When Ricky Villa’s expected call to ManUtd.com fails to arrive, the excuse that follows is unimprovably disarming. “Sorry,” says the polite young man from his publishers. “He was taking Ossie to the airport.”
It’s priceless. More than 30 years since they crossed the Atlantic from Buenos Aires to pioneer the overseas-player revolution in English football, Villa and Ossie Ardiles are still virtually inseparable. These days Villa lives back in Argentina, on a farm outside his hometown of Roque Perez, but is over in England for a few weeks to promote his autobiography. And where else would he stay but with Hertfordshire-based Ardiles, just a short hop from the old Spurs training ground where they took their first uncertain, but soon dazzling, steps together in the English game?
Villa was a true flair player, dedicated to the Latin principle of la Nuestra or ‘our style’, a commitment to entertain, revived after a dour period of directness and negativity in Argentinian football in the 1960s. That reactionary era was prompted by a 6-1 thrashing by Czechoslovakia in the 1958 World Cup, and though broadly successful in terms of results, its bleak philosophy hit rock bottom when Copa Libertadores winners Estudiantes kicked George Best, Pat Crerand and co off the park in the 1968 Club World Championship.
Argentinians were tired of this anti-futebol, and Villa was one of the young poster boys for a return to flamboyance and freedom of spirit, a shift justified by thrilling success in the home World Cup of 1978. But when he first came to England, his playing style couldn’t have been more at odds with the muck and nettles of late-1970s Division One. He operated at his own speed, in his own orbit, in a position, ‘the hole’, that in England at least scarcely existed. He seemed quite literally to have come from another world. So nowadays he always takes pleasure in players who have something just that little bit different.
“I always say, if I’m paying to watch football, I decide which players I want to watch,” he says. “Berbatov is one. He’s a great star. He is very clever and every minute he tries to do something special on the pitch. This for me is