When you hear the name ‘Argentina’ mentioned by English football fans, it’s usually through clenched teeth. This is hardly surprising: as international sports rivalries go, it is hard to find a more intense one than England – Argentina. Despite controversies (remember the ‘Hand of God’?), the relationship between these football nations is closer and deeper than the occasional bitter moment would lead us all to believe. In fact, the Argentines themselves are quick to recognise the debt they owe the English for the beautiful game, even as they are equally swift in proclaiming themselves to be the students that surpassed the teacher! A bold claim perhaps, one you might think would be said half in jest. Then again, passions certainly run high in this Latin American country when it comes to football, and anything associated with the beautiful game is not taken lightly here.
The British legacy
While not everyone might agree with the Argentine’s own opinion, it is undeniable that Argentina’s footie history is one of the most venerable in the world. Football has been played in Argentina since the early 1840’s by British sailors on shore leave in the bustling seaport of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital and biggest city. Maritime trade, and the railway works that followed, resulted in a thriving British community in the vast South American country. It became a home away from home complete with its own newspapers, schools, social clubs and sports grounds.
It was in one of those British-run facilities, the Buenos Aires Cricket Club, where the first documented football match to be played in Argentina took place, on June 20th, 1867. A monolith now stands to commemorate the event and its organisers, business partners Thomas and James Hogg. Earlier that year, the brothers Hogg had advertised an open invitation in local English-language newspaper The Standard. A few days later the Buenos Aires Football Club was founded, the first of its kind in the New World and within 10 years of Sheffield FC, the first in England.
Through this invitation, two eight-man teams were put together, the Red caps and the White caps (caps were the norm back then to tell teams apart, not jerseys). The historic first match was an intense midday contest that kicked off at 12:30 pm and ended two hours later in a 4 – 0 victory for the Reds. A euphoric Thomas Hogg – despite apparently having played for the losing side – declared football to be ‘the best past-time, the simplest and most inexpensive for the youths of the middle classes and the populace’ although for a long time the game was only played by English gentlemen in exclusive sports clubs.
But not all Britons in that part of the world were well-off. About half a million immigrants arrived in Argentina in the 1880’s from the British Isles and continental Europe, in search of fortune, a better life, and the good working conditions offered by the prosperous expatriate community. Amongst them was a Glaswegian, Alexander Watson Hutton, who had brought with him a collection of balls and air-pumps that proved baffling to the local customs officers. The Edinburgh University humanities graduate had arrived in 1882 to take charge of the prestigious Saint Andrew’s School, where he intended to encourage the practice of sports and general physical activity. By then there were several football teams active in Buenos Aires, but Watson Hutton did a great deal to further promote the game. On February 21st, 1893, he founded the Argentine Association Football League – the first football league outside Britain – bringing together the teams of Saint Andrew’s School, English High School (which he founded), Quilmes Athletic Club, Caledonians, Lomas Athletic and Flores Athletic. Alexander Watson Hutton is acknowledged today as the ‘father of Argentine football’.
Football spread like wildfire in Argentina as the new century rolled in. The sport enjoyed a growing popularity among the native Argentines despite the fact that most football players and officials were British ex pats, and most British-founded clubs excluded the locals. But, unlike polo and other expensive sports introduced by the British, all that was really needed to play football was a piece of rough ground – called a potrero by the locals – anywhere in the barrio (the poor side of town) and a home-made ball. There was soon a proliferation of new clubs and, in 1912, a second league was founded called the Asociación Amateurs.
The presence of two active leagues created a complicated situation. A player was allowed to belong to two clubs at the same time, which in turn led to parallel tournaments between 1912 and 1914, and again between 1919 and 1926. The two leagues merged later that year, in an unsuccessful attempt to clear up the mess. Finally, on May 10th 1931, the Liga Argentina de Football was born, and later that same month the first modern professional tournament was played with 18 teams.
By this time, British influence on Argentine football had largely faded, remembered nevertheless by the ongoing local tradition of naming clubs in English. Three years later, in 1934, the governing organisation’s official name changed to the one it still has today: "Asociación del Fútbol Argentino” (AFA), the first to be founded in the American continent and the 8th oldest in the world.
The Argentine National Team
The national team of Argentina has won many accolades (see below), and is traditionally a feared contender. Los Albicelestes (the white-and-light blues, referring to the colours of both the team’s first kit and the Argentine national flag) have been players in the global stage since the beginning of international football, when they reached the finals of the very first World Cup in 1930. The Argentines have also been consistently at the top of the Copa América, the American Cup – an event that is even older than the World Cup – holding their own against such heavyweights as Brazil and Uruguay and taking the Cup home a record 14 times. The team reached first place in the FIFA World Rankings for the first time in March 2007. Many of the world’s top clubs feature Argentine players amongst their key members, especially in the Spanish and Italian leagues, and even in some English clubs, despite the rivalry.
Highs and lows
The Argentines have managed to collect a list of achievements that would make any national team proud, but it has not always been a smooth ride. There have been crushing defeats such as that in the Sweden World Cup of 1958, when they were beaten in the first round 3-1 by West Germany and 6-1 by a then modest Czechoslovakia. The Southern side returned home to a shower of insults and the added humiliation of being searched by tax officers with special orders from the political authorities to confiscate all the gifts that the players had bought for their families, according to Osvaldo Bayer, author of the classic Fútbol Argentino.
There have also been shows of less than sporting behaviour such as that shown in the 1966 England World Cup, when the Argentine team reacted angrily to German referee Rudolf Kreitlein’s sending-off of captain Antonio Rattín, a decision they regarded as unfair and racially motivated. The response to England manager Alf Ramsey’s refusal to allow his players the traditional after-match shirt swap was even fiercer. Among other things, the incidents included a charge on the host team’s dressing room that was only diffused by the joint efforts of stewards and police.
As the Argentines’ lowest point, 1966 is rivalled in the minds of many by that infamous ‘hand of God’ moment, 20 years later in 1986, about which so much has been written. Shortly into the second half of this World Cup match, Maradona shot a pass to José Valdano that missed its intended target. England left-midfielder Steve Hodge took it instead, and tried to hook the ball clear. He also miscalculated, however, and the ball flew into the penalty area, which Maradona, still running, had reached. Both Maradona and England goalkeeper Peter Shilton jumped for it. The ball hit the back of the Argentine’s hand and went into the goal. That an infringement had just taken place was something that went unnoticed by many; Shilton himself, television commentators, and, crucially, Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser. According to Maradona’s autobiography, the South American star was well aware of the offence, but played along when the referee declared the goal valid. The ‘Hand of God’ phrase by which the incident is now known came from a statement made by an unrepentant Maradona. During a post-match press conference he described the goal as having been scored ‘a little bit with the head of Maradona and another bit with the hand of God’ (un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios’ ), which went on to become one of the most oft-quoted statements in sport journalism history.
Perhaps the best example of the contrasts that are the hallmark of Argentinian football came in that very same match against England. Within minutes of scoring his infamous first goal Diego Maradona produced a second goal that was nothing short of stellar. From deep within his own half, Maradona received a pass from team-mate Héctor Enrique and made a mad 60-metre dash to the goal, outwitting the four-man England defence plus goalkeeper Shilton, to make it 2-0 for Argentina. Ever since, it has been considered the best goal in World Cup history, and was chosen by fans as the Goal of the Century on the official FIFA website.
Maradona’s dazzling performance illustrated the best of the Argentine style of elegant technique and individual daring. It was a controversial match, with the highs as extreme as the lows, but true sportsmanship seems to have prevailed with time. England’s Gary Lineker, who also scored that day, has since said of his opponent, ‘(it was) probably the one and only time in my whole career I felt like applauding the opposition scoring a goal’. In turn, Maradona would later pay tribute to his adversaries, saying, ‘I don’t think I could have done it against any other team because they all used to knock you down.’ ‘They (the England team) are probably the noblest in the world’.
But it’s not just about one-man pyrotechnics in the Argentine game. There is also the Argentine philosophy of ‘creative football’ (fútbol creativo), the relentless attacking teamwork that has consistently kept them in the highest ranks amongst their South American neighbours, and first took them to the top of the international heap when they won the 1978 World Cup, which they hosted. This was a very important victory in many ways, as it brought much needed emotional relief to a country torn apart by a brutally oppressive military regime and a plummeting economy. The Argentine people took full advantage of this brief respite from reality, and celebrations famously went on for days.
The secret of success
Arguably then, Argentina might not be the most consistent team in the world, but they are certainly one of the most successful. What’s their secret? A large part of it is probably a very healthy dose of self-esteem. In the words of Osvaldo Ardiles, one of the stars of the World Cup champions of 1978, ‘We always had this feeling that we were the best in the world, a typical Argentinian notion’. It is also about how important football is to the Argentines, more so probably than any other aspect of daily life, even national politics. As Ardiles reflects, matter-of-factly, ‘The president of (Argentine FC) River Plate is more important than the governor of a small province’.
- FIFA World Ranking: No. 1 (March 2007).
- FIFA World Cup Winners: 1978, 1986.
- FIFA World Cup Runners-Up: 1930, 1990.
- FIFA Confederations Cup Winners: 1992.
- FIFA Confederations Cup Runners-Up: 1995, 2005.
- Copa América (American Cup) Winners: 1921, 1925, 1927, 1929, 1937, 1941, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1955, 1957, 1959, 1991, 1993.
- Copa América (American Cup) Runners-Up: 1916, 1917, 1920, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1935, 1942, 1959, 1967, 2004, 2007.
- Olympic Games – Gold Medal: 2004.
- Olympic Games – Silver Medal: 1928, 1996.
- Pan American Games – Gold Medal: 1951, 1955, 1959, 1971, 1995, 2003.
- Pan American Games – Silver Medal: 1963.
- Kirin Cup Winners: 1992.