A 5-1 win and the islands are theirs

June 7, 2002

Football, foot-and-mouth and the Falklands - English-Argentine relations have been rife with conflict for 35 years. Klaus Dodds takes a look at foul play on and off the pitch.

At 12.30pm today, England and Argentina once again take to the football field, in the 2002 World Cup. The atmosphere, already charged, will no doubt be feverish when the teams from two famously football-crazy nations seek to secure qualification to the final rounds.

Only in the past 35 years have Anglo-Argentine matches been such tense affairs - it was, after all, British sailors who introduced the game to Argentina and Brazil in the 19th century.

The 1966 World Cup quarter-final, at London's Wembley Stadium, remains a case in point. Minutes before the end of the first half, the tall and imposing Argentine captain, Antonio Rattin, was dismissed by the West German referee for persistent dissent. For the next eight minutes, Rattin refused to leave the pitch and the game nearly descended into total farce. England went on to win the game with a Geoff Hurst goal.

At the end of the match, the England manager, Alf Ramsey, achieved notoriety for refusing to allow his players to exchange shirts with their rivals and then famously accusing the Argentine team of behaving like "animals". It was a word that was to haunt Anglo-Argentine relations for the years leading up to the invasion of the Falklands Islands in April 1982.

Ramsey's outburst was doubly unfortunate because it incited a football and diplomatic-related crisis. In sporting terms, the controversial match led to widespread suspicion that the 1966 World Cup tournament was deliberately rigged by European nations to exclude South American teams from the final. Sir Michael Cresswell, the British ambassador in Buenos Aires, bore the diplomatic brunt of Argentine displeasure just at a moment when British and Argentine negotiators were trying to secure a settlement to the Falklands problem.

Angry Argentine fans besieged the British Embassy and Latin American press coverage was uniformly hostile to England's "dubious" World Cup victory. Ramsey's outburst was used as evidence that England/ Britain's views of Argentina were deeply prejudicial. The Falklands was now no longer the only divisive issue affecting a previously cordial relationship.

Recently released files from the Public Record Office reveal that this parlous situation was compounded still further when in 1967 an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain was subsequently blamed on infected Argentine meat supplies. During the ensuing farming crisis, foreign secretary George Brown caused further uproar when he refused to eat the beef offered at a special dinner hosted by the Argentine Embassy in London. While no longer a strategically vital trading partner, Britain had depended on Argentine beef imports in the aftermath of the second world war.

Football, foot-and-mouth and the Falklands transformed Anglo-Argentine relations in the late 1960s. Alongside Gibraltar, the contested status of the Falklands became a headline issue. With the government intent on imposing a post-colonial settlement on the small Falklands community in favour of Argentina, significant elements of the House of Commons and the tabloid press used the image of Argentines as "animals" to argue that an unacceptable "sell-out" was planned. The Falklands lobby also weighed in, demanding that the British government respect the "wishes" of remote "kith and kin".

The Wilson and Callaghan governments nonetheless encouraged the Falklands to develop a strong economic and political dependency on Argentina. The islands were left deliberately vulnerable and no contingency defence plans were in place for possible Argentine military action. Mindful of persistent balance-of-payment crises, Labour governments were eager to sell weapons and ex-Royal Navy ships to the military regimes in Argentina and Chile. By the late 1970s, it was acknowledged within the Foreign Office that if Argentina chose to invade, there was little that Britain could do about it. England did not qualify for the 1978 World Cup and the euphoria of the eventual Argentine victory helped to shore up a murderous Argentine military regime.

Political failure, combined with geographical ignorance, was cruelly exposed in April 1982 when Argentina launched an invasion and the Ministry of Defence discovered to its embarrassment that it possessed no detailed maps of the Falklands. Professional geographers played their part in ensuring that the British task force had at least some understanding of sub-Antarctic environments.

While much of the serious action was unfolding on remote battlefields, Anglo-Argentine antagonism was being played out at the Barcelona World Cup finals. England fans complained that Spanish police were being overly aggressive when fans from both sides clashed over the Falklands/Malvinas. Respected Argentine players such as Ossie Ardilles and Ricky Villa found themselves in an unenviable position, having played with great success in the English First Division. By June 1982, British forces had reclaimed the Falklands and both Argentina and England limped out of the World Cup. The victory parade in October 1982, organised by prime minister Margaret Thatcher, afforded the British armed forces a chance to celebrate their achievements, in marked contrast to their onerous tours of duty in Ireland.

But the British victory did not resolve the Falklands question, and it remains an outstanding territorial grievance. For most Argentines, England's controversial defeat to Argentina in the 1986 World Cup finals was richly deserved. The "hand of God" first goal and a brilliant solo display for the second by Diego Maradona was simply "revenge" for the military defeat four years earlier.

Both countries and their political leaders used the Falklands to project symbols and values relating to British resurgence or Argentine grievance. Neither side was prepared to forgive or forget. For those with longer historical memories, this parlous position stood in stark contrast to the 1920s and 1930s, when Argentina was referred to as part of Britain's "sixth dominion" or even its "informal empire".

Happily, Anglo-Argentine relations have much improved in the past decade despite the controversial sending-off of the England player David Beckham during the 1998 World Cup encounter between the two sides. Predictably, though, both sets of supporters screamed about the Falklands/Malvinas and some middle-aged English fans baited the Argentine fans with cries of "animals".

Apart from reminding us that football matches are never divorced from international political overtures, the unresolved Falklands situation should give us pause for thought. What do the Falklands (and for that matter Gibraltar) tell us about post-imperial Britain?

Perhaps Britain's reluctance to devolve itself of these white settler colonies is evidence that successive British governments, especially from Thatcher onwards, have not been quite ready to let the sun set on the remaining fragments of the British Empire. After the 1997 Hong Kong transfer, these are the only two remaining contested colonies (now rebranded as overseas territories).

Alternatively, and more controversially for others, the current Labour's government commitment to uphold the "wishes" of these small communities might be seen as evidence of a laudable desire to protect the principle of self-determination while acknowledging in part past colonial histories. Sadly, under "old" Labour the people of Diego Garcia were never given the choice. Nevertheless, while some white Britons might find the Falklands a reassuring link between Britain and her former empire, many more would probably be happy to swap the Falklands in return for a 5-1 win over Argentina.

Klaus Dodds is senior lecturer in geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of the forthcoming Pink Ice: Britain and the South Atlantic Empire , published by I B Tauris.

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