Ossie Ardiles, Tottenham and the Falkland Islands

Ossie Ardiles, Tottenham and the Falkland Islands

JEREMY CLARKSON, former presenter of the popular car show Top Gear, was in 2014 reportedly chased out of Argentina by an angry mob, inciting the local population with a number plate, H982 FKL. Although certainly an insensitive gesture, if indeed it was intentional, how can such a small gesture create such havoc? Even 32 years on, a simple number plate can still cause a furore, and shows the lasting impact of this relatively short 74-day war.

On a more sombre note, the Falklands War was a devastating event in the history of the modern age, wherein 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 is 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 which 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 was not until the 1760s that the French established the first human settlement there. During 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 on the west side.

True 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. The Argentines continued to assert their claim over the Falklands after their forced removals, but it has been predominantly inhabited by British settlers since.

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 talks about 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 America, a certain 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 to the 1978 World Cup. A controversial tournament from the beginning, the 1978 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. Journalist David Winner paints the haunting picture of the cheering crowds being coupled by the screams of the disappeared.

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. Ossie and Ricky as the two became known during their spell in England, were the first South American players to ply their trade in the English top league, and as such this was an even more remarkable transfer.

A move such as this, while a tremendous boost for the fans, was a difficult adaptation for both, with neither player speaking English when they arrived. Having each other was a lifesaver, in their words: “If we had not gone together, both Ricky and I would have had an even harder time to adapt,” Ardiles described. “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. Glenn Hoddle, a teammate of theirs at Tottenham, remembers the ticker-tape reception the team were received with on their first game of the season against Aston Villa. They lost that game 4-1, with Villa not 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, constantly had the ball in the air. To Ardiles this was a colossal adjustment, although Hoddle’s style of playing suited them very well, and was of great help.

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 prestigious FA Cup final against Manchester City. The final was especially telling in the two’s influence at the club for two reasons. Firstly, Tottenham recorded a song for the match called Ossie’s Dream, in what would now be considered as quite patronising, but was a big hit in England at the time and cemented Ardiles’s place in people’s hearts. Secondly, Villa scored one of the cup’s most iconic goals to win the cup. “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, by both fans and players, that this team was now finally ready to challenge the elite for honours on a regular basis. Ardiles’s reputation was at an all-time high after he starred in the 1981 hit film Escape to Victory.

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

They were both faced with the harsh reality soon after, as they faced a wall of jeers and boos from the Villa Park crowd. “The reaction from the crowds was pretty obvious,” Garth Crooks, a Tottenham teammate, remembers. Villa and Ardiles were shocked at the reaction, as they had never experienced anything like this in England before. Barclay explains that even some Tottenham fans partook in the berating of their two players, although it was a conflicting experience for them, he explains, as these two had become their team’s idols. As such many would go the other way, shouting “Argentina, Argentina!” One banner famously read: Argentina can keep the Falklands, we’ll keep Ossie’.

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On the other side of the fence, Ossie and Ricky were feeling tremendous pressure. “The country I was born in was at war with the country that had adopted me,” Ardiles said later. “It was like two of my brothers were fighting.” So, for the first time since they arrived in London, Ardiles and Villa separated. Ardiles 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 made many people suspicious. He maintains his travel was not due to the war.

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

Ardiles had not escaped the war in Argentina, however, and he continued to be under pressure from both sides. Every comment he made was scrutinised by the media of both countries, as 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, such as how him commenting on how he liked the English countryside would be construed as him being pro-England. “I felt bad everywhere.”

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, the football team faced severe criticism. The players, as in 1978, had been sheltered from many events of the conflict, and were therefore surprised to the reception they got in Spain. Although denied by members of the Argentine team, the war is said to have had a profound effect on the team.

After the World Cup, Ardiles decided that he could not return to England. “At the end of the day, I cannot play in a country that is in 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 then compounded significantly when he heard the news that his cousin, José Ardiles, had disappeared during the conflict, presumed dead.

What followed the war for Ardiles was a loan to Paris Saint-Germain. Villa commented how difficult that move 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 counterbalanced 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”.

Villa and Ardiles both speak of the great support given to them by the club, and the fans, as they welcomed back their hero. Ardiles admits that it did take him some time to adjust, and they were both rewarded with a UEFA Cup win in 1984. He would later go on to manage Tottenham for just under a season, although it was not quite the success of his playing days. Villa’s career had peaked at the FA Cup win, and he left for Fort Lauderdale in the United States at the end of the 1983 season. Fans will not likely forget his contribution, especially his performance in the final.

This 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 certainly made its mark. It brought down a dictatorship. It defined the international relations of two nations for decades to come. Finally, it defined, and arguably derailed, the careers of two world champions who had the world at their feet.

By Tryggvi Kristjánsson. Follow @DrHahntastic

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