There are few matches on the international football calendar that generate as much passion and interest as Argentina v England, the ultimate sporting clash between the New World and the Old. Yet while most will remember the ‘Hand of God’ in 1986, few know that today Argentina celebrates the 60th anniversary of beating England for the first time, a triumph that was not recognised in England but led to 14th May being labelled ‘Footballers’ Day’ in Argentina ever since.
Over the past six decades passions have been inflamed on both sides as much by contentious events on the pitch as by the disputed sovereignty of the Falklands/Malvinas and the conflict over them which took place in 1982. The rivalry took on a bitter edge at the 1966 World Cup, where the Argentine side – later labelled ‘animals’ by England coach Alf Ramsey – complained that they were victim of an Anglo-German conspiracy when their captain Antonio Rattin was sent off for hounding the referee in the closely fought quarter-final. The match, known in Buenos Aires as ‘the robbery of the century’, turned in England’s favour, and Geoff Hurst’s solitary goal took the host nation through.
It was 20 years later that the Argentines gained revenge in the 1986 World Cup quarter final in México, the first game played between the two sides after the Falklands/Malvinas War, when Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ set his side on the road to ultimate tournament victory.
The next two World Cup meetings in 1998 and 2002 were also mired in controversy: David Beckham’s petulant flick at Diego Simeone – who went down theatrically – earned him a red card which turned the tide Argentina’s way in 1998, while four years later, a dive worthy of Tom Daley by Michael Owen gained England the decisive penalty to decide matters.
The Birth of Footballers’ Day
The clásico between Argentina and England was born in 1951 when Argentina were invited to play England at Wembley as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations, the first non-European side to do so. After taking the lead with Mario Boyé’s goal, the hosts came back to win 2-1, but the defining performance came from Argentina’s goalkeeper, Miguel Ángel Rugilo, whose all-action, acrobatic display earned him a standing ovation from the Wembley crowd as well as the soubriquet, ‘The Lion of Wembley’. England made a reciprocal visit to Argentina two years later, playing two games as part of a wider tour of the Americas. It was the first match of this tour that would enter Argentine football legend.
The games were keenly anticipated in Argentina as the national team had played only a handful of internationals since winning the 1947 South American Championship. The team had been pulled out of international competition – most notably the 1950 World Cup held in neighbouring Brazil – at the behest of President Juan Domingo Perón’s government, who feared that defeat on the international stage would jeopardise his nationalist project based on Argentine excellence and self-reliance. A players’ strike in 1948-49 had seen many of Argentina’s best talent, including Adolfo Pedenera and Alfredo di Stéfano, depart for Colombia in search of better money, and so Perón felt that it was wiser not to risk defeat and loss of stature on the international stage with a team of lesser players.
The visit of England, on the other hand, offered the Argentines a no-risk gamble: if they won then the prestige would be enormous, but if they lost it was only to be expected against the ‘Masters of the Game’ as Clarín described the visitors who had brought the game to Argentina in the 1860s and proceeded to show their superiority in a number of club tours between 1904 and 1914.
The first of the two games was played on 14th May 1953 in River Plate’s massive horseshoe-shaped Estadio Monumental in front of 120,000 people. As far as the English were concerned it was billed as an FA XI match, not a full international. It was an opportunity to play some of their reserves and get jet lag out of their system before the official international three days later. The Argentines, however, took it seriously, wearing the official national team kit and playing the same team in both games, and including both the matches in its official international record.
Argentina’s selectors decided that with the national team not having played together regularly for some time it would be more cohesive to pick players en bloc from the same clubs. The entire defence came from Boca Juniors, the midfield from Racing Club de Avellaneda, and crucially, the famed forward line from Independiente (who would cement their reputation later that year by thrashing the Real Madrid side of Di Stéfano et al 6-0 at the Estadio Bernabéu), containing Carlos Lacasia, Carlos Cecconato, Rodolfo Micheli, Ernesto Grillo and Osvaldo Cruz.
England went ahead against the run of play through Tommy Taylor’s header, before Grillo equalised a minute later with a quite brilliant goal from a seemingly unfeasible angle that has lived long in Argentine football folklore as ‘The Impossible Goal’. As Grillo later recalled: “Lacasia passed me the ball close to the penalty area. I started to dribble and I believe that there were three or four English ahead of me. As I ran out of room on the pitch, I saw the keeper off his line and shot between him and the near post.”
Argentina then pressed home their superiority with another goal from Grillo and one from Micheli to run out worthy 3-1 winners and send the crowd into raptures. The president of the Argentine Football Association, Valentín Suárez, lavished praise on his team, saying: “We’ve beaten one of the most powerful sides in the world. I’m full of pride. Our young lads played with great heart and deserved the tremendous ovation they received when leaving the field.” Even the English press were forced to acknowledge that Argentina were the better team, with the Daily Mail’s Roy Peskett claiming that England’s players were like “carthorses chasing ballet dancers.”
The watching President Juan Domingo Perón was also so impressed by the performance that he declared that henceforth 14th May would be known as ‘Footballers’ Day’ in honour of the team, to be commemorated annually.
For the second match on the following Sunday, 91,397 spectators crammed into the Monumental to see whether England’s first choice 11 could do any better, only to go home disappointed when one of Buenos Aires’ notorious thunderstorms swept in from the River Plate estuary, flooding the pitch and forcing the game to be abandoned after just 23 minutes with the score at 0-0.
England left the country with a series defeat the blue touch-paper for the footballing rivalry between the two countries had been lit and the fireworks have not stopped since. Fans of both teams surely await the next installment with some relish.