World Cup 98: A legacy of skill laced with spite

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By Norman Fox

ENGLAND V ARGENTINA: a fixture with an edge made spitefully sharp by past controversy and conflict. To be re-enacted tomorrow, it promises probably the most uncompromising match of the World Cup so far. Argentinian football is a blend of the pretty, the passionate and the pretty vicious. Ironically, the English can take some of the credit and the blame.

It was the arrival of English sailors in Buenos Aires in the 1860s that provided the game's roots. Unruly matches were played on wasteland around the port, but as more British people settled, so the schools they set up played a slightly more reputable game. Clubs were formed by the British- owned railway companies and Buenos Aires FC was founded in 1867, though it consisted entirely of British and Italians.

Although the locals formed the Quilmes and Rosario Central clubs, a teacher at the English High School, Alexander Watson Hutton, became the first president of the Argentinian Association Football League, which was set up in 1891. For years afterwards the statutes of the association were written in English, though largely disregarded as the organisation of the game struggled with breakaway groups and bitterness between Boca Juniors (a port- based, working-class club founded by an Irishman, Patrick MacCarthy) and River Plate, portrayed as middle class.

In later years it became customary for the best players to move abroad, to the detriment of the national team. The export business has never stopped. A glance at Argentina's squad today shows that only six of the 22 players are home based.

Although they have twice won the World Cup, Argentina's real contribution to the world game has been an endless supply of outstanding players, among them Alfredo Di Stefano, Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona and the much maligned (in England) Antonio Ubaldo Rattin.

To suggest that Rattin, Argentina's giant defender and captain in 1966, was a superb attacking centre-half remains rather like insisting on emphasising that, while Maradona cheated England with his "Hand of God" goal against England in 1986, he actually finished them off them with one of the most astounding goals ever seen in the World Cup.

Rattin is remembered only for standing belligerently, hands on hips at Wembley, defying the little German referee Rudolf Kreitlein, who was trying to send him off. Without him Argentina knew they were lost. With him they may well have won the cup. His action epitomised Argentina's ability to confound themselves. England went on to win 1-0.

The countries have met three times in the World Cup. In 1962, in Chile, England's team was built precariously around Johnny Haynes. Argentina had several bright ball players and others, like Rattin, who was making his debut, with shoulders like wall ends. England found their form. Bobby Charlton was unstoppable and Jimmy Armfield defended faultlessly. England only went out to a Garincha-inspired Brazil, while Argentina slipped away in the first round.

The 1966 Argentinian side was much better. Indeed, Alan Ball said: "If they had concentrated on their football, they would have given any team trouble". In a way they did. They caused trouble throughout, never more so than at Wembley. The Fifa disciplinary committee reported later that they "brought the game into grave disrepute by their flagrant breaches of the Laws and disregard for discipline and good order". Hurst pulled England through. Alf Ramsey said teams should not "act like animals". Fifa told him off. England won the World Cup.

The footballing relationship between the countries again sank to a low ebb when, in a 1977 "friendly", Trevor Cherry had teeth knocked out by Daniel Bertoni in Buenos Aires, but it was Cherry who was sent off. Yet English fans still admired that Argentinian side and came to love the fragile little Osvaldo Ardiles, whose delicate skill sparked the World Cup winning side and later adorned Spurs. He arrived in England with the bearded Ricardo Villa, who scored an amazing winning goal in the FA Cup final replay of 1981, the year before the Falklands war. During the conflict Ardiles diplomatically moved to France before later becoming the Spurs manager. The hostile atmosphere before England's World Cup match in Mexico City in 1986 was determined by repeated references to the Falklands, but the first half was quiet. The second opened with Steve Hodge passing the ball back to Peter Shilton, who hesitated as he tried to punch it. Maradona's hand was above his and drove the ball into the net. He famously described it as "A little bit of the hand of God... a little of the head of Maradona".

It required his brilliant run between English defenders for a second goal, and his contributions towards making Argentina worthy world champions against West Germany, to make English supporters admit that perhaps the little man was a genius as well as a cheat.

Maradona now does little more than criticise today's Argentinian team. The memories of his brilliance began to fade in 1990, when he was cruelly kicked by all his opponents, notably West Germany in an ill-tempered final. Problems then heaped up. He left Italy after being tested positive for cocaine, was suspended for a year, and later accused of dealing in drugs. Nevertheless he seemed to get himself fit for the 1994 finals and was seemingly dynamic against Nigeria. Later a drugs test discovered ephedrine.

Is there a new Maradona about to cause more trouble for England? Perhaps not yet, but little Marcelo Gallardo is on the verge, while, in defence, Roberto Ayala could be as effective as Rattin should have been 32 years ago.