Andrew Warshaw: Britain earns bragging rights over Argentina in latest sporting skirmish, this time on actual "home soil"
Monday, 30 July 2012
As twilight parted the clouds under the bright floodlights, so Great Britain and Argentina did their best to put on a spectacle this evening and show the world that, when it comes to the Olympics at least, politics can, with a collective will, take a back seat.
As grudges matches go, the Group A preliminary hockey fixture between two countries that have enjoyed less than cordial relations was given top billing at London 2012.
Britain and Argentina have long been arch sporting rivals. Remember the disgraceful goings-on at football's World Cup in 1966 and, a generation later and four years after the end of the Falklands War, Diego Maradona's infamous Hand of God goal?
Sporting clashes between the two countries rarely need an extra edge but tonight's hockey encounter was always going to be built up as a more than just a routine early-Games fixture.
Diplomatic relations have soured in this, the 30th anniversary of the bloody conflict over the tiny disputed South Atlantic archipelago which Argentina still calls Las Malvinas. Buenos Aires wants the islands recognised as Argentine territory while Britain argues that its destiny should be decided by the 3,000 inhabitants.
Then, three months ago, the often bitter entrenched positions spilled again into the sporting arena – with hockey the focal point.
A state-supported television advertisement featured former Argentine hockey skipper Fernando Zylberberg, who has played in two Olympics, training in the Falklands. It ended with the provocative voiceover: "To compete on English soil, we are training on Argentine soil."
Britain accused Argentina of abusing the Olympics for political purposes and it was no surprise when Zylberberg was left out of the squad for London 2012, even though his successor was quick to point out that it was because of injury.
Whether or not his omission defused the diplomatic standoff, the stage was nevertheless set for tonight's hotly anticipated showdown between the countries ranked fourth and ninth in the world.
Underlying tensions there might have been but the action never exploded into anything remotely dangerous. And, in the end, the form book was maintained with Britain, after having an early goal disallowed, opening their campaign for a first medal since 1992 with a stylish 4-1 win.
Skipper Barry Middleton got a brace, one from just inside the circle, and Dan Fox and Richard Smith added two goals more before the Argentines managed a Pedro Ibarra consolation from a short corner.
Afterwards, both captains were at pains to stress they did not want to be distracted by politics.
"This game for us was always about the sporting element," said Middleton. "We have played Argentina many times and we've never gone into it with anything other than just hockey on our minds.
"Sure there was some needle in the game but this is the Olympics. There were some big tackles but nobody stepped over the line. We kept it sporting, how hockey should be played."
Argentine skipper Matias Vila was equally gracious: "This is just sport, a hockey match. We don't mix it with any other things."
The result prompted a partisan flag-waving celebration among the 16,000 fans and generous handshakes all-round down on the pitch. The only note, perhaps, of political symbolism came when the band blasted out several renditions of Rule Britannia.
But you could hardly blame them for noisily getting behind their team. This is, let's face it, home soil.
Andrew Warshaw is a former sports editor of The European, the newspaper that broke the Bosman story in the 1990s, the most significant issue to shape professional football as we know it today. Before that, he worked for the Associated Press for 13 years in Geneva and London. He is now the chief football reporter for insidethegames and insideworldfootball. Follow him on Twitter.