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New chapter in an historic rivalry

Gabriel Batistuta
Batistuta: "I want to beat England because I want to win every game I play."  

by CNN's Simon Hooper

LONDON (CNN) -- Drawn together in the so-called "Group of Death", Argentina and England's first round clash at the World Cup is the latest episode in one of football's longest-running rivalries.

Argentina, widely considered one of the favourites to win the tournament, play England in Japan's Sapporo Dome on June 7 in a group that also includes Sweden and Nigeria.

"This is the historic grudge match," Jimmy Burns, the biographer of Diego Maradona and a former Financial Times correspondent in Buenos Aires, told CNN.

"The Argentines have always looked on England as one of their major rivals and that dates back to the fact that football was brought to Argentina originally by the English."

But that rivalry has been further complicated by three heated encounters at the World Cup.

At the 1966 finals in England, Argentine captain Antonio Rattin was controversially sent off in a quarterfinal against the host nation. Rattin was eventually persuaded to go, but not before trampling across Wembley's royal carpet. After the match, England manager Alf Ramsey called the Argentines "animals".

Hand of God

The countries met again in the quarterfinals in Mexico in 1986 when Diego Maradona scored his notorious "Hand of God" goal, punching the ball into the net, and then followed it with one of the greatest individual goals ever scored as Argentina swept England aside on their way to the title.

And at France 98, their second round match ended with England's elimination on penalties after David Beckham had been sent off in an incident-packed 2-2 draw.

The latest meeting also comes at a time when memories of the 1982 Falklands War are back in the headlines.

The World Cup match takes place just seven days before the 20th anniversary of the Argentine surrender to the British at Port Stanley and Burns fears it will re-open old wounds.

"Football has had a negative effect on Anglo-Argentine relations," he says.

"What football tends to do is revive nationalist caricatures and prejudices. The English tabloids start talking about the 'Argies' and bringing up all the old stuff and on the Argentine side there's also a lot of jingoism. Cronica still talks about the English as pirates."

Dan Kirshock, the managing editor at the Buenos Aires Herald, told CNN that the Falklands conflict was still "part of the pattern of rivalry," but also evidence of the "closeness of the two countries."

"I talked to one Argentine veteran and he said on the way back, on the British ship it was like being in the locker room after a soccer game," he said. "They fought, one side won and afterwards they were pretty much friendly rivals. It didn't leave the sort of hatred that other wars have."

When General Galtieri's military regime launched its campaign to reclaim "Las Malvinas," over which Argentina has claimed sovereignty since 1820, war and football were deliberately blurred.

Argentina had hosted and won the World Cup in 1978 and the ruling junta had benefited from an outpouring of nationalist sentiment.

In 1982 those feelings were harnessed to the war with the patriotic slogans from the World Cup rolled out once again.

And while the subsequent collapse of the junta owed much to its military misadventures in the South Atlantic, the national side's dismal performance at the 1982 World Cup in Spain also contributed to Argentine disillusionment.

The juntas may have gone but football remains a crucial aspect of the Argentine psyche and Burns and Kirshock agree the World Cup will have a significant effect on the spirits of a country in a state of economic crisis.

Political consequences

"If they were to win it would be a huge boost emotionally," says Burns. "It's a football-mad nation and if Argentina do well it would be used by the government to try and reinforce its position."

But Kirshock fears a bad performance could also have political consequences.

"If Argentina loses or plays badly I think that's going to spill over into the social arena and I wouldn't be surprised if people take to the streets."

It's a burden that Argentina's footballers are aware they carry.

Midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron, who plays for English side Manchester United, told England's Daily Mail newspaper: "As footballers, we can't do much in actual terms but everyone in this squad knows that with success in the World Cup, we can take some happiness into each home in Argentina."

Perhaps unsurprisingly though, the Argentina squad have also been keen to de-politicise the clash with England.

"I want to beat England because I want to win every game I play," striker Gabriel Batistuta told The Guardian newspaper. "Not because we went to war in 1982 or because we played against each other in 1998. I can't take on some kind of revenge or change history."

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