An exclusive with Jonathan Wilson on all things Argentina, football, and how the beautiful game allowed them redemption post the Falklands War.
South Sandwich Islands may seem like the name of an imaginary island-and-sub themed amusement park in Hawaii bought out by Subway IP Inc., but while it is real, it is, to our disappointment, not a tourist destination with a complementary chicken tikka sub at the end of every ride. In fact, situated on the outer peripheries of Antarctica, it was one of the pawns of an improbable war that injured the membrane of an agitating nation and eventually stung the totalitarian military Junta coiling around it.
On April 2, 1982, General and President of Argentina, Leopoldo Galtieri, sanctioned 300 marines to seize control of Stanley, the capital of the British-occupied territory of the Falklands, and sacked governor, Rex Hunt. It was an undisguised attempt to establish the long-standing claim for sovereignty over the Islas Malvinas, and, of course, to boost TRPS and public opinion at a time when the police state was suffering from seething civil unrest and economic collapse.
“We heard tremendous bangs on the backdoor. There were shouts for us to come out and kneel over in the yard. There were Argentinians troops with sub-machine guns trained on us. Mum thought we were going to die.”
– Neil Hewitt, Falklands resident
The invasion caused a collective catharsis of this catatonic nation and justified misguided nationalism. 200,000 Argentinians poured into the city centre of Buenos Aires to celebrate. The gamble paid off…until it didn’t.
Señor Galtieri banked on the fact that the Falklands were far too distant and of far too little consequence for Britain to retaliate. He figured the British would be too self-involved to notice. He would have been right if only the timing wasn’t the worst – the people of Britain were in a foul mood. In recession, with unemployment passing the 3 million mark and ticker tapes rolling with reports of outbreak of riots, Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, the portentous politician that she was, used the invasion as a misdirection, as a cause for a united front, and ultimately as a propaganda tool for re-election. Retaliate, Britain did.
“We are here because for the first time in many years, British sovereign territory has been invaded by a foreign power. When the Governor left the Falklands, he said that the people were in tears. They do not want to be Argentine. He said that the islanders are still tremendously loyal…The government has now decided that a large taskforce will sail as soon as all the preparations are complete. HMS Invincible will be in the lead and will leave port on Monday.”
– Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, House of Commons Speech
8,000 miles away from home, limited provisions and manpower, battering rains, rugged terrain and freezing conditions – the odds seemed insurmountable for the British marines; while just 400 miles away from the mainland, the Argentinians were fighting at their doorstep. It was a war Argentina should have won, but a prevalent sense of inferiority that plagued the minds of its people for so long finally caught up. And it was apparent nowhere more so than in the battle at Goose Green.
British forces yomping from the drop-off site in San Carlos (north Falklands) were pinned down at the base of Darwin Hill, under heavy fire from troops dug in along the ridge, 1 mile away from their objective of razing Goose Green. The settlement had Argentinian regiments garrisoned due to its strategic importance. 14 hours into the battle, the British suffered heavy casualties and were utterly exhausted.
The leading officer of Para 2, Col. H James fell in the line of duty, forcing second-in-command, Major Chris Keeble to make the momentous decision of calling in air support – in the form of two Harrier jets sweeping down over the battle and dropping cluster bombs on Argentine artillery positions. In the aftermath of the blitz, Keeble picked the opportune moment to bluff the Argentinians into an early surrender.
“Major Keeble sent a strongly-worded despatch to the Argentinian commander. In a highly confident tone, he demanded an Argentinian surrender, warning him that he’ll bombard them heavily and hold them responsible for any civilian casualties if they went on fighting. Amazingly, the gamble worked, the Argentinians agreed to surrender!”
– Peter Snow, British historian
At the crack of dawn, to the Para 2’s joy and bewilderment, over 900 Argentinian troops laid down their arms – twice their number, and thrice the number of what they expected to face had the battle continued. This loss set the precedent for the rest of the war, and the complex of inferiority and lost glory has since loomed over Argentine history, the architecture in Buenos Aires…and in football.
But before the war, there had been a World Cup (by then, bitter rivals Brazil had already racked up three trophies – ’58, ’62, ’70). Around the same time the radio waves across the British Empire were subjected to comedian Andy Cameron’s mind-numbing ‘Ally’s Tartan Army’ (even reaching 6 on the UK charts), the howl of the klaxons and curfews choked the music from the tango holes. The palpable pall of humidity and military dictatorship hung over the lead-up to 1978 World Cup, Argentina. When the curtains were raised, the greatest show in the world was turned into a morbid circus.
The head of the Argentinian team was a houndstooth blazer sporting, chain-smoking, long-haired, left-leaning liberal Cesar Luis Menotti. “You can lose a game,” the cultured coach used to say, “but what you cannot lose is dignity.” Him, at a time when jeans and beard were seen as a bohemian affront to right-wing authority; intellectuals were the enemy of the state.
Death threats to Argentinian players were routine. National team left-back, Alberto Tarantini’s friends were abducted by the Junta government to make him acutely aware of the responsibilities and the repercussions. But Luis Cesar Menotti did his best to protect his players, and his players repaid the faith. At the final, before Kempes and Bertoni’s extra-time goals edged out the defiant Netherlands, the host team was instructed to salute General Videla while the national anthem was played. Menotti’s men faced the crowd instead. After the final whistle, many of the Argentine players snubbed a congratulatory handshake from the general. These gestures, while small, were significant. Through football, Luis Cesar Menotti was able to provide reprieve in the times of repression and remind people of the qualities that redeem them.
On the 35th anniversary of the Falklands War, Football Paradise has the privilege to publish our interview with the multi-award winning football historian and journalist, Jonathan Wilson, whose latest book, Angels with Dirty Faces, in all its glory, is the most comprehensive examination of Argentinian football. And since Argentinian football by its virtues reflects the evolution of socio-economic conditions of its purveyors, he is by far the most eligible authority on the subject.
On the allure of Argentina
Jonathan Wilson: It’s a country where I first went down in 2006, when I was researching Inverting the Pyramid. It was one of those places where, as soon as you stepped out of the taxi at the hotel, you felt a connection to the place. Spent a lot of time there over the last 10 years, there was a spell of mostly 3 years where I spent a month in London, a month in Buenos Aires.
The city of Buenos Aires has a sense of faded grandeur about the place. It was one of the thriving, great cities of the world in the 1920s, 1930s and has suffered decline since; the country always harking back to that period between the wars.
“Around the turn of the twentieth century, Argentina was so buoyant that the Nicaraguan poet Rúben Darío described Argentinians as ‘the Yankees of the south’. In the 1920s Argentina was politically stable and economically prosperous, a thriving young nation often compared favourably to Canada or Australia. In 1928 its GNP per capita was the eighth highest in the world. By 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund’s figures, it had fallen to sixtieth.”
– Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina.
The architecture of the streets feels like a movie set of a Paris between the wars; it makes you feel like you’re in an important city. The attractiveness of the old buildings in the most unexpected of places makes you feel like you are in an important city – like parts of London, Dublin and New York. What else is striking, is that it is difficult to ever find a bad meal. Argentinians have a real respect for food. Every place, you know if you buy food, it’ll be passing a minimum of 6/10.
As a country, it’s unfathomably vast. It has fewer people than in Britain (61.4 million), but the country in itself is three times or four times as big (maybe even more). I went to Bariloche in Patagonia for a holiday, got on the plane in Buenos Aires for two and a half hours, and at the airport there was a map beside the luggage carousel. So, I’m looking at the map and looked for the place somewhere near the bottom – two hours, I must have flown across the country – then I realised we have only travelled a bit of the country, and there was still four or five hours to go! There is the real wilderness where nobody lives. Some parts are still largely unexplored, and if you walk for three or four days out of the city, you could be in big trouble!
Argentina also has a uniqueness to its football – the fragility of it, the brilliance of it, the cynicism of it, the sense of a disaster always waiting to happen…those are enamouring themes.
On how, football, by its sheer magnetism pulled together a fractious country, easing Argentina’s identity crisis
Jonathan Wilson: Where Argentina’s history is really significant in this regard is that football played a huge part in nation-building. You have this country, where, in 1918, 80% of all present either had not been born there, or their parents had not been born there. It’s a completely new culture, where people don’t have roots, no traditions, nothing to say that this is the way we’ve always done it, no constitution. You had the British control – while they were never a part of the Empire; economically the British control of 30 to 40 years up until the first World War left a cultural vacuum to be filled. In fact, even before the British were gone, there were unsettling questions being asked on the lines of ‘What is Argentina?’ And the people don’t realise it, but the only thing that bonds all these immigrants from Spain, Italy, the Eastern and Northern Europeans, Arabs, British and Irishmen, the German and the French, these people who have come together to make up this nation – the only thing that they have in common, is that when Argentina play against Uruguay, Brazil, or Chile, they want the team in the blue and white shirts to win. So, football then becomes this incredibly important self-conscious projection of the nation.
On being an Englishman in Argentina
Jonathan Wilson: Like so much in Argentina, there’s a real dichotomy there. Obviously, Isla Malvinas (The Falklands) still looms large, they are still trying to raise funds for the veterans. It’s the only war Argentina has ever been involved in; the wounds are still fresh. Equally, Paul McCartney and Oasis are massive in Argentina. English music is huge.
I encountered hardly any animosity. There’s the odd joke, but most of it is pretty well meant. By and large, the anglophilia outweighs the anglophobia. If you go to Palermo, one of the middle-class barrios (neighbourhood) in Buenos Aires, they still have the old, red English post-boxes – exactly like the ones they have in English streets, the red post-boxes the British put in the 19th century.
As for how you get under the skin of a nation? You spend a lot of time there, you talk to a lot of people, and you read a lot of books! Same as you get under the skin of anything. I’ve worked with journalists in Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, in South Africa, many places which would have many more reasons to have animosity for the British. The truth of it is, the vast majority of people just treat you for who you are, and not on your nationality – if you show a genuine interest, and if you are open to people, they respond by being accommodating.
On sporting animosity and anglophilia
Jonathan Wilson: The sporting animosity is also a strange one, because, as I’ve said, there is huge amounts of anglophilia in Argentina. Take the case of another (in)famous Argentinian, no. 10, skipper, Antonio Rattín, who was sent off in the quarter-final of the 1966 World Cup in England vs the hosts (German referee Rudolf Kreitlein sent the Boca Juniors legendary midfielder for “violence of the tongue”, despite the referee not knowing a semblance of Spanish. Raging Rattín, deeming the call biased and in favour of the home nation, refused to leave. He stormed off the pitch to impudently park his backside on the once-creaseless red carpet in the Royal Box which was designated for the Queen to glide on. Rattín, all arms and legs, had to be escorted from the field by policemen, but not before he wrung a British corner flag on his way out, hoiking bits of chocolate being thrown at him back into the crowd. This sparked, arguably the long-lasting rivalry between both national teams. Rattín’s spectacle was enough to send FIFA scrambling into briskly devising the yellow card rule following the match). You expect him to be very anti-English, he is very angry still about getting sent off, and still thinks that tournament was fixed; but he really loves the English. That dichotomy is very, very odd. The day after he was sent off, he went to tour Buckingham Palace! Then he went to Harrods (a famous retail store)! – When am I going to see London again? Might as well make the most of it!
The anglophobia is often overplayed in the football context, particularly. Look at Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham; nobody dislikes him! He’s incredibly popular, the fact that he’s Argentinian is pretty much of total irrelevance.
Look at the stuff Maradona said about the Malvinas recently, compared to what he said at the time – in 1986, just before the quarter-final, he was asked in the press conference whether it meant more because of the war, and his reply was – I played at Ossie’s (Osvaldo Ardiles, Tottenham legend, close friend and compatriot of Diego’s) testimonial a month ago and got a standing ovation at White Hart Lane, how could I hate them?! And now he says, ‘‘yes, we were doing it for our dead soldiers’’ – Maradona says things now for effect. I think the former statement was actually closer to what he felt at the time.
The English fascination
Jonathan Wilson: A large number of British schools that they set up in the 19th century are still dominant. They helped in the inception of football in Argentina – another juncture where football played a part in further easing the anglophobia. The English gentlemen is this figure that they are still fascinated by. I went out with an Argentinian girl for some years – the school she went to when she was growing up, they spoke Spanish till lunchtime, and spoke in English in the afternoons. Her English was fantastic. It’s now normal for a middle-class person to go to that kind of school.
Why football should be treated like other forms of arts
Jonathan Wilson: The book examines those reasons, and attempts to place football in a cultural context, which I think is very normal to do in other disciplines of art, be it in literature, music or film. But for some reason, sports or football has never been taken seriously by cultural historians, or hadn’t – until I started writing Inverting the Pyramid. What I attempt is to examine football as a cultural mode like any other. And specifically, looking at the evolution of football as the central narrative of that process.
There will be tension from their side ’cause they lost the war. We won it, so there won’t be any tension on us. We are the kings. We are the champions of the world.
– An English football fan on the eve of the World Cup quarter final vs Argentina
Argentina wasn’t expecting the Harrier jet prior to the war. The aircraft’s temperament was largely untested. However, anyone who has seen it fly agreed that it was one-of-a-kind at the time: unique in its manoeuvrability, able to take off and turn on a dime, and operate from short runways. It was a game-changer in the Falklands, armed with the accuracy of heat-seeking ‘sidewinder’ missiles.
In many ways, Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup, Mexico, was a footballing embodiment of a Harrier, and his left boot, a sidewinder. For England, in the quarter-finals, Maradona’s Hand of God was both the cluster bomb and the bluff at Goose Green.
We believed we could make it here, but nobody believed in us. So, we give a slap in the face to everyone who didn’t believe…including Argentinians.
– Diego Maradona, on reaching the 1986 World Cup final.
Plunged into a state of necessary anarchy after the war, something that certain nations require from time to time, in healthy, irreverent dosages, of course, Argentina’s World Cup win in ’86 (3-2 vs Germany) four years later, exemplified the right application of the spirit of nationalism for generations to come. So it won’t be an exaggeration to suggest that, like Para 2, Bilardo’s team were given the pedestal and the reverence of war heroes.
While the wins did give the nation another welcome reprieve, and memories to rely on for a lifetime, some of the wounds left open by the existing government will take generations to heal. The Junta regime from 1976 to 1983 inaugurated a new technique of repression – which was to disappear people. Over 30,000 citizens were disappeared off to death camps, and have their public records expunged.
500 new mothers who gave birth in the detention centres during that period have been looking and mourning for their lost children ever since, under the name of Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo (the mothers of Plaza de Mayo) and Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (the grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo).
“The first organisation to defy the dictatorship was the Mothers and the Grandmothers of the Disappeared. They fuelled, with the motherhood, dissent and imbued political awareness, and were the earliest leaders of the resistance movement.
“Even today they continue to march, wearing the white scarf (which is a sign of peace), every Thursday, to demand their children to be found. Mothers and elderly grandmothers, women, taking the streets, acting as agents of change. This is a kind of middle-class feminism previously unseen in Latin America.”
– Rita De Grandis, Professor of Hispanic Studies
Raul Alfonsin (president 1983-1980) dropped the ball and passed the ‘Ley de Obidencia Debida’, which declared that the military was only acting out of what it perceived to be its duty. Carlos Menem (president 1989-1999), to add insult to injury, issued ‘indultos’ or pardon to high-ranking military officials standing trial to multiple counts of state terrorism and murder.
South America’s tendency to fall into the trap of populist governments may have roots in the escapades of Simon Bolivar (imagine if South America had King Arthur, fending off the Spanish and uniting states, imagine then if he was real and operated in the 1800s). The inherent preference for the caudillismo and charismatic leadership, instead of a pragmatic one who may introduce subtle, nuanced reforms in civil society. Argentina is no different. Alfonsin resigned when Argentina hit another wave of reckless recession. Menin established a state of unchecked neoliberalism, creating the prevalent inequality, the effects of which, Argentina in 2017, still feel today.
Very few places have had more revolutions and rebellions stirred and quelled than in the continent of South America. Even fewer nations have had their identity redeemed as timely by the sport of football as Argentina. Yet there remains a sense of inferiority and lost glory. This is all to say, football can only do so much.
“I think too much was made of it. By winning the World Cup we didn’t change the world, we didn’t bring down the price of bread. It’s a lovely thought that football players can solve people’s problems; I wish we could. We’d all be better off.”
– Diego Maradona
Footnote: After the war, the British government offered to return the bodies of the Argentinian dead for burial. The government declared, ‘these islands are a part of Argentina, and the bodies would remain there.’ On September 2016, current President of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, informally raised the agenda of the disputed islands with Theresa May, Prime Minister of UK, at a United Nations luncheon, only for it to be swatted away.
Protecting their best interests: A platoon of Gentoo penguins patrolling Kidney Cove, a stretch of beach across the Falklands. (Reuters/Enrique Marcarian)