Martyn Clarke: the Falkland Islander who almost joined Boca Juniors in 1999

Martyn Clarke: the Falkland Islander who almost joined Boca Juniors in 1999

“Mum, you’ll never guess where I am.” In fact Julie Clarke did have a good idea, but she could never have imagined the exalted company her son was enjoying a slice of pizza with. As Martyn nervously held Diego Maradona’s mobile phone in a Buenos Aires restaurant, he spoke to his mother without realising quite how momentous his presence was to become.

His host had been used to being the focus of attention across the world, feverishly so in his homeland, and above all in his native town, but he was about to see a completely unknown 19-year-old boy share his limelight.

The teenager had been invited for an intensive three-week residential trial at Boca Juniors, where one or two graduates from a pool of 95 were to be given a permanent place in the youth setup, so his chances of making it were slim at best. His sporting credentials were almost secondary to the significance of his move though; whereas most young hopefuls are tested for mental aptitude and resourcefulness, upon Clarke’s arrival in the Argentine capital he was whisked off to watch a match between Boca and Independiente in Maradona’s VIP box. Unlike the other trialists, you see, Martyn Clarke was not Argentine; he was a Falkland Islander – or Malvinense to the locals.

Upon his own admission, on the flight over to Argentina, he was trembling with fright in anticipation of the hostile reception he expected to receive. Since the 1982 conflict that had claimed 649 Argentine lives, not one native resident of the Falklands had even lived in Argentina, let alone entered the heart of the fervently passionate church of La Bombonera, so his apprehension was understandable. LAN Chile had cut the only commercial route to the archipelago a few months earlier in response to former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s arrest in London, while Argentine citizens had been banned from entering Falkland territory since the war, so access to the people was less than scarce.

Isolation has been a theme of the Falklands for a long time, leaving minimal contact in either direction. Used a strategic outpost for Spanish, British and French sailors throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, its relatively unforgiving climate and remote location meant that by the early 19th century the total population on the island was estimated at 40.

“[They] appeared greatly rejoiced at the opportunity … of removing their families from a desolate region where the climate is always cold and cheerless and the soil extremely unproductive,” wrote the American Captain Silas Duncan, who had been sent from Buenos Aires to recover the USS Lexington, of the largely German-born citizens.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, no radio signals from the mainland were strong enough to be picked up so the local government didn’t license the use of resources for what was one of the main forms of entertainment in households across the world. It wasn’t until Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, installed a wireless telegraphy station on the islands in 1911 that direct communication links were finally established.

By the late 1930s, the extent of print media on the island was the weekly church newsletter that covered local whist drives, shooting competitions and satirical cartoons about the Ersatz program in Nazi Germany, the latter claiming that German housewives were being forced to used reconstituted fish byproducts as eggs, wood shavings for sugar and baby shoes for slippers.

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While it was true that commodities were scarce due to the colossal debts caused by massive military spending under Hitler’s regime, the cartoon reveals a telling side of local sentiment. Such a uniquely tight-knit society virtually cut off from the wider world could not have failed to be swayed by what relatively little information seeped through, although the majority of the population has remained loyal to Britain for the best part of two centuries.

The concept of loyalty to Britain is not as rigid as outsiders might think. The rousing patriotic rhetoric used by Margaret Thatcher during the 1982 war characterised the Falklands very much as an extension of Great Britain, but according to Lisa Watson – editor of the Islands’ newspaper Penguin News – nowadays Islanders take a slightly more nuanced view: “Islanders run their own affairs, their own government, and Britain allows them to,” she told me. “Falkland Islanders don’t see themselves as living in a colony any more.”

A long history of being fought over by nations as political currency more than anything else has fostered an intrinsic fierce desire for the right to self-determination and an unconventional relationship with the outside world. By electing to become a British Overseas Territory, the Islands’ only political matters governed by Westminster are foreign affairs and defence, even if links have not been completely severed.

As a population they are entirely economically self-sufficient – overseas higher education, for example, is funded by the Falkland Islands Government, while the annual GDP is £100m, with reserves of around £200m. The only exception to that is the cost of defence – which account for roughly 0.177 percent of the UK’s defence budget – “for which there would be no need were into for the claims of an aggressive neighbour”, according to the government.

At the end of the 20th century, the wounds of the Falklands War were still sore. Carlos Menem, then president of Argentina, reasserted his country’s claims to the Islands a year before Clarke’s trial in late 1999, and it wasn’t until July that year that his countrymen were permitted unrestricted access. When the first group arrived in August, their bus was blocked on the road by 200 protestors who opposed improved links with the South Americans. After air connections were resumed in October, relations between Argentina and the Falklands were gradually beginning to thaw but were by no means entirely cordial.

Even now the political relationship between Argentina and the Falklands is uneasy. There has been an attempt to ban Falkland ships from entering South American ports, laws threatening sanctions on companies attempting to do business between the two countries have been passed while charter flights have been banned – moves which severely affect the fishing and tourism industries. The former contributes over half of the entire Falklands economy.

On a more personal level, attitudes are different. “I think young Falkland Islanders generally just take people as they come,” Watson continued. “If they meet an Argentine and they like them … then they like them. If they come into contact with an Argentine with an attitude about the Falklands then they are likely to be met with the same attitude. Mainly Falkland Islanders just get on with life.”

One Buenos Aires native at least had a severe case of ‘malvinitis’, as he called his obsession with all things Falklands. Oxford-educated Esteban Cichello had managed to make his way onto the last commercial flight before air travel was cut to the islands at the start of the year on his Israeli passport, paranoid that it might be his last chance to witness first-hand the disputed territory.

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While studying international relations in England he had persuaded Diego Maradona himself – whom he had known since the 1980s from working in a Buenos Aires hotel – to speak at the Oxford Union, and his connections would prove crucial in the setting up Clarke’s visit. Impressed by the teenage Clarke in a league match, he later approached Maradona’s wife Claudia, then Boca Juniors’ president Mauricio Macri, the latter agreeing to arrange the initial trial.

In fact, the very aircraft that had carried the intrepid band of Buenos Aires residents – all journalists – took off on its return leg carrying Clarke on his groundbreaking journey. If anything, he would find more opposition to his move from residents of the Falklands than his new temporary home; while his elder brother was involved in an angry confrontation in The Globe Tavern, Martyn was thrust in front of TV cameras and feted by the people of Buenos Aires. “I put it down to jealousy or narrow-mindedness,” said their mother Julie said at the time. “Overall, the people here wish Martyn all the luck in the world. It is what he has always wanted.”

Initially, his stay within La Casa Amarilla training complex was characterised by a challenging atmosphere. His struggle to communicate with his fellow trainees and coaches directly in their native tongue was compounded by early ostracism in training, not to mention an alarming disparity in physical and tactical condition between the native youngsters and the newcomer. Treated coldly during training drills, he struggled to make an early impression.

In his first week, the director of Boca’s amateur teams Lucio Bernasconi highlighted the sporting issues, but left the door open for Clarke to prove himself: “He has more chances of not playing for Boca than playing,” he claimed at the time. “His sporting capacity is less than what we have in Boca, but we need to see if this is a question of talent or a question of fitness.”

The obsession with football in Argentina needs no introduction but on the Falkland Islands it is a different picture to the carnival of Latin artistry and lifestyle. The geography restricts the league system, which at the time of Clarke’s trial hosted just five teams, to a strictly seasonal playing calendar, meaning he arrived having not played any form of competitive football for six months. Although the Falklands lie only as far south as Oxford is north, they are closer to mainland Antarctica than Buenos Aires.

By his own admission, the lifestyle habits of young islanders back then were not geared towards professional sporting prospects: “In the Falklands, most young people drink,” he told The Guardian during his trial period. “Maybe three or four times a week I’d have a heavy session. From 4.30pm till closing time I’d have maybe 15 bottles of Heineken and then do some shots.” Given that his mother was the landlady of The Globe Tavern, whose team Clarke was turning out for when he was spotted by a Cichello, Clarke’s assertions are either exaggerated or representative of an acceptance of limited options for younger people.

One common misconception is that there is little for youngsters to do in the Falklands. Clarke himself was part of a touring side that played in southern Chile before his trial at Boca, while more recently a young ice hockey side won a tournament – also in Chile – despite having to practice using inline skates due to the lack of an ice rink on the islands themselves. Teams are sent to the Commonwealth Games and the Small Island Games, while there is a leisure centre and full-size outdoor football pitch; in total around 14 sports are practised regularly.

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Although Clarke himself eventually left in his early 20s, the vast majority of youngsters that leave for their studies return to set up their lives. The development of the fishing and oil industries have made career prospects broader and more lucrative, while entertainment has improved with the arrival of better communication links.

Watson recalls an occasion when she was questioned by an Argentine journalist about the options for younger generations after she had showed him the island’s sporting facilities. “‘But what do the children do?’ he asked. I said: ‘You’ve just been to the leisure centre and seen all the sport.’ He replied: ‘Yes, but I appears that is all they do’ … I found it difficult to understand why he found this in any way unfortunate.”

The appeal of sport is not hard to fathom when one considers the unity of Falkland Islanders and the inclusive nature of team events. While many, like Watson, are positive about the lifestyle options on the Islands, it was impossible for Clarke himself to ignore the glaring attractions of South America’s most cosmopolitan urban centre. “I feel a little out-of-place, but it’s much better [in Buenos Aires]. New people, new women. It makes it much more interesting. I love the Falklands but it does get a bit boring.”

He was determined to prove his worth at La Casa Amarilla, however, and managed to earn himself a four-week extension to his stay. His confidence grew to the stage where he would lightheartedly disapprove of the map in the changing rooms that showed his homeland as Islas Malvinas, while he made three appearances for the reserve side.

Despite not speaking a word of Spanish and having been born in England, he was welcomed enthusiastically by a public that wanted to claim a slice of Las Malvinas as their own. There is little doubt that being welcomed by their spiritual hero so publicly helped sway opinion, and the political currency earned by clasping a son of the Falklands to their bosom was significant. During the chat shows he was invited on to alongside veterans of the conflict, Clarke was asked about the concept of two flags on the Islands: “As far as I’m concerned my coming here is a good investment,” Clarke continued. “I never thought about the Falklands War. That is in the past.”

To be launched into the spotlight of such a highly charged political debate must have been hard for the young man, especially as his own father served in the conflict with the British Marines. There wasn’t a feverish clamour to force an admission of guilt on behalf of his country try of birth as he may have initially feared, though.

“The fact that Martyn is playing here shows that there is a new era of friendship between the Malvinas and Argentina,” claimed war veteran Edgar Esteban to The Guardian. “Although we have our differences, we have many things in common.” Even though the spirit of reconciliation was certainly backed up by a firm belief in natural Argentine claims to the sovereignty of the Islands, the reaction to Clarke’s venture into Boca’s system could just as easily have been received with less warmth.

Therein lies the key distinction; in considering Las Malvinas as Argentine territory (morally, at least), they already saw him as one of their own. No visa was required for Clarke to reside in Buenos Aires, and it was even confirmed that had he made the grade for the first team, he would not have counted as a foreigner. Essentially he was something that had never existed before – a bridge between two cultures, with a foot in both camps but blameless himself.

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Generational differences accounted for a fair proportion of society’s attitudes on both sides of the divide. While touring the world with his cricket team, the late writer and TV producer Harry Thompson described an opportune meeting with an extended family in Buenos Aires a few years after Clarke’s experience. Having been seen wandering the streets on New Year’s Eve by a local resident, his teammates and he were invited into the man’s home, not knowing them from Adam.

“He explained that he was a colonel in the Argentine army,” Thompson wrote in his book Penguins Stopped Play. “He had fought as a young lieutenant in the Falklands, where most of his friends had been killed but he had been taken prisoner by 2 Para. He had, he said, been treated so well and with such dignity by his captors that he had formed a lasting admiration for the British military and the British nation.” Upon entering the house, however, the man’s father, a General in the conflict, left without a word in disgust at the guests’ mere presence.

On the Islands, too, there is a similar disparity between age groups, as Clarke himself has said. In 1987, a political party called Desire the Right, borrowing the Islands’ motto, was established. Their name was taken partly from the name of the first British ship to have sighted the Falklands in the 16th century – the Desire – and represented a clear declaration of independence, but their none of their candidates won a single seat in the Legislative Council of the Falkland Islands.

Bernasconi believed that the mere presence of a displaced teenager had done more for diplomatic relations than almost two decades of political discussion: “His coming here is a positive thing. Someone from the Malvinas wants to wear Boca colours. It’s a good way of showing the English that there is communication between the islands and the continent. Sport can open people’s eyes.”

In the end sport had very little to do with Clarke’s impact. Although he played for other clubs lower down the Argentine league system afterwards, his career took him far away from Buenos Aires to the USL in the States and the non-league system in England, where he settled in 2002.

His nomadic club career was interspersed with Island Games appearances for the Falklands, the pinnacle of which was his penalty that earned a win over Estonian territory Saarema who boasted a 70-cap international in their side. Hopes of progressing at international level, even at the Island Games, have long been futile, especially when compared with the advancement of other sports. The Falklands were admitted as an associate member by the International Cricket Council in 2007, which has seen them provided with basic but critical funding and a structured system for development within their region.

There were even wildly ambitious attempts to enter a Islands team into the English league system by former Falklands manager Richard Franks who suggested using the RAF air link to the UK, but unsurprisingly it never got off the ground. The very nature of the Islands’ geography, climate, political situation and population means that is it very unlikely any advancement of the game will be made through the sheer impracticalities of competing on a more meaningful level.

Whatever the fate of football in the Falkland Islands, nobody will forget how Martyn Clarke went into the lion’s den and rubbed shoulders with a footballing deity. He may not have achieved the wildly ambitious goal of earning a full-time contract with Boca Juniors and his footsteps are highly unlikely to be followed again. Not many people, though, especially not Falkland Islanders, can say they’ve sat with Argentina’s favourite son and for a fleeting moment shared his fame.

By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint

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