Read part 1 of Looking for Kitabdjian.
Like many cardboard boxes under many beds in many back bedrooms, mine contains a pile of old football magazines. Some are from the 1970s. Some are French. Two reveal a secret about one of the most talked about referees in Leeds United’s history. A lot’s said about Michel Kitabdjian – that he was bribed, that he never officiated again – but one thing’s for sure: Leeds v Bayern wasn’t the only game he let spiral out of hand.
Two stalemates in Tunis and Casablanca meant Tunisia and Morocco would play-off on neutral ground for a place at the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico. The Mediterranean melting pot of Marseille and its Stade Vélodrome were the natural choice and on Friday 13th June 1969 the scene was set. In unabating sunshine, Tunisian goals three minutes from the start and the end of the regulation 90 minutes cancelled out two Moroccan strikes and the game headed into extra time. Thirty further merciless minutes demanded that the tie would be decided in the manner of the day: the toss of a coin.
Enter Michel Kitabdjian. ‘I sent for a coin of Moroccan design,’ he explains in conversation with Football Magazine in the week of the 1975 final. ‘Alas the Tunisians, already outraged at the state of the pitch, claimed the coin should be in their favour.’ On this occasion he fails to mention what transpired, which was thankfully dredged up by some quarters of the French press in the aftermath of the debacle in Paris.
‘In the middle of about 100 excited onlookers,’ my dog-eared copy of Miroir du Foot reports, ‘Kitabdjian launched the coin and the Tunisian captain Habacha leapt into the air.’ But something fishy was going on in Marseille – and I’m not talking bouillabaisse. Much like Lorimer’s, it was short-lived joy for Tunisia because Kitabdjian ‘changed his mind, annulled the verdict and locked himself in the changing room where the coin “chose” Morocco!’
Well, well, well. Six years later, despite describing the episode as a ‘farce’ the referee remained unembarrassed at his role. ‘It’s the match, I recall,’ he said with a hint of pride, ‘Which prompted FIFA to approve penalties and abolish the coin toss.’
He’s got a lot to answer for, that Michel Kitabdjian. Not only is his name synonymous with scandal but anyone who’s ever won or lost on penalties did so because of him. Yet it seems that nobody outside France – except for us in Leeds or perhaps the odd souk in Tunis – has ever heard of him. He may be ‘that French referee’ to most Leeds fans but he’s the reason that – because my old man could’ve but didn’t – I wish I’d gone to Paris in May 1975 but sadly for me, I didn’t yet exist. C’est la vie.