearence of people by the Argentine dictatorship and the French complicity in travelling to dispute the 78 World Cup.
The next day, the failed kidnappers would give a secret interview to Le Matin newspaper.. In it they describe themselves as an anti-fascist group with no connection to Argentina, who were attempting a humanitarian non-violent action. They explain that at the beginning they had thought of kidnapping Michel Platini, the French team’s young star, but later they opted for Hidalgo, because they saw him as “a syndicalist who had participated in humanitarian manifestations”.
In the interview they detail which would have been their demands, if the coach and ex titular player of the Union of Proffesional Footballers hadn’t frustrated their plans in a single movement:
- The liberation of 100 political prisoners of the Argentine dictatorship for each French player: 2200 in total.
- To have media space in all of the most important Argentine newspapers and in the main international ones, to explain what the situation in Argentina was.
- That a prime time French TV show showed “Aficionados, if only you knew”, the movie made by the Committee for the Boycott of Argentina’s Organising of the World Cup 78 (COBA).
The failed plan managed to slip into the media nonetheless, although not as much as to open the debate about what was happening in Argentina. The newspaper La Nación replicated the information of the AFP agency after the kidnapping, but didn’t mention the denouncing of the disappearances but rather “the apparent attempt of calling attention on the political repercussions of the world championship”.
At the same time as the kidnapping, other groups of people who accompanied the activities of the COBA carried out manifestations in several French cities against the participation of their national team; Dijon, Lyon, Nancy, Toulouse and Grenoble were the most massive in the moment previous to the travelling of Hidalgo and his boys. A group managed to ruin the grass on the Stade Chapou, in Toulouse, before a friendly between France and Iran. La Nación would publish these precedents, without reproducing the sentences written on that protest, that were however published on the same day on the front page of the Buenos Aires Herald: “Iran, Argentina: the same fascism” and “Let there be no football among concentration camps”.
The La Nación columnist in Paris, Luis Mario Bello would, days later, echo the demand of the frustrated commando on the “liberation of 2100 detainees”. The editorialist branded the Le Matin interview as “fictional journalism” and accused said news outlet of “embracing only declarations made by groups contrary to the current Argentine authorities”, while conceding the “omissions that had taken place in the clarifying task of Buenos Aires’ official bodies”.
The list of players and the list of disappeared people
Hidalgo arrived at the Charles de Gaulle Airoport in Paris on the 2th of May, surrounded by a big police operation, and avoided contact with the press. The newspaper El País contextualized the situation lived by the French team’s 22 players: “Ever since a couple of weeks ago, the security of the players and of the journalists, the fate of the 22 French who disappeared or were made prisoners in Argentina, and the polemic around the eventual political efficacy of the French participation in the world championship are gaining attention”.
In La Nación newspaper it would be published that Hidalgo, “escorted by police, made no declarations to the journalists who awaited for him”, and in the edition following the attack, the porteño morning paper highlighted a past interview with the coach on Le Monde in which he had said: “Boycotting the World Cup is not the best way to understand and help these people”. Another column of editorialist Bello titled “The sensible position of a coach” would report on Hidalgo’s declarations which rejected the no-participation in the 78 World Cup, with sentences such as “it’s hard to explain the position of some important newspapers that echo the plans of poisoning opinions set up by clandestine groups”.
And what was happening with the claims of “twenty-two French citizens disappeared or made prisoners”? On the same airport in which Hidalgo did not receive the press, he did receive a delegation of the association of family of French people disappeared in Argentina, and he said he would try to help getting relevant information, as published by the Buenos Aires Herald.
The denounces about the French disappeared-detainees were not a topic the French authorities could avoid, in spite of the porteño morning papers’s obstinate silence. The French minister of Sports, Jean Pierre Soisson, spoke of the Missing to the Military Junta so as to assure the protection of the roster at the same time that he declined the dictatorship’s invitation to attend the 78 World Cup, while the president of the French Federation, Fernand Sastre, promised: “I have every intention of using this trip to discuss the matter of the fate of the French disappeared in Argentina”.
Hidalgo would come back to Paris without greater information on the denounces and with little sporting accomplishment. The team shared Group 1 with Argentina and Platini made his first goal in a world cup on the defeat against the albiceleste in the Monumental. The French would win a single match, against Hungary, and they’d return home after the first round. Hidalgo’s rematch would come in Spain 82, where they’d reach semifinals, and two years after as well, when they’d win the Euro. Many of his countrymen remain disappeared by the civic-military dictatorship.