WORDS: GARRY HAYES
When Ossie Ardiles made the pioneering move from Argentina to London alongside Ricky Villa in 1978, his South American flair captured the imagination of supporters up and down the country. But the outbreak of the Falklands War in 1982 turned everything upside-down for Tottenham’s star import…
Image: Peter Robinson (Press Association Images)
“I would say it was the worst moment of my life, for sure,” recalls Ossie Ardiles as he reflects on a period that would define the political landscape of his country throughout the Eighties.
The Falklands War may have lasted a relatively short 74 days, but 30 years on, the recent political jousting between the British and Argentinean governments over the islands has ensured memories best left forgotten have returned to remind the former Tottenham Hotspur midfield ace of some of his darker days in football.
He joined Spurs from Huracan in 1978, a time when foreign imports in English football’s top flight were something of an unknown quantity. Spoiled for choice now by talented imports from across the globe, the English game of the Seventies was filled almost exclusively by players from the home nations and Ardiles’ arrival was met with an air of caution.
Along with his compatriot Ricky Villa, however, he captured the imagination of fans across the country to become a pioneer of the cosmopolitan game the English top flight has grown accustom to.
“When I came to England along with Ricky, we were treated marvellously,” Ardiles, currently manager of J-League 2 club Machida Zelvia, says. “The Tottenham fans gave us so much support, as you would expect, but after a few games, we were being clapped onto the pitch by the fans whenever we played away from home also.
“It was a great time and I guess, coming from a different culture, we played in a way that English fans were not that familiar with, so I guess that’s why so many fans would applaud us.
“I wasn’t used to this as in Argentina, like in England then and now, the away players are never treated like this. It was a totally new experience for me and made settling in so much easier for Ricky and me.
“We weren’t sure what to expect, but going to the stadiums every week, the passion for football reminded me of home. We play a different way in Argentina to how English teams do, but the passion is very similar.
“The fans idolise their heroes and love their clubs. The singing and cheering has never changed and I think this is what makes the game so beautiful. It brings people together wherever they are from.”
However, while the British public were quick to take Ardiles and Villa to their hearts, the attitude of many supporters changed just as quickly when the Falklands battle lines were drawn in April 1982. The atmosphere surrounding the two men from Argentina suddenly took a sinister turn, leaving Ardiles feeling more than a little uncomfortable.
“I was emotionally torn,” he remembers. “I had been living in England for a few years when the war broke out, so I had made it my home. I loved it and still do. England is a fantastic country.
“When Argentina and Britain had the war, it was like watching two of my brothers fight – it was horrible and things changed for me on the pitch as well.”
From being seen as the loveable cult hero who had sung alongside Chas & Dave on Top of the Pops, Ardiles’ image changed – he wasn’t exactly public enemy number one, but in the eyes of many he became a symbol of Argentina and, as such, he became a target for opposition supporters.
“From being cheered, people were booing me and throwing all kinds of abuse my way. It was horrible – for me, for Ricky and for our families. It was a difficult time and if it wasn’t for the support of the club and Spurs fans, I’m not sure how we would have managed to cope.
“We had no opinion on the war. We didn’t want to see our compatriots losing their lives. We were born Argentineans, but we had taken Britain into our hearts and saw ourselves as British also.”
Struggling to adapt, Ardiles admits to enduring some dark days. Even when the war had ended, the public’s wounds were still very much raw and, in the summer of 1982, it forced him into a temporary move away from Spurs, the club where he had become a legend.
“It was only for a season-long loan, but I moved to France,” he explains. “I thought it would help me with the whole situation, but playing for Paris St. Germain was a massive struggle for me.
“My head wasn’t in the right place and with everything that was going on, or had happened, I couldn’t find my form. Paris is a lovely city, but I missed London.
“French football was so different to England. It wasn’t played at the same pace and the atmosphere wasn’t quite the same at the games. The people were very good to me, but it never went how I had hoped.”
A year in any walk of life is a long time but this was an extraordinary period for Ardiles. However, he returned to White Hart Lane for the 1983/84 season, when Spurs would finish as UEFA Cup winners.
The diminutive midfielder appeared from the bench in the second leg of the final, as Spurs defeated Anderlecht 4-3 on penalties, after the tie had ended 2-2 on aggregate.
As he held the UEFA Cup aloft, Ardiles was marking the end of a tumultuous chapter in his life. Football, so often the tonic for off-the-pitch worries, had not always filled that role for him as the catcalls from the stands made their mark on his state of mind, but now, with a medal round his neck, the White Hart Lane hero was able to move on at last.