Ossie Ardiles, Tottenham and the Falkland Islands

Ossie Ardiles, Tottenham and the Falkland Islands

Jeremy Clarkson, the former presenter of Top Gear, was, in 2014, reportedly chased out of Argentina by an angry mob, having incited the local population with a number plate that read H982 FKL. Although an insensitive gesture, in reference to the Falklands War, how why did cause such commotion? Almost four decades on, a simple number plate shows the lasting impact of this relatively short 74-day war.

On a sombre note, the Falklands War was a devastating event in the history of the modern age, where around 900 people lost their lives and many more were severely injured. Despite its short time span, its effect on both sides was tremendous; in terms of politics, economics and the individuals involved. What kind of effect, then, would this conflict have on someone caught in the middle? For two men in London, this was their reality, as they attempted to live between pulls of both countries during this ugly crisis.

The history of this tiny archipelago is a stormy one, and to this day it’s recognised as both the Falkland Islands and the Malvinas, its Spanish name. The Falklands will be how this article refers to this island colony, all the while attempting to look at the situation with neutral eyes, with apologies to any offended parties. This apparent technicality is anything but and is recognition of the debate that still rages over its sovereignty.

Ownership of the Falklands has changed hands on multiple occasions in the past. Most notably, the French, Spanish, Argentines and English have laid claim to the Falklands at some point or another. The British were reportedly the first to land on the islands, in 1690, but it wasn’t until the 1760s that the French established the first human settlement there. Over the next 50 years, habitation was split along the east/west divide of the islands with the Spanish, and then the liberated Argentines, settling on the east side, while the British, for the most part, had some presence in the west.

Tension originated in the 1830s when the Argentines first had their base destroyed by US troops and then faced forced extradition from the islands by the British; only 13 years after declaring Argentine sovereignty over the Falklands. The British established a community of around 1,800 people and granted the Falklands colonial status at the end of the 19th century. Argentina continued to assert their claim over the Falklands after their forced removals but it has been predominantly inhabited by British settlers since.

Conciliatory talks began again in 1979 as full diplomatic relations were established between the UK and Argentina. Recently released documents have revealed that both countries had even started mentioning the future of the Falklands. The South American deputation reportedly refused a compromise in the early months of 1982, however, threatening to seek other means of settling the issue.

The dictatorial government viewed the Falklands as a perfect distraction from the deteriorating situation in Argentina, as a quick reclaiming of the islands would be a great nationalist boost.

By the end of March 1982, a few Argentine salvage workers, possibly assisted by a military group, raise the national flag on South Georgia Island, a nearby territory, and in April the Argentine army began their full-scale invasion of the Falklands. Unfortunately for the South Americans, Margaret Thatcher also saw this as a welcome diversion and met them full on.

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So how does football figure into all of this? To answer that, we need to look back at the 1978 World Cup. A controversial tournament from the beginning, the ’78 edition of the world’s elite football competition was held Argentina, whose government had been overthrown by a military junta only two years earlier. Protests over the thousands that had disappeared and were being tortured a stone’s throw away from the World Cup final stadium fell on deaf ears, and the tournament went ahead.

On the pitch, the tournament offered tremendous excitement, with the hosts growing with each game as they made their way to their first final in the competition since 1930, eventually beating the much-fancied Netherlands in Buenos Aires. 

Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa had been standout performers for Cesar Luis Menotti’s side and had impressed Tottenham in England. Far from the political challenges faced by each nation at the time, after a protracted transfer negotiation, the two made their way to White Hart Lane in one of the most unlikely transfer deals in English football history.

A move such as this, while a tremendous boost for the fans, represented a difficult adaptation for the players, with neither player speaking English when they arrived. Having each other was a lifesaver, though, as Ardiles stated: “If we had not gone together, both Ricky and I would have had an even harder time to adapt. That was why we were permanently together.”

At the start of the 1978/79 season, there was a real sense of hope at White Hart Lane; fans believed they would finally, with their two world champions, challenge for top honours again. Glenn Hoddle, a teammate of theirs, remembers the ticker-tape reception the team were given on their first game of the season against Aston Villa, a humiliating 4-1 defeat with Villa not even touching the ball.

Aside from the day-to-day conformance, there was also the matter of playing philosophies. The English players, having been mostly sequestered from the outside world, and especially South America, often had the ball in the air. To Ardiles this was a colossal adjustment, although Hoddle’s style of playing suited them well – the rarified English footballer more suited to the Latin game than that of his home nation’s.

Tottenham’s philosophy eventually began to incorporate the Argentine style into their play, and to some, represented the best of both worlds. The zenith was arguably reached in 1981 when the Spurs made it to the FA Cup final against Manchester City. The final was especially telling in the duos’ influence at the club – for two very reasons.

Tottenham famously recorded a song for the match called Ossie’s Dream. What would now be considered as patronising by some, it was a big hit in England at the time and cemented Ardiles’ place in the fans’ hearts. Secondly, Villa scored one of the cup’s most iconic goals to cement. “It was a truly Argentine goal scored at Wembley,” he remembers.

Triumph in the FA Cup gave Ardiles and Villa, as well as the rest of the Tottenham squad, the vindication they were waiting for. Optimism for the next season grew exponentially and the feeling was, for both fans and players, that this team was now ready to challenge for the title. Ardiles’ reputation was at an all-time high after he starred in the 1981 hit film Escape to Victory.

Then, on 2 April 1982, things irrevocably changed for Ardiles and Villa. “I noticed there were lots more journalists around the team than usual,” Ardiles later said of that fateful day as he arrived for training. “And this time they weren’t only sports reporters.” Neither player had much time to let the events sink in as their homeland and their adopted nation went to war – they had an important FA Cup semi-final match the very next day against Leicester. Villa, distraught from the declaration of war, said: “We just carried on with our lives and waited to see what would happen next.”

They were faced with the harsh reality soon after as a chorus of jeers bellowed down from the Villa Park stands. “The reaction from the crowds was pretty obvious,” Garth Crooks, a Tottenham teammate, remembers. Villa and Ardiles were shocked; they had never experienced anything like this in England before, a nation that had fallen for their effortless charm.

Journalist Patrick Barclay explains that even some Tottenham fans partook in the berating of their two players. Despite that, one banner famously read: Argentina can keep the Falklands, we’ll keep Ossie’.

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Ossie and Ricky, as they were affectionately known, were under tremendous pressure. “The country I was born in was at war with the country that had adopted me,” Ardiles said. “It was like two of my brothers were fighting.”

As a result, for the first time since they arrived in London, Ardiles and Villa separated. The former agreed to play in the semi-final and then he travelled home to Argentina the next day. It was under the guise of training for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, although the timing highlighted it was probably for his own safety, both at home and in England.

Villa stayed in England and played every match with Tottenham until the FA Cup final. For that match, club and player came to the agreement that he would sit it out. Perhaps more than ever, the FA Cup was quintessentially English, and Villa recognised that it would be awkward for him. “I didn’t feel like playing,” he said. “It was difficult.”

Ardiles hadn’t escaped the war in Argentina, however, and he continued to be under pressure from all sides. Every comment he made was scrutinised by the media of both countries, and anything seen as supporting the Argentine claim would be chastised in England, while a lack of support would get him in trouble back home. “Many saw me as a traitor in Argentina, while in England they questioned how I could support Argentina’s claim to the Falklands.” Even banal comments were twisted. An old remark regarding his love of the English countryside was rehashed and used as propaganda against him in Argentina.

A disastrous World Cup did nothing to soothe the midfielder’s state of mind. The national team were unceremoniously knocked out of the competition in the second round. Although the Argentine troops had surrendered the day after the start of the competition, their football team faced severe criticism. The players, as in 1978, had been sheltered from many events of the conflict, and were therefore surprised by the reception they got in Spain. Although denied by members of the team, the war is said to have had a profound effect on them.

After the World Cup, Ardiles decided that he couldn’t return to England. “At the end of the day, I cannot play in a country that is at war with my country,” he said before the World Cup. “The Falklands conflict destroyed my life. From then on I decided I could never go back to England.” That feeling was compounded significantly when he heard the news that his cousin, José Ardiles, had disappeared during the conflict, presumed dead.

What followed for Ardiles was a loan move to Paris Saint-Germain. Villa later commented how difficult that transfer was for him, as the two had essentially been joined at the hip during their stay. As for Ardiles, he described his time in Paris as a disaster. He found it hard to focus on football and soon realised that he wanted to return to Tottenham.

Even though the war had ended, the effects were still being felt. A renewed sense of optimism in England was countered by desolation, and later revolution, in Argentina. The conflict between the two has since lived on, with Diego Maradona famously remarking after the win over England at the 1986 World Cup: “We have beaten a country, not just a football team. They killed a lot of Argentine boys there [the Falklands], killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.” In England, Stockport County had changed their blue-and-white, Argentina-inspired kit, deeming it inappropriate “given the circumstances”.

Ardiles spoke of the great support given to him by the club and the fans as they welcomed back their hero. He admits that it took him some time to adjust, but he was rewarded for his perseverance with a UEFA Cup win in 1984. He would later go on to manage Spurs for just under a season, although his time on the touchline was a long way from his genius as a player.

Villa’s career had peaked with that FA Cup win, and he left for Fort Lauderdale in the United States at the end of the 1983 season. Despite leaving five years before his compatriot, he is still fondly remembered at Spurs for his flair and technique.

The Falklands War, over a set of islands thousands of miles away, whose existence was even a mystery to a large portion of the English population, had made its mark. It brought down a dictatorship and defined the international relations of two nations for decades to come. Alongside that, it defined, and arguably derailed, the careers of two world champions who had the world at their feet and were cherished by thousands in their adopted homeland. 

By Tryggvi Kristjánsson @DrHahntastic

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