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Football's universal language

26 Feb 2012 | 10:43-Tim Vickery

I’m trying to pluck up courage to go and see ‘The Iron Lady,’ the film where, by all accounts, Meryll Streep gives an extraordinary performance as Margaret Thatcher.

It might well be traumatic spending two hours in the company of that woman (Thatcher, I mean, not Streep). I am someone who owes an enormous debt to the policies of post-war social democracy that Thatcher so famously despised.

The film will surely take me back to an acrimonious time. I recall her government closing my comprehensive school, and then, as the recession she used as a political weapon started to bite, the local newspaper where I was set to start my career closed down. At a loose end, I got a job in a menswear shop, only for that too to go bust.

My sufferings were tiny compared with millions of my compatriots. And I had an escape card. My exam results were good enough for a university place, something I had never considered before. So I went off to college for three years, all paid for by the state - she had not managed to end that one yet. But more of that later.

The Thatcher revolution would probably have been halted in its tracks were it not for events in the South Atlantic 30 years ago. Argentina invaded the islands it calls the Malvinas, and a British military force was sent to take back what we refer to as the Falklands - though before the conflict hardly anyone in England even knew where they were.

At the start of the conflict Thatcher was the most unpopular Prime Minister since records began. By the end victory in war had transformed her into an unstoppable force.

I turned 17 during the conflict, an impressionable age. The events of that time had a huge effect on me, especially in terms of discovering the limits of journalism in what supposedly was a free press.

Thatcher proclaimed the military victory as a triumph for the virtues of unfettered private enterprise. I could never understand that one. To the extent that it was a triumph, it was surely one for successful state spending. But this was not an issue that seemed to be raised in the papers, on the radio or television.

Then there was the economic argument. A fortune had been spent liberating a few thousand remote islanders whose contribution to British life was not extensive. But no money could be found to invest in the coal industry, or in constructing much of a future for employees it no longer needed. These people and their ancestors had dug up the coal on which the country was utterly dependent. But when they tried to fight for their future Thatcher branded them as ‘the enemy within,’ a barb so vile that she was only able to get away with because the press was so pliant.

Even more glaringly, in the early weeks of the Falklands crisis there was one question the British press seemed extremely reluctant to raise.

As the British military force sailed across the Atlantic there were weeks of negotiations - ostensibly in an attempt to avoid war. The Thatcher government was deeply unpopular, and undoubtedly benefited from the conflict. It raises a key question - what would have been the domestic political consequences of a negotiated settlement?

It may be that the answer turns out to be irrelevant. Some historians now argue that Argentina’s loathsome military dictatorship was so inept and so divided that they never sought to embarrass the British government with a serious offer. But it is an issue that should have been debated. I have a book, rushed out at the time by three senior journalists, in which this subject is never even raised. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Perhaps it is not too surprising. At the time the British popular press was full of hate stories, not just directed towards Argentina’s military leaders, but also its people. I remember a section in one paper describing daily habits of Argentine life as if discussing animals in a zoo.

I had never been to Argentina, or even left England. But I knew this was a pack of lies. Why? Because part of Argentina had come to us. Along with team-mate Ricardo Villa, Ossie Ardiles was giving weekly displays of cultured midfield play at Tottenham.

The way he conducted himself on the field, and what we knew of his life off it, formed an impression of the little Argentine as the perfect gentleman, a real life refutation of the shock stories in the press.

A little seed was planted in my mind. At the time, in 1982, it was inconceivable that I would make my living from football (as a writer, I mean. As a player it had been inconceivable from the age of 7). I still played and followed the game, but not with the intensity of, say, four years earlier when I was 13. Music had taken centre stage.

The convulsions of British society at the time hurt millions, but produced a first class soundtrack.

Four years later it was a different story. The edge had gone out of the music, which by now was full of the gaudy manifestations of the Thatcher credit bubble economy. And by now I was at college.

I had still never made it out of England, but I found myself obsessively following the 1986 World Cup in the company of students from all over the country, and all over the world.

The international nature of the global game hit me as never before. And as Argentina progressed through the tournament and the tone in the English press became more hostile I remembered the example of Ardiles from four years earlier and reflected on the game’s possibilities.

If football was just football I don’t think I could justify to myself spending so much time following it. The fact that it is a universal language lifts it up to another realm of importance. It took a while, with a few trials and errors in other areas, but my future as a football writer was defined at those moments.

When I went to Argentina for the first time it was January 1996, less than 14 years after the war. I was genuinely wary about the reaction I would get. I need not have worried. There was no hostility. The younger generation just wanted to talk about Iron Maiden - I couldn’t help them much with that one - and football.

It was confirmation of the game’s potential to build bonds across different cultures - something that we do not celebrate enough.

About this blog

TIM
VICKERY

Tim Vickery

British-born Tim works as a journalist and has lived in Brazil since 1994 and provides unrivalled knowledge of South American football. Follow @Tim_Vickery on Twitter. Read More.

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