Remembering British football's first foreign footballers: "It could spread like wildfire..."

Ossie Ardiles Tottenham 1978

They came, they saw, they had lustrous hair and murderous moustaches, and enjoyed mixed fortunes on the pitch. But the British game’s first major influx of overseas stars also turned gloom into glamour – and started a revolution

As they shuffled up garden paths on the morning of Tuesday July 11 1978, the nation’s paperboys could scarcely believe the story on the back page of one particular newspaper. ‘SPURS SCOOP THE WORLD’ yelled the headline of the Daily Express as it exclusively revealed the biggest transfer coup in English football for years.

Barely a fortnight after the tickertape-strewn World Cup final in Buenos Aires, two members of the winning Argentina squad – bearded wideman Ricky Villa and, more notably, pivotal playmaker Osvaldo Ardiles – had put pen to paper and were now to ply their trade in a certain corner of north London. It was nothing short of sensational. As the Guardian’s David Lacey wrote: “It was as if the janitor had gone to buy a tin of paint and had returned with a Velazquez.”

Ricky Villa, Ossie Ardiles

Villa and Ardiles joined Tottenham after the 1978 World Cup in Argentina

Almost 40 years on, and with 100 different nationalities now having been represented in English football’s top flight, it’s difficult to explain just how revolutionary this double signing was.

A ban on foreign players had been in place for almost half a century, following Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman’s attempted signing of Austrian goalkeeper Rudy Hiden in 1930. Chapman’s intentions had been met by a volley of opposition; one senior Football League official described the approach as “repulsive”, “offensive” and “a terrible confession of weakness in the management of a club”.

Homegrown concerns

It was about making sure that players weren’t coming in who were no better than what was available here. We’ve always kept an eye on that

- Gordon Taylor

With the backing of the Ministry of Labour, the FA brought in a rule the following year that declared players who weren’t British-born subjects could only play for English teams if they’d been living here for at least two years, a qualification that allowed foreign players such as Chilean striker George Robledo and German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann to subsequently make their names in the league (Trautmann qualified through time spent in a prisoner-of-war camp in Lancashire).

Bert Trautmann

Bert Trautmann famously broke his neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final

But in February 1978, the European Community ruled that the football associations of its member states could no longer deny access to players based on nationality. That summer, the Football League lifted the 47-year-old ban at its AGM.

When Ardiles and Villa were unveiled to the press, among all the excitement were plenty of words of caution and opposition, many voiced by the executives of the PFA. “It could spread like wildfire,” complained secretary Cliff Lloyd. “Every foreign player of standing in our league represents a denial to a UK player of a place in the team.” Newly-installed PFA chairman Gordon Taylor (right) agreed: “There could already be two players out of a job at Tottenham.” 

Nearly four decades on, Taylor defends the rhetoric. “It was about making sure that players weren’t coming in who were no better than what was available here. We’ve always kept an eye on that.”

With questions being asked over the matter in the House of Commons – and the story migrating from the sports pages to the leader columns – it would have been understandable for the diminutive shoulders of Ardiles to have buckled under the weight of expectation when he stepped out to make his debut against Nottingham Forest on the opening day of the 1978/79 season. “There was so much hullabaloo and speculation,” he recalls, “so I was very happy once I crossed the touchline and got onto the pitch.”

Ricky Villa, Ossie Ardiles

There was plenty of intrigue around Villa and Ardiles, pictured here receiving English lessons

"English football was very insular"

CLASS OF 1978/79 - OSSIE LEAVES IT LATE

  • Tempting though it is to nominate Ardiles’ appearance on Top Of The Pops with Chas & Dave, we salute his most memorable goal, which knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup in 1980, a perfectly-flighted shot from the edge of the area with just three minutes of extra time left.

England wasn’t the most obvious destination for Ardiles after the World Cup. He was eyeing a move to Europe, but clubs from Spain, Italy and France were further up his wishlist. Then Spurs boss Keith Burkinshaw arrived in the Argentine capital. “I was in my home city of Cordoba and the president of my club Huracan telephoned me to tell me about this guy from England,” Ardiles tells FFT. “So I went to Buenos Aires, we met in a hotel and the deal was done very, very quickly. There were no agents involved. It was just him.

“He asked me if I could recommend anyone else. They wanted someone I had a good relationship with and Ricky was my room-mate during the World Cup. He arrived the next day and again a deal was done very, very quickly.”

While Villa made the most immediate impact, scoring on that debut against Forest, it was Ardiles who settled quickest in north London. “I had a big advantage over him as I had been studying English in Argentina. Ricky took a long, long time to acclimatise. The first two years were very difficult for him and this was reflected in the way he played football. After the goal [Villa’s legendary winner in the 1981 FA Cup Final], he was another player – he then loved it here and was full of confidence.”

Both players had to adapt to the ways of Division One. “At the time, English football was very insular,” says Ardiles. “There was one way to play and it was not particularly our style. But we found a happy medium. Glenn Hoddle helped a lot with that because he played like us anyway.”