In the 1970s and 1980s, if you walked into a sandwich bar in London, it would almost certainly be owned by Italians. There was nothing better than one of those old fashioned establishments that served “frothy coffee” with a Mediterranean gesture or two. Equally likely, a photograph of an Italian football team would be pinned to the wall behind the counter. If you could tease it out of them, the owners of the café would talk to you about football. Mostly, they were not supporters of the really big clubs, but teams like Udinese, Bari or Cagliari. Never mind, they were football mad, those Italians.
England v Italy is not far behind England v Germany as a mouth-watering fixture. It may not have the cachet of old – England’s international side is rapidly looking like a promotion-chasing Championship team, while Italy’s star has been descending for a year or two – but if the two nations bump into each other in the World Cup, it will reignite old rivalries.
It’s not necessarily a relationship built on hugs and kisses. The history of England v Italy, at all levels, has been littered with controversy and occasional bouts of violence.
This was never more evident than in 1934 when Italy, the recently –crowned World Champions, visited England for the first time. The Italians, representing Mussolini’s fascist state, were anxious about visiting England in November, although they were going to meet a relatively inexperienced England team that included no less than seven of the Arsenal side that had won the Football League in 1933-34.
The game became known as “The Battle of Highbury” after a brutal contest. Italy were by no means the only perpetrators of the violent scenes witnessed by the North London crowd. Indeed, Ted Drake set the ball rolling when he broke the foot of centre-half Luis Monti. He was a tough fellow and stayed on the pitch for 15 minutes, obviously in great pain. By that time, England had stormed into the 3-0 lead. Italy came back strongly in the second half, but England won 3-2. The injuries piled up, though, with Eddie Hapgood breaking his nose, Eric Brook fracturing his arm and Reg Bowden injuring his ankle and Drake receiving a punch in the face. Wilf Copping was “bandaged from left knee to top of thigh”. The dressing room looked like a casualty unit on a bad Saturday night!
Although England had won, they were horrified at the treatment dished out to their players. There were calls for England not to play Italy again, demands for the Italian FA to suspend the guilty players. The media took the moral high ground: “Teach the other nations to be sportsmen!” and “English rules are the best”. We were still masters of the Empire in those days!
England met Italy one more time before World War Two, again with the Italians as World Cup holders, and drew 2-2 in Milan. After the War, meetings were infrequent, but it wasn’t until 1973 that England lost to Italy.
But the two countries came face-to-face in European competition, and often, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. Chelsea, for example, had a bad time when they met Rome in 1965-66 in the Fairs’ Cup and in 1971, Arsenal and Lazio players had what can only be described as a street brawl.
English clubs found it hard to deal with the cynical and stifling “catenaccio” style of play adopted by Italy’s top clubs. Italy became renowned for their ultra-defensive tactics, strong-arm tackling, shirt-tugging and off-the-ball tackling. It was also very successful, because teams like Internazionale and Milan AC dominated European football. But a series of unpleasant meetings between English and Italian clubs did little to build harmonious relationships.
British players tried to forge lucrative careers in Italy – Jimmy Greaves at Milan, Denis Law and Joe Baker at Torino, John Charles with Juventus. Most were, at best, moderately successful, largely due to a very different and highly disciplined approach to the game. The man who brokered most of those deals was Gigi Peronace, who was something of a football diplomat, not to mention England’s first football agent!
Peronace came up with the idea of the Anglo-Italian Cup and a number of other lower-profile competitions. But that too was plagued with violence, not to mention a bizarre format. In 1970, Swindon led Napoli in the first final but trouble broke out, only for the game to be awarded to Swindon. Played in the summer, between 1970 and 1973, the winners were Swindon, Blackpool, Roma and Newcastle.
Peronace could always be seen in high company and was always trying to forge stronger sporting links between two football-mad countries. Sadly, he died in 1980 at the age of 55, in the arms of Italian national manager Enzo Bearzot.
The relationship between England and Italy could have been mortally damaged in 1985 when Liverpool fans sparked off the Heysel stadium disaster. For Juventus, it is comparable to Hillsborough or the Superga disaster that killed the Torino team in the 1940s.
The Italian game was looked upon with envy by students of European football in England, but the roles have been somewhat reversed in recent years. The first signs of this can be traced back to the late 1990s when a string of Italian players – Vialli, Di Matteo, Ravanelli, Di Canio – started arriving. This would have been unheard of a decade earlier.
With the English Premier League now winning the glamour stakes, Serie A has been relegated from the front bench in European football. But it will still provide almost as many players for the forthcoming World Cup squads in Brazil. UEFA needs a strong Italy as much as it needs a healthy England. And dare I say, England needs strong opponents like Italy to benchmark itself against. Being better than Ukraine and Poland is one thing, but being superior to Italy really counts…