Arsenal spent a large part of the 1980s avoiding trophies, but then George Graham arrived at the club and, like London buses, one brought many. Some, such as their unforgettable league title in 1989, will be etched into the minds of fans forever. Others, such as the “world title” the club won in Florida a few months later, are not so well remembered.
The game in Miami that August, billed by some as the unofficial World Club Championship, pitted Arsenal against Independiente, the reigning champions of Argentina. It gave Graham a rare opportunity to test himself against overseas opposition and the trip to the US proved popular with the players.
With temperatures constantly above 100°F and humidity soaring, training in the lead-up to the match was done and dusted by 10.30am, giving Arsenal’s players free rein for the rest of the day, which did not always end well. Perry Groves tells a tale of a round of golf on the West Palm Beach course that finished prematurely when he, Martin Hayes, Tony Adams and Paul Merson ran out of balls.
Having lost all 80 of the balls they were given, the four players decided to make their own fun. “We ended up playing Wacky Races in two buggies,” writes Groves in his autobiography, We all live in a Perry Groves world. “Every time we went past some of the golfers, they waved. Not really – they were pissed off that we were tearing up their course.”
The match was played at the Joe Robbie Stadium, a 76,000 all-seater arena that had hosted the Super Bowl earlier that year. The venue was far too big, with just 10,042 fans turning up to witness the clash. However, the action was beamed across the world, allowing UK viewers the rare treat of live Sunday night football on ITV at 10.35pm.
Arsenal were hampered by injuries. Nigel Winterburn, Paul Davis and Brian Marwood stayed in London to try to get fit before the start of the league campaign, and Steve Bould also missed out. Steve Morrow deputised for Winterburn but perhaps he would have preferred to miss out – he had to go to hospital after the game with a facial injury.
Arsenal did bag another trophy, yet the 2-1 win hardly provided a feast of football. Played in gruelling heat, the players spent most of the match confronting each other, with referee Raúl Dominguez quickly losing control. It was little wonder that Graham later said: “There were certain incidents that weren’t good for football.”
Dominguez showed seven yellow cards and sent off a player from each team. He also banished Arsenal’s physio, Gary Lewin, to the dressing room midway through the first half. Lewin had tried to run on to the pitch to give the Arsenal players some water but Dominguez was having none of it. The referee thought the physio had undermined his authority by trying to enter the field of play without permission, so sent him off. “To say it was a harsh decision is an understatement,” reflected Graham after the game. With Lewin out of action, Arsenal’s assistant manager Theo Foley had to tend to the injured Lee Dixon towards the end of the first half.
By this point David Rocastle had already fired Arsenal in front. Carlos Alfaro equalised for Independiente in the 69th minute and things took another turn for the worse for Arsenal when Gus Caesar was sent off shortly afterwards. Their hopes seemed to be evaporating into the humid sky but that Arsenal team was made of stern stuff. When Adams was brought down in the box by Pedro Monzón – who received his marching orders – Rocastle stepped forward to score the penalty that gave Arsenal the prestigious (ahem) ZDS Challenge Trophy.
Match reports from the time suggest the contest was far from entertaining. The Times concluded that the game was “niggly, almost unpleasant”; the Express reported on the “sinister cynicism” of the Independiente defenders; and the Mail called the fixture “bad tempered”. In the Guardian, David Lacey noted that the encounter was “a relatively peaceful affair” in comparison to previous clashes between teams from England and Argentina, but that wasn’t saying much.
Rocastle later spoke about the treatment he was subjected to during the supposedly friendly match. “I was kicked, I was punched and the only abusive word they seemed to know was ‘nigger’. That didn’t offend me and I don’t mind being kicked because that’s part of the game – but I did object when they spat in my face.”
The game had not been as enjoyable as the build-up on the golf course, but Arsenal left Miami with another piece of silverware and the club’s vice chairman, David Dein, was given a key to the city. Although the Miami deputy mayor did not exactly inspire hope for anyone looking forward to the forthcoming World Cup when he said he hoped to see Arsenal back in the US for “the 1992 finals”.