The 1982 World Cup in Spain provided an exciting opportunity for England. After being absent for football’s world stage for twelve years, the Three Lions scraped through qualification to their first World Cup since 1970. England brought with them an exciting blend of experienced old-guard internationals and talented youngsters. The ageing duo of Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking would prove to be as instrumental as ever to England’s success, but supplementing the pair were a number of young players which would soon become household names across the country. The skilful Glenn Hoddle of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal left-back Kenny Samson, and of course Manchester United’s dynamic midfielder Bryan Robson.
Six England players would make their World Cup debuts in 1982, who would go on to play important roles in future tournaments, namely the ‘what if journey’ of Mexico 1986, where England were fingertips away from their first World Cup semi-finals since 1966. England would keep building on their international prowess throughout the next decade, going close in 1986 and then oh-so-closer in 1990. The foundations of this international rebuild and the return of England as a football powerhouse were built in the 1982 World Cup.
How different, then, would things have been had England not played in the ’82 tournament? Not because the Three Lions failed to qualify, but because the UK government refused to allow them to participate. As Spain were preparing to host the World Cup that summer, a conflict 11,500km away was jeopardising England’s ability to compete.
The islands off the southern Patagonian coast named the Falklands have been part of the British Empire since 1833. Long before the events of 1982 have there been feelings across Argentina that the ‘Islas Malvinas’ truly belonged to the Latin American nation. Only in 1982 did General Leopoldo Galtieri, president of Argentina, decide to take action. In office just a few months, having seized power in Argentina as the head of a deeply unpopular military junta, Galtieri searched for a distraction from the civil unrest and tanking economy. What better way to unite the nation than a righteous military campaign?
A small military operation followed, starting with the raising of the Argentinian flag on South Georgia Island on 19 March and then a surprise attack on a small garrison of Royal Marines on 2 April. UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher assembled a war cabinet (although war was never officially declared against Argentina) and a task force set out from Southampton on 5th April. Over the following ten weeks of conflict, 255 Brits, 649 Argentinians and three native Falklanders were killed.
The home nations of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland faced the prospect of having to give up their places in the World Cup finals despite all three nations securing qualification to the tournament. As the conflict in the Falkland Islands reached its peak, Margaret Thatcher and her government fretted over the political implications of playing in a sports competition with Argentina.
It was the first time since 1956 that three British teams had qualified for the World Cup. Given the groupings, it was highly unlikely that England would meet Argentina in the tournament – England and Northern Ireland could only meet them in the final, whilst Scotland had a chance of the fixture in the second round. Nonetheless, British officials were concerned over the increased risk of violence among rival supporters. “The Falkland Islands crisis … could well inflame the feelings of supporters (not necessarily only British),” warned senior diplomat Lord Nicholas Gordon Lennox.
To complicate matters further, Spain – who were hosting the tournament -strongly opposed Britain’s claim to the Falkland Islands. The Spanish felt a level of solidarity with the Argentinian’s claim to the Falklands, as they had recently reopened negotiations with Britain over Gibraltar. Furthermore, FIFA had made it clear that Argentina would not be pressured into withdrawing from the competition.
The home nations were at an impasse and it was looking increasingly likely that England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland would be unable to compete. The English FA advised the government that “it would be difficult for England to play Argentina if at the time hostilities were taking place in the South Atlantic.” Sports minister Neil MacFarlane was inclined to agree. Shortly after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands on 2nd April, MacFarlane urged “no sporting contact with Argentina at representative, club or individual level on British soil. This policy applies equally to all sporting fixtures in Argentina.”
MacFarlane wrote to Margaret Thatcher in May, expressing his growing doubts over the UK teams’ attendance in Spain next month: “Up until a week or 10 days ago I have taken the line that it was up to the Football Authorities to decide whether they should participate,” he wrote.
“However, the loss of British life on HMS Sheffield and Sea Harriers has had a marked effect on some international footballers and some administrators. They feel revulsion at the prospect of playing in the same tournament as Argentina at this time.”
For the Argentinian national team, competing that summer was not up for debate. As the righteous nation claiming a set of islands just 300 miles off the Argentine coast, their cause was seen to be a just one. During their pre-World Cup friendly matches, the Argentina squad displayed banners reading ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’ (The Falklands are Argentine). In the squad was a 21-year-old Diego Maradona, destined for greatness at the next tournament and who would ‘take revenge’ on England for the Falklands four years later.
In the UK, the debate over what to do about the World Cup continued. Environment secretary Michael Heseltine, who was also responsible for sport at the time, famously declared that the government had “no powers to ban sporting contacts.” Cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong made the point that the home nations would be the ones separating themselves from the rest of the world if they were not to compete: “In this case no other country would follow us in withdrawing from the World Cup,” he said in a letter to the Prime Minister. “Argentina would see British withdrawal not as putting any pressure on them but as an opportunity to make propaganda: The United Kingdom, not Argentina, would be the country set apart.”
It was eventually decided that England, Scotland and Northern would be allowed to compete that summer. The UK government’s fears about a possible meeting with Argentina would also soon be alleviated. The 1982 World Cup kicked off on 13th June 1982, with the opening match resulting in a 1-0 win for Belgium over, funnily enough, Argentina. The next day, a ceasefire was declared in the Falklands and the commander of the Argentine garrison at Port Stanley issued their surrender to the UK forces.
The British declared hostilities to be officially over in the Falklands on 20th June, the same day that England would secure a 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia in the first-round. Scotland would be eliminated in the first-round, while England, Northern Ireland and Argentina progressed to the second-round group stage. Needing to win by two clear goals against the hosts, Spain, England could only muster a 0-0 draw and missed out on a place in the semi-finals. Northern Ireland were also eliminated in the second-round, as were Argentina, and so all three home nations escaped a dreaded fixture against their adversaries from South America.
The military conflict was over, and the threat of further conflict between fans at the World Cup had been averted. However, the spirit of the Falklands conflict and the animosity between the UK and Argentina has endured. After scoring that controversial goal against England in 1986, Maradona spoke of the Falklands conflict in justification for the goal. As recently as 2014, the Argentina national team displayed a familiar banner before a World Cup warm-up against Slovenia. The players shared their support for their country’s claim to the Falklands with a “Las Malvinas Son Argentinas” banner – an action that earned the team a £20,000 fine from FIFA.
Written by George Peckham