The World Cup: considering a boycott in 1982

Many people’s memories of the 1982 football World Cup in Spain might centre on the stylish passing football of the Brazil team, led by the chain-smoking doctor of medicine, political philosopher and activist, Sócrates; or perhaps the goal-scoring feats of Paolo Rossi, and Marco Tardelli’s emotional celebration during Italy’s victorious final; or maybe even the adorable mascot for the tournament, Naranjito.

The Italy team in 1982 (El Gráfico via Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired)

The Italy team in 1982 (El Gráfico via Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired)

The impact of the home nations (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) was ultimately not hugely significant. Scotland fell at the first hurdle, losing out narrowly in a group containing Brazil and the Soviet Union, and while Northern Ireland exceeded expectations by reaching the second group phase (and recorded a shock win against the hosts), both they and England were knocked out at that stage, before the semi-finalists took their spots. However, memories of David Narey’s superb strike against Brazil, Gerry Armstrong’s winner against Spain, and Bryan Robson’s early goal against France would not exist if a boycott of the tournament had been carried out by the British participants.

Argentina had invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands on 2 April of that year, and Britain soon dispatched a naval taskforce to reclaim the islands. After two months of conflict Britain finally reclaimed the Falklands on 14 June. The crisis had political ramifications – including the only time the House of Commons has sat on a Saturday (3 April) and the resignation of Lord Carrington as Foreign Secretary; it caused strains with some of Britain’s closest allies; and a substantial casualty list on both sides, with many lives ruined or taken away.

Within that context there were concerns amongst some footballers about how they could possibly play Argentina, should they have to face them at the World Cup. Papers released on May 1, 2014 from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) show quite how close to a boycott of the tournament the home nations came (FCO 9/3653). 1 The earliest mention of a boycott in the file is a response to media reports of comments made by the Scottish Players’ Association. The initial reaction from the FCO was to request advice from the British football associations as ‘any official recommendation to withdraw would be seen by the Spanish Government less as a consequence of Argentina’s responsibility for the Falklands crisis than as a gesture damaging to Spain as a host…’

By mid-May the issue had reached the highest level of government when the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, wrote a note detailing the options. 2 Heseltine wrote that the situation would be reviewed in line with events in the South Atlantic, that British concerns centred on the possibility that British supporters could be provoked, and that any decision to withdraw would be made at a senior political level. He did hope that Argentina might be excluded from the tournament but these hopes were very faint as the football governing body FIFA had a heavy South American influence under the premiership of João Havelange and no interest in excluding Argentina (not least because they were holders of the trophy).

Heseltine also raised the issue of possibly insulting Spain, primarily in relation to the tense situation regarding Gibraltar, ahead of the opening of its border, and concerns were also raised about the possibility of having to compensate the football associations of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Eventually a solution was reached, and a relatively simple one at that. England and Northern Ireland would only play Argentina in the final, and Scotland would only play them in the second round. As Lord Gordon Lennox in the FCO stated these circumstances were very much ‘against the present odds’.

So, a crisis on the football field was avoided, and hostilities in the South Atlantic ceased on the weekend the tournament began, ensuring no tricky decisions would have to be made. It was left for the likes of Narey, Armstrong, and Robson to take centre stage and represent their countries. Any potential grudge match against Argentina would have to wait four years, when Diego Maradona used his left hand and his unsurpassed footballing talent to take his country past England on the way to lifting the trophy.


  1. 1. PREM 19/927 Sporting contacts with Argentina is also useful for exploring this subject.
  2. 2. Heseltine’s involvement should not necessarily be seen as extraordinary or even as an indication of personal interest: Neil MacFarlane as Minister for Sport, a post which was based in the Department for the Environment, had done much of the work on this issue.


  1. David Matthew says:

    Have you seen T 479/68: World Cup competition 1982: possible withdrawal of British teams and subsequent liability of HM Government to compensation claims, it also comments on some reports about the Final. Of course the impact of Wales’ participation was not much as they did not qualify for the Finals!.

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