Argentina are in England for a friendly… but we aren’t friends
Tonight, Argentina play Italy at the Etihad Stadium, but the prospect of England playing a friendly in Buenos Aires looks distinctly unlikely. As Andy Mitten discovered, emotions over the Falkland Islands still run very deep
Veterans from the Falklands War are introduced to a roar from the crowd as they take to the pitch at half-time. Argentinos Juniors, the club where Maradona started his career and whose image adorns the walls of the 16,000-capacity stadium in the Buenos Aires suburb of Paternal, are playing a first-division game in front of 8,000.
The sprawling Argentine capital is a football city with 16 professional football clubs, the largest being the big five of Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing, Independiente and San Lorenzo. The war veterans, men in their fifties, one in khaki combat pants, walk onto the field holding two Falkland Islands flags in the blue and white colours of Argentina. Behind the goal is another flag of the islands everyone in Argentina calls “Las Malvinas”. I’ve yet to meet an Argentinian who doesn’t think the Falklands belong to them.
Fans on the terraces start to sing: “He who doesn’t dance is an Englishman.” Everyone stands up, including this Englishman. I’ve been to Argentina – a brilliant, football-loving country – several times before and I have a well-researched script in case I’m asked where I’m from. If it looks like things might turn sour, then I’m an Irish tourist from Dublin. But normally, I’ll explain that I hail from Manchester and, when undoubtedly asked my opinions on the Falklands, I venture that there are two sides to the argument, that I always pay my respects at the memorial to fallen Argentines and that young men from my city also died fighting a war brought on by a military junta. My observation that Margaret Thatcher was probably more unpopular in Manchester than any Argentinian city always meets with approval. It can be hairy when a drug-addled woman asks you, in front of a queue of bus passengers in the rough barrio outside Constitution station (designed by English), if “that witch Thatcher is dead yet”. Or if the taxi driver, who fought in the war, starts crying as he says, “But those islands are ours.” Emotions still run very deep.
Back at Argentinos Juniors, the veterans start to sing and jump around. “He who doesn’t dance is an Englishman,” they echo, carried away by the passion. I want to speak to them, but it’s not the time or the place. A feature I’d like to write, but never will, is about the Argentine footballers who were injured in the war. I call my father; his close mate was a para who fought in the Falklands. “You should have thrown fireworks at them to remind them of the paras charging them,” he said, he a man who has avoided a career in international diplomacy from the safety of his front room on the other side of the Atlantic.
Songs and flags about the Falklands are normal at Argentinan football matches. I spent 12 days there in December and was asked about the Falklands all the time. After playing football with 12 very friendly lads (two wore Manchester City shirts because they were Independiente fans and loved Sergio Agüero; two regulars stayed away because two of us were British), they got straight to the point after buying us beers and inviting us back to their house. “The Falklands are Argentinian, right?” My attempt at humour with “Can we talk about (gorgeous former Argentinian tennis star) Gabriela Sabatini instead?” didn’t come off.
Or when we met some Ultras from Rosario Central the day before their derby against Newell’s Old Boys in the city which gave the world Messi and Che Guevara, and a woman looked me in the eye and stated, “The Falklands are ours and I’ve never met a chivalrous Englishman.”
Or at Talleres, a huge club in Cordoba currently second in the league, when a fan explained the story of an Argentine pilot coming face to face with the English gunner who’d shot him out of the sky. They became friends, though they had differences of opinion.
“Hair-standing-up-on-your-arms stuff, eh?” said Marcelo, who’ll follow Argentina to Russia this summer. Argentina, who only just made the cut from a tough-as-teak South American group, have a brilliant following in tournaments.
Or at River Plate on a previous visit, where 40,000 sang about not dancing and you’re probably the only Englishman, not that you’d know if you weren’t.
There are stadiums named after the Malvinas all over the country – memorials too.
The much-admired Argentinian football culture, with its raucous and colourful support, is influential, too. The Sevilla fans at Old Trafford last week sang songs imported from Argentina. Barça fans do the same. It’s a country which produces outstanding footballers and an atmosphere that puts any English ground to shame. At Boca, the stadium moves as the majority of the 50,000 crowd jumps. At San Lorenzo, the Pope’s team, whose stadium faces one of the poorest ghettos in Buenos Aires, the steep-terraced end also shifts as the fans sing beautiful melodic songs.
There’s a community spirit inside stadiums; tickets are cheap, everyone jumps around and has a party. Yet their best players always leave to seek their fortunes abroad.
Argentina are in Manchester on Friday night for a friendly against Italy at Manchester City’s place. Tickets are £30, half what they were when Argentina met Portugal at Old Trafford four years ago – a Messi vs Ronaldo letdown that was never going to deliver and never did, with both players taken off at half-time.
Friendlies in Europe suit Argentina. Their players can stay near their new homes at European clubs, they can get some rare non-tournament practise against the European opponents who they’ll come up against in the World Cup, and they might be surprised at how many British people respect them and buzz off Messi.
Argentinians – or is it Argentines? – are surprised when I tell them that Manchester United fans sang “Arg-ent-ina!” in honour of Juan Sebastián Verón, Gabriel Heinze, Carlos Tevez or Ángel di María.
The idea of England playing a friendly in Argentina is so absurd that it simply won’t happen, but the pair can meet in the World Cup as they did in 1986 and 2002, where the game takes on far more significance on the other side of the Atlantic. Just don’t mention the war if you are English – and if they do, make sure you’re wearing your dancing shoes.
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