LONDON (Reuters) - Britain beat Argentina 4-1 on Monday in a physical but fair match between two teams who said they blocked out any rivalry stemming from a dispute between the nations over a tiny south Atlantic archipelago 30 years ago.
Despite several tough tackles, some strong words, and a total of five time suspensions between two and 10 minutes, not unusual in hockey, it remained a fair match.
Athletes playing in front of roaring British spectators, who chanted “Rule Britannia”, afterwards glossed over the heightened media attention due to the politics of the game.
“We were just focusing on our sport and we are not thinking about the situation. It’s for another moment, not for now,” said Argentina’s Rodrigo Vila after the match.
Diplomatic relations between the two nations have soured this year, the 30th anniversary of their brief war over the British-run Falkland Islands, with Buenos Aires pushing hard to have the islands recognized as Argentine territory.
Britain has refused to back down, arguing that the destiny of the islands, called Las Malvinas in Argentina, should be decided by their 3,000 inhabitants.
Those bitter territorial tensions have spilled over into the world of sport, with media on both sides of the ocean hamming up the significance of battles on the field of play.
Soccer fans in England, part of Britain, still bear a grudge over Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal - when he punched the ball into the net - which helped Argentina put an end to England’s World Cup dreams in 1986, just four years after the Falklands war.
Argentina then touched a nerve in May with a state-supported television advertisement showing a hockey player training in the Falklands. The video ended with the voiceover: “To compete on English soil, we are training on Argentine soil.”
Asked about the video, Argentina’s coach Pablo Lombi said: “It is a long time ago now... Today (was) just a hockey game.”
Although the player featured in the advertisement, Fernando Zylberberg, did not make Argentina’s Olympic hockey squads, Britain accused Argentina of abusing the Games for political purposes.
British Prime Minister David Cameron stirred things up in June warning Argentina that Britain stood “ready and willing to stand up for the Falkland Islanders at any time”.
In the joint news conference after the games, the two team’s captains, sitting next to each other, were chatting while one of the coaches answered a question and British coach Jason Lee said he had given his team a different source of motivation.
“I would hope that their biggest motivation was that if they didn’t play well or they didn’t win, I was going to rip their heads off,” he told reporters.
“It was all right that there was some needle in the game. But that’s because it’s the Olympic Games. I think if you didn’t see that in the game, then we didn’t do well,” agreed British skipper Barry Middleton, who scored the first two of his side’s goals.
His team mate Dan Fox then scored his first international goal, followed by a penalty corner from Richard Smith, before the world number fours gave Argentina, ranked ninth, a chance to score with 15 minutes to go.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will not attend the Games and media have reported her telling the country’s 142 Olympic athletes at their send-off not to stage any Falklands protests in London.
The Argentine national Olympic Committee quickly distanced itself from the video in May.
Editing by Matt Falloon and Alison Wildey