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World Cup win could boost Argentine pride

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002

It's been a big week in Britain, where the queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee with carnivals and a rock concert at Buckingham Palace.

The massive crowds appear to have reconfirmed faith in the British monarchy. But, at the risk of offending the royalist camp, I feel it to be my duty (as an Englishman) to point out that most ordinary English patriots have their minds focused this week on another national sport.

That's because, early this morning, soccer's most storied rivals will battle it out once again as England takes on Argentina in the World Cup in Sapporo, Japan.

While it's true the queen will never have another Golden Jubilee, these two teams have only met four times in the cup's 72-year history. Each time has been memorable.

The rivalry owes its origins to a love-hate relationship, on and off the field, that dates back almost two centuries to the birth of the South American nation in 1816.

Argentines are taught in school that Britain was the first country to recognize their independence from Spain, although Britain was only looking after its commercial interests in the region.

This would be clearly revealed in 1828 when London helped mediate a border dispute between Argentina and Brazil. Rather than back Argentina's claim, Britain pushed for a buffer between the two, leading to the creation of Uruguay. That assured Britain's commercial influence over the strategic River Parana which runs into the continental heartland.

British ships would later be turned back by chains placed across the river, an action recalled as Argentina's first national stand against a world power.

Ambivalence toward Britain is also a product of early investment in Argentina by British traders, investment that helped create the economic boom that made Argentina one of the world's richest countries by the early 20th century.

Poor Spanish and Italian immigrants flocked to Argentina to build the country, finding employment from imperious British bosses in the meat packing factories, railroad companies, shipping firms and commodity brokers.

The Brits would leave their mark on the country, if not their language. It was British traders who founded Argentina's first football association in 1865. The early Argentine clubs adopted British names, mostly taken from railway stops leading out from Buenos Aires, such as Racing Club, River Plate, Banfield and Newell's Old Boys.

The rivalry on the pitch came later and started with an ill-tempered World Cup quarterfinal clash in 1966 before 90,000 spectators -- including the queen -- at Wembley stadium, the home of English soccer. England won 1-0, but only after Argentina's captain, Antonio Rattin, was sent off for foul play. With English fans chanting, "Animals, animals," Rattin showed his disgust by wiping his muddy boots on the queen's red carpet before grabbing a corner flag decked out in the national colors and hurling it to the ground.

When the game ended, an upset English coach, Sir Alf Ramsey, stopped his players from making the customary exchange of shirts with the Argentine team.

Argentines have a different recollection of the game and complain that some English tackling was just as harsh.

The 1982 Falklands War only added more passion to the next meeting between the two teams, in the 1986 World Cup. That time Argentina won 2-1, after their star playmaker, Diego Maradona, used a hand to punch the ball into the English net in a foul that was not called.

Maradona never admitted to using his hand, instead dubbing it the "Hand of God.'

The last time the teams met, in 1996, it was England's star, David Beckham, who was sent off after lashing out with his foot at the Argentine captain. The game was tied 2-2 at the end of regulation, and Argentina won the penalty shootout.

The memories of the war are largely buried in Argentina today. Friday's game with England is viewed more in pure footballing terms, as what Argentines like to call a clasico, the Spanish term used to describe a match between two respected teams.

For most Argentine fans the age-old rivalry with England might mean less this year than in past encounters because of the country's crushing economic woes.

With national pride in tatters, hopes are that victory in the World Cup will lift spirits back home, at least temporarily.

After visiting Argentina earlier this year and witnessing the economic ruin firsthand, even I must confess that I wish them well in the World Cup. Neither do I fancy England's chances today.

It is one of the ironies of the sport that after helping introduce it to South America, with or without the "Hand of God," we are the underdogs at our national game.

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