England versus Argentina has become one of the fiercest inter-country footballing rivalries of modern times. There has been a true enmity over the past few decades due to several reasons, some of which, it should be said, have nothing to do with football.
However, it wasn’t always this way.
As with many countries, Argentina was supposedly introduced to The Beautiful Game by the English. In this case, it was the large number of British expatriates living in Argentina during the middle part of the nineteenth century that helped get the game established there.
Once organised football began and the first official matches between England and Argentina took place, relations between the two nations remained fairly cordial until the 1960s, and the 1966 World Cup Finals held that year, of course, in England.
Early matches featured a series of friendlies before the countries met first in a competition organised to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Brazilian Football Association, and then in the 1962 World Cup held in Chile. Argentina prevailed in both matches and so the scene was set for a rematch in London four years later.
The two nations were paired together in a quarter-final clash at Wembley. To say the game was controversial would be an understatement. Home nation players, fans and media alike accused the Argentines of trying to kick the English off the park, while the South American media described the game as el robo del siglo (“the theft of the century”).
The game was notable for the sending off of Argentina’s captain, Antonio Rattin, who was dismissed for two cautionable offences. Rattin refused to leave the pitch, claiming that his second caution, for dissent, was a mere misunderstanding due to translation difficulties.
Once the game finally restarted, Argentina’s tackling supposedly became even wilder before Geoff Hurst scored the only goal of the game with a suspiciously offside effort in the 78th minute of the game.
The actual facts of the matter were that an England side containing the likes of Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles and Alan Ball was always going to give as good as they got, and they ended up committing more fouls.
This didn’t stop England manager, Sir Alf Ramsay, from racing onto the pitch in order to prevent George Cohen from swapping shirts with an opponent upon the final whistle. Nor did it prevent Ramsay from describing the Argentines as ‘animals’ in a post-match press conference.
This ‘animals’ statement was, to be fair, out of character for the usually mild-mannered Ramsay, but it was a label that stuck and caused considerable offence at the time.
Relations between the two nations were not helped by the 1968 clash between Manchester United and Estudiantes de La Plata in the World Club Championship. A two-legged tie was played out against a backdrop of on-field thuggery and off-field hooliganism.
It would then be another eight years before the two national sides met again. In a friendly played at Wembley just before the 1974 World Cup, for which England under Ramsay had not qualified, the two sides shared four goals before an attendance of 68,000. It was a tetchy game played out in a niggly atmosphere and when the Argentines came back from two goals down to level the scores with a last-minute equaliser, the South Americans celebrated with wild abandon.
Three years later another fractious meeting took place. A year before the 1978 World Cup due to be played in Argentina, England undertook a so-called ‘acclimatisation tour’ whereby the side, now led by Don Revie, travelled to South America. The idea was, presumably, to ready themselves for the tournament the following year and England undertook games against Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina.
The match, billed as a friendly, was anything but cordial. An early Stuart Pearson goal was cancelled out by one from Daniel Bertoni and the game then progressed under a cloud of heavy tackling and an underlying current of general unpleasantness.
With seven minutes to go England full-back, Trevor Cherry of Leeds tackled Bertoni who responded by delivering a right hook that knocked two of Cherry’s teeth out. The linesman called the referee’s attention to the fracas and he promptly sent both players off.
Three years later, and the countries met before a sell-out crowd at Wembley. Played as a warm-up to the 1980 European Championships, England took on an Argentina side that by now was reigning world champions and had a young Diego Maradona in their ranks.
In a match that passed off relatively peacefully, Maradona excelled but England triumphed by a 3-1 scoreline with Kevin Keegan scoring the third and clinching goal.
The next game, six years later, has, of course, passed into the halls of infamy.
In 1982, both Britain and Argentina were undergoing political strife and changes. The leaders of the respective nations were under considerable pressure and so…..the Falklands War occurred. Here is neither the time nor the place for a political analysis of either the times or the conflict itself given that it resulted in more than 800 deaths, but it is safe to say that relations have never been the same since.
So it came to pass that in the World Cup of Mexico ‘86, with the conflict still fresh in the minds of most, England and Argentina once again met in a competitive fixture for the first time in two decades.
The two goals scored by Maradona that June day a generation ago now have never been, nor never will be, forgotten. They were a study of complete contrast in that one came about due to a sublime skill and talent, while the other owed its creation to an exploitation of the dark arts of football.
Following Argentina’s ultimate 2-1 victory and passage to the semi-finals of a tournament they were destined to win, Maradona steadfastly refused to either apologise for or admit to handling the ball. Instead, he claimed the goal was scored by, ‘The Hand of God and the Head of Maradona.’
It was this statement more than the actual handball that led to Maradona being reviled to this day by large numbers of Englishmen.
Anyway, a May 1991 friendly at Wembley aside, the two nations didn’t meet again for a further dozen years when they were once again pitted against each other at the World Cup. This time it was a last-sixteen clash rather than a quarter-final one, but once again controversial headlines were never far away as David Beckham was to become the second Englishman to be sent off against Argentina in unedifying circumstances.
The match itself, it should be said, was an absolute cracker with the sides sharing four goals equally. Two penalties in the first ten minutes cancelled each other out before the prodigal talent that was Michael Own put England ahead with a goal that almost rivalled Maradona’s second a dozen years earlier. A well-worked free-kick routine (and, I feel, bad defending) allowed Argentina to draw level on the stroke of half-time and so the game was all set up for an explosive second-half.
When Beckham was ordered off following a clash with current Atletico manager, Diego Simone, the whole pattern of the game changed. From being a match of free-flowing and open football, the game became a cagey affair as England switched to two banks of four with just a single striker upfront. Argentina were unable to make much headway and the game petered out and into a penalty shoot-out from which the South Americans prevailed.
England once again felt hard done by. The sending off was harsh but Beckham’s own fault, and England thought they had won it when Sol Campbell headed home from a corner only to see the goal chalked off for a foul given against Alan Shearer. Although England, and Shearer, in particular, protested vehemently, the video footage does indeed indicate a clear (and patently unnecessary) infringement by Shearer.
After the game, the Argentinians are said to have celebrated in a gloatingly excessive manner when the two teams’ coaches were in the car park waiting to depart, and while this could have hardly done anything to improve relations between the two nations, it perhaps wasn’t the biggest deal in their recent shared histories.
Four years later England and Argentina met once more in the World Cup, this time in the 2002 group stages and this time both England and Beckham got a measure of revenge as a single goal slotted home by the then England captain was all that separated the sides.
Since 2002 the countries have met just once more – in a 2005 friendly played in Geneva when two very late England goals turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory.
Despite the somewhat testing relations between the two countries, a number of high-profile Argentinian players have played club football in England over the years from Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa as long ago as the 1970s and ‘80s, to more recent luminaries such as Carlos Tevez, Hernan Crespo, Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastian Veron.
Perhaps the relative infrequency of meetings over the past two decades has now gone some way to diluting the bitterness of the rivalry. Time will tell.