LONDON: British Government documents released under the ’30-year rule’ have revealed that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher considered pulling England, Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the 1982 World Cup during the Falklands War writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
Ultimately she was advised that withdrawal would be deemed a propaganda success for Argentina.
Scotland were eliminated in the first round with England and Northern Ireland knocked out at the second group stage, as were Argentina, the defending champions.
This was an era in which sporting boycotts were high profile. The US had refused to send a team to Moscow for the 1980 Olympics and most of the world had cut off sports connections with South Africa because of apartheid. Later the Soviet Union would stay away from the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles in a ‘tit-for-tat’ retaliatory boycott of its own.
Shortly after the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands on April 2, 1982, a directive from Sports Minister Neil Macfarlane advised: “I urge no sporting contact with Argentina at representative, club or individual level on British soil. This policy applies equally to all sporting fixtures in Argentina.”
In a letter to Mrs Thatcher the following month, Macfarlane reported doubts about the UK teams’ presence at the World Cup in June.
Loss of life
He wrote: “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.
“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. Much has appeared in the sporting pages and much more will appear the longer these hostilities continue.”
He noted that world federation FIFA had made it clear that Argentina would not be pressured into withdrawal.
Thatcher was warned by Scots in her inner circle that ordering Scotland to stay at home would make her even more unpopular north of the border than she already was.
Scottish Secretary George Younger wrote, in a confidential briefing note, that public opinion in Scotland “is mainly opposed to withdrawal.”
In the end the decisive voice was probably that of Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong who wrote: “No other country would follow us in withdrawing from the World Cup. 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.”
In August that year, after the end of the conflict, restrictions were lifted on sporting engagements with Argentina.
Scotland’s players knew nothing about consideration of the World Cup issue according to Kenny Dalglish.
Dalglish, then with Liverpool, was reported by the Daily Record as saying: “I was oblivious to any talk of pulling Scotland out. It probably stands to reason that the players would be the last to know.
“[Manager] Jock Stein didn’t mention anything like that and I’m surprised to be hearing that such talks had been taking place . . . I don’t think it would have gone down well if the Scotland team had been withdrawn.”
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