Ricky Villa: 'I recognise I am a little part of English football history'

Brian Viner Interviews the Spurs legend who led the invasion of foreign players and scored arguably the FA Cup final's best goal, yet he is not entirely happy with his legacy
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Looking uncannily like a tanned, younger version of the actor Christopher Lee, Ricky Villa picks me up at Broxbourne station in Hertfordshire and drives the mile or so to the home of Osvaldo Ardiles, where he stays when he is in England. He points out Ray Clemence's house on the way, and tells me that Stevie Perryman lives nearby, too, as does Keith Burkinshaw, the manager who, by signing Ardiles and Villa for Tottenham Hotspur following the 1978 World Cup, loaded the gunpowder for the foreign invasion that has culminated in certain English clubs regularly fielding 11 non-British players. Did someone mention Arsenal? Villa, for the record, tells me with a wink that he wanted Barcelona to win the Champions' League final. Once a "Tottingham" loyalist, always a "Tottingham" loyalist.

However, he regrets the phenomenon that he unwittingly helped to unleash, of English teams fielding mostly foreigners. "I think there should be six English players per team, but that is against the laws of the European Community. I also think the manager of England has to be English. The team needs someone to coach in an English way. It surprised me when Eriksson got the job. I was pleased Scolari didn't. I don't like him, he is not attack-minded. He is a destroyer of football, I think, and won the World Cup only because it is impossible to stop Brazil playing [attacking football]."

Villa's command of English, while rather better than my Spanish, is shaky. He apologises for it, and seems pleased when I say I will ensure he speaks English more fluently in print than he does in person, and will leave out the long pauses while he tries to think of a word and consults his 26-year-old daughter, who was born here during his five years with Spurs and has dual British-Argentinian nationality. "Thank you very much," he says.

He is staying at casa Ardiles in Broxbourne until it is time to set off for Munich. Like all World Cup winners, he has been invited by Fifa to the opening match between Germany and Costa Rica. And since he was also invited to the 25th anniversary reunion a few weeks ago of the Spurs players who won the FA Cup in 1981 (and might not have done without him), he decided to make a trip of it and spend the summer in Europe with his wife and daughter. His other three children are back in Argentina, where he still plies his trade in football, as general manager of the Second Division club Talleres de Cordoba. A good friend of his owns 49 per cent of the club, while the majority share belongs to the French club St-Etienne, who are trying to develop it as a feeder for the European leagues.

First things first, though. Villa will be writing a column for The Independent during the World Cup and I ask him which team he expects to win it.

"For me it's Brazil," he says. "All their great players - Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ronaldo - have experience of playing in Europe, which is very important. England have three or four very good players, but their problem is up front. Argentina always have a chance, and I think they will at least reach the best eight, but football is crazy, so you never know. There is a lot of pressure from the Argentinian people. They think it's the best country in the world at football. And we certainly have some good players, like Messi and Riquelme, but some people think the coach, Jose Pekerman, will not be able to deal with them. He had a brilliant career coaching youth teams, but now he is in the big job and he has never worked with top professionals before. He's quiet, not aggressive, which I like. I tell people we should give him a chance."

Villa's own international career began in 1974, just as the chain-smoking perfectionist Cesar Luis Menotti began to prepare the four-year plan that in 1978 would deliver the World Cup for Argentina on home turf. Sven Goran Eriksson would weep at the lengths to which Menotti was able to go in masterminding Argentina's campaign; he basically had his entire squad of players corralled together for five months.

"From the January to the June the whole squad was together, at a camp just outside Buenos Aires. The word for that in Spanish is concentracion. Every two weeks we were allowed to see our families, which was hard for me because I had just got married. We were allowed out on a Saturday afternoon, and had to be back before dinner on Sunday. In the last month we were no longer allowed out at all. I shared a room with Ossie and [Mario] Kempes for almost five months.

"But it worked. We worked hard on our physical conditioning and Menotti changed the whole mentality of Argentinian football. Before that, we had good players but no discipline. He brought in discipline. He challenged the players to be more professional. I respected him very much, and even now he's the only person I listen to about football. He's over 70 and everyone believes he's too old to coach, but he still talks a lot of sense. I see him about every two weeks for a coffee. He still smokes, but not as many."

Not least of the big decisions Menotti had to take in 1978 concerned the 17-year-old prodigy Diego Maradona: whether or not to include him in the final squad. In the end, the manager decided that Maradona was simply too young, a precedent overlooked by Eriksson when he decided to take Theo Walcott to Germany.

"It is a very similar situation," says Villa, being ever so slightly generous to Walcott; by the summer of 1978 Maradona was already well-established in Argentinian football, and manifestly a unique talent. "The thing is, experience is very important. On the other hand, if you are a great player, then play. It was a difficult decision for Eriksson. With Diego, he started with us in concentracion in January, in a squad of 25, but left a month before the World Cup when the squad had to be reduced to 22.

"Menotti's only worry was he was too young. In training, Diego was superb. I remember talking to Ossie and Kempes about it. We all thought he had to be in the team. But unfortunately for me he played in my position. When he did come into the side after the World Cup, I never played for the national team again."

Villa played just two halves during the 1978 World Cup, in the 0-0 draw with Brazil - "a horrible game" - and the 2-0 defeat of Poland. But he was a careful observer of the 6-0 hammering of Peru which took Argentina to the final, and is dismissive of accusations that the match, which Menotti's team needed to win by four clear goals, was rigged.

"Everybody talks about that, and they can think what they want. I prefer to talk about the football, but they are free to have an opinion. When big money is involved in football anything can happen, but things like that don't involve the players. If it happens, it happens between the top men."

Whatever, it is indubitably true that Argentina's "top men" had a strong vested interest in their country winning the World Cup. The ruling military junta was highly unpopular, not least because of the nationwide 10pm curfew, which was briefly lifted following the 3-1 win over the Dutch in the final.

"The curfew was very bad for the Argentinian way of life," Villa recalls. "But for three or four days after the final the government said, 'It's OK, just go out and enjoy yourselves'. The most powerful man in the junta, [Jorge] Videla, had come to our camp to wish us luck. But I remember also Menotti saying that we must win the World Cup for football reasons, not political reasons."

Little though Villa knew it, politics would loom over his playing career again, following his move to England in time for the 1978-79 season. "Keith [Burkinshaw] wanted to buy two Argentinian World Cup players, but the big names, like [the captain, Daniel] Passarella, were not available. I played for Racing, Ossie for Huracan, poor clubs which needed the money, so we came here. We didn't know much about English football. We knew about Manchester United because they had played against Estudiantes de la Plata in 1968, and we knew a little about Liverpool, but I'd never heard anything about 'Tottingham'."

Villa's career in England got off to a near-perfect start, with a goal in the season's opening day 1-1 draw against League champions Nottingham Forest. But off the pitch, he took longer to settle. "The money was good, and the club was brilliant to me, but I couldn't read the papers, couldn't watch television, and even though Ossie was here, I missed Argentina. Now I realise I was lucky. And I have to recognise that I am a little part of the history of English football."

Villa's stature in the history books, already assured by his place in the vanguard of the foreign invasion, was compounded by his scintillating winning goal against Manchester City in the 1981 FA Cup final. If it's not the greatest Cup final goal of all time, it's hard to think of many better.

And with a chuckle he tells me that even now his son will show it to new friends who come to the house. "He says, 'Look, my daddy scored this great goal'."

The following year, Spurs reached the final again, but this time, with the Falklands War at its height, Villa refused to play. "Ossie had gone to play at Paris St-Germain, but I stayed. And I was criticised in Argentinian newspapers. They said, 'Ricky is happy in the enemy country'. The stupid bastards. I was professional, I had a contract, and people here treated me very well. Sometimes I was booed, but that was all. An English player in Buenos Aires at the same time could never have stayed. It was easy for me to stay here. But it was not difficult to decide to miss the '82 Cup final. I knew history would say whether I was right or not."

After leaving Spurs in 1983, Villa played in the United States for a year before joining the Colombian team Deportivo Cali, where the flamboyant Carlos Valderrama was among his team-mates. He watched the 1986 World Cup at his home in Buenos Aires and remains philosophical about Maradona's infamous "Hand of God" goal in the quarter-final against England.

"I wasn't happy with the situation, but that is the way we play in South America, right to the edge of the law. If the referee doesn't see it, try it. That's not only the way we play football, it's the way we live. I must say I didn't realise at the time [that Maradona used his hand], but I knew that Peter Shilton would not pretend. When I saw the replay, I could see Diego glance at the linesman before he started to celebrate. It wasn't nice.

"But we still say in Argentina that Diego won that World Cup on his own. I have a good relationship with him. We have coffee together from time to time, and although he can be aggressive in a group, when you are alone with him he is a lovely man."

Villa, I dare say, is even lovelier; a courtly, charming, courteous man who cheerfully makes quite an admission for an Argentine, even one so warmly embraced in north London.

"If Argentina do not win the World Cup it would be good to see England win," he says. "Why not? It would mean so much to the fans here. But before that I would like to see another match between Argentina and England. It is like a derby, because it is about more than football. It is about politics too, even now." A rich chortle. "It is always very, very special."