The small town of Saint-Savin, 50 kilometres to the north of Bordeaux, formed the backdrop to one of the shortest and strangest chapters ...

Saint-Savin's road to Argentina 1978 and the attempted kidnap of Michel Hidalgo

The small town of Saint-Savin, 50 kilometres to the north of Bordeaux, formed the backdrop to one of the shortest and strangest chapters in the history of the FIFA football World Cup: the attempted kidnap of France’s team coach Michel Hidalgo.

The year is 1978 and, for the first time since 1966, France’s national squad have qualified for the World Cup finals. The tournament is to be held in Argentina which two years previously suffered a military coup, when Isabel Perón’s government was toppled. Argentine army senior commander Jorge Rafael Videla has since installed a merciless dictatorial regime.

Ahead of the finals kicking off on June 1st, there is much debate among qualified nations as to whether or not they should boycott the tournament. In the end, no teams pull out although there are notable individual cases such as that of Dutch star Johan Cruyff, whose absence is widely believed to be politically motivated. (But it is much later revealed that his non-appearance is because he is reluctant to leave his family alone after a kidnap attempt during which he and his family were threatened with a rifle.)

Hidalgo in 1978, source: INA.
It was therefore in this uneasy context that, on Tuesday May 23rd, Michel Hidalgo left his home in Saint-Savin, heading for Bordeaux where he was to catch a train to Paris. From there the 22-man French squad and its entourage were to board an Air France Concorde bound for Buenos Aires with a stopover in Dakar, Senegal. Michel Hidalgo, accompanied by his wife, Monique, had just set off and the couple were driving along a quiet stretch of country road when a car pulled up and forced them to stop. Out jumped two strangers, who threatened the Hidalgos with a weapon and ordered Michel to get out of the car.

In a TV news report broadcast that night, Hidalgo recounted: “[One of the two strangers] pointed a gun at me and ordered me to go with him into the small wood 50 metres away. Meanwhile the other person took my place in the driver’s seat of my car next to my wife. But I made a move once we had walked 15 or 20 metres, because I could feel the barrel of the gun in my back and I sensed I didn’t have long to live. My reflex was to turn and grab the barrel of the revolver, which fell to the ground. I managed to grab it first, at which point he ran away. The two strangers got back into their car and fled.” Only a few words had been exchanged throughout the ordeal: Hidalgo had asked what they wanted of him and the only response had been “On va faire un tour dans le bois” (“I’m taking you for a walk in the woods”).

INA archive video - TF1 news report including interview with Michel Hidalgo:


Click here if video does not display properly on your device.

Hidalgo headed straight to the nearest police station and lodged an official complaint. The police examined the gun and noted it wasn’t loaded. The football coach was understandably shaken though and considered throwing in the towel: “In these circumstances you wonder what sport has got to do with it all. I especially thought about my family and decided there was no point in going [to Argentina].” However, he quickly overcame this initial reaction and “sport won out. I’ll soon be back with the players and we need to pursue our pacifistic actions that bring people together rather than driving them apart”.

This may or may not be where the attempted kidnap took place, on the D18 road out of Saint-Savin. At the time, this would have been the most logical route for Bordeaux.
A few hours after the attempted kidnap, an anonymous caller claimed the operation was aimed at “drawing attention to the hypocritical complicity of France, which supplies Argentina with military equipment” (“pour attirer l’attention sur l’hypocrite complicité de la France qui fournit du matériel militaire à l’Argentine”). If that was indeed the objective, then the objective had arguably been reached, as the incident was front-page news throughout the country.

It is unclear whether charges were ever pressed against anyone. It rather looks as if the case was dropped with on-the-pitch action taking precedence. But France’s World Cup campaign was short-lived: they were knocked out at the group stage after defeats to Italy and eventual winners Argentina. France went out on a minor high though, beating Hungary 3-1 in a match best-remembered for the unusual green and white stripes the French wore – there had been a mix-up and both teams had turned up at the stadium with white shirts. France had to requisition a local team’s strip!

France's promising 1978 squad (source: Vintage Football Club) and the team's infamous green and white striped shirts versus Hungary! (source: Poteaux Carrés).
Meanwhile, Hidalgo was slowly laying the foundations of a fine team which went on to be semi-finalists at the 1982 World Cup in Spain ahead of winning the European Championship on home soil two years later.

A recent shot of Hidalgo
(source: France Soir).
After that 1984 triumph, Hidalgo left his position with the French team, taking on managerial duties at Olympique Marseille and then becoming a radio pundit and after-dinner speaker. He also simultaneously left his home in Saint-Savin; it reportedly took a number of years to find a buyer for the centrally-located luxurious house which came complete with swimming pool and tennis court! Now in his eighties, Hidalgo is leading the quiet life of an illustrious retiree…
  • Find it: Saint-Savin.
  • The definitive account of this incident can be found on the ever-excellent So Foot, here.

2 comments:

  1. I read the article on So Foot long time ago, but I just found your blog today. Maybe it's a little bit late now for the answer, but Michel Hidalgo doesn't lives anymore in Saint Savin. I don't know exactly when he left, but I guess is was in the late 80's when he get in charge of OM. After he left Marseille he stayed in south of France. The House where he was living was one of the biggest of the town, with pool and Tennis ground. It was for sale many years after he left. (I'm from Saint Savin, that's why I know this information :)
    Thanks for your article about it

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    1. Thanks Piero for dropping by and for your kind feedback... and for that additional information about Michel Hidalgo's Saint-Savin connection! I'll update the final paragraph accordingly very soon!

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