England versus Italy: The Battle of Highbury


With this evening’s World Cup game between England and Italy in mind, we look back to 14 November 1934 to the second fixture between the two countries and the first on English soil.

England, as the founders of the modern game, still claimed world supremacy, but they were not members of FIFA and therefore had not taken part in the 1934 World Cup finals when hosts Italy had beaten all-comers to win the tournament and claim the title of World Champions.

The visitors could lay claim to being the best international team of the 1930s: they won the World Cup twice (1934 and 1938), the Olympic Games in 1936 and between April 1932 and November 1939 suffered just three defeats in a run of 53 games.

The English press were, perhaps as always, condescending of their Continental opponents. The Times, for example, referred to their success in the World Cup five months previously as “the so-called World Championship”. Expectations of a substantial England victory were high: “England should win, and win comfortably” noted the Daily Express, while the Daily Mirror thought England should win by the same score as they had recently beaten Wales (4-0) but that a “Ten-goal victory must be our aim”. These comments belied the importance of the match which would provide an important test of the strength of English football and the outcome created interest throughout Europe.

The fixture also carried political connotations. Mussolini’s fascist regime had politicised football and the national team as a way of promoting their version of nationhood, with Mussolini himself taking a close and personal interest in events. Controversially they had recruited several Oriundi, South American born players with historic family ties to Italy, to boost the national team and three of these had played in the 1934 World Cup winning team.

The game took place at Highbury on a Wednesday afternoon with a 2.30 kick-off. Gates opened at noon and the standard admission to the terraces was 2 shillings (equivalent to 10p in today’s money). For the first and only time to date England lined up with seven players from one team (Arsenal) and in general there was a lack of experience; the four non-Arsenal players included Stanley Matthews who was winning his second cap for England. Italy fielded five players from Juventus and three from Ambrosiana Inter. There were just two changes from their previous game against Czechoslovakia, which had been the World Cup final. The Times identified their star player as centre half Luis Monti who was the midfield pivot around which the team functioned. An Oriundi, Monti holds the distinction of being the only man to have played for two countries in World Cup finals, having also played for Argentina in 1930.

The teams lined up as follows:
England: Frank Moss (Arsenal); George Male (Arsenal), Eddie Hapgood (Arsenal, captain); Cliff Britton (Everton), Jack Barker (Derby County), Wilf Copping (Arsenal); Stanley Matthews (Stoke City), Ray Bowden (Arsenal), Ted Drake (Arsenal), Cliff Bastin (Arsenal), Eric Brook (Manchester City)
Italy: Carlo Cerosoni (Ambrosiana Inter); Eraldo Monziglio (Bologna), Luigi Allemandi (Ambrosiana Inter); Attilio Ferraris IV (Lazio, captain), Luis Monti (Juventus), Luigi Bertolini (Juventus); Enrique Guaita (Roma), Pietro Serantoni (Juventus), Giuseppe Meazza (Ambrosiana Inter), Giovanni Ferrari (Juventus), Raimondo Orsi (Juventus)
Referee: O Olssen (Sweden)

Around 10,000 Italian fans cheered on their team and shortly before the kick-off a fan ran across the pitch waving a large Italian flag. England played what was a fairly modern 2-3-5 formation with the centre half as defender between the full backs, while Italy employed the centre half as a pivot playing more of a defensive midfield role. The match played, on a grey and misty November afternoon, began explosively: within the first 15 minutes England had missed a penalty, taken out Italy’s star man, gone 3-0 up and had full back Eddie Hapgood off the field with a broken nose.

In the very first minute Drake won a penalty only for Eric Brook’s spot kick to be saved. Then a minute later Drake was involved in a heavy challenge on Monti which left the Italian with a broken ankle. Shortly afterwards he left the field and the visitors were down to 10 men. On 8 minutes Brook headed England into the lead and added a second four minutes later from a free kick after Drake had been hacked down. Drake himself added a third on 15 minutes by which the game had descended into a battle royal, with the Italians engaging in what the British press considered to be rough house tactics. Drake came in for some particularly harsh treatment due to his involvement in Monti’s injury and general bustling style.

Having shaken up the England team in the first period, Italy dominated the second half and came close to snatching a draw after netting twice through Giuseppe Meazza. On more than one occasion they almost equalised, but England held out to earn a 3-2 win. The Italians, roared on for much of the second half by their flag-waving compatriots to chants of ‘Viva Italia’ ran to their supporters to give the fascist salute before leaving the field. Almost every member of the England team suffered injury – Brook with a broken arm, and Hapgood being the most serious.

The British press was universal in its condemnation of Italy’s tactics – headlines included ‘Game like a battle’ (Daily Mirror), ‘A travesty of soccer’ (Daily Express), ‘Battle not Football’ (Manchester Guardian) and ‘The Battle of Highbury’ (Daily Worker). Charles Buchan described it as “one of the roughest and toughest internationals I have ever seen” (A Lifetime in Football). The Daily Express carried the story on its front page, describing the Italian performance as “a display of ankle-tapping, tripping, obstruction, free-punching, bawling, brawling, shoulder-shrugging and a variety of other objectionable things that have never had a place in football.” There were widespread calls for England to stop playing against Continental teams – even The Spectator joined in – but these soon died down.

The game was of significance in that it represented a further to challenge to England’s perceived world supremacy from the Central European school of football. The national team had already lost to Austria and Czechoslovakia in tour matches during the summer of 1934 and this narrow victory, against an Italy team shorn of their best player and down to 10 men for all but a few minutes of the match, was further evidence that British football may not be the best in the world. Sadly, it was a warning that was not heeded and failure to consider the growing strengths of other nations was eventually to lead to something of a disaster at the hands of the USA in the 1950 World Cup finals.

Although there was widespread condemnation in England of the Italians tactics, the root cause appears to have been the visitors’ lack of knowledge of the British style of play. The players were incensed not just by the injury to Monti, but by the English tactics of shoulder charging, particularly of the goalkeeper, and of robust play of as type not permitted in Italy. There is evidence that the football authorities were aware that different styles of play and interpretations of the laws existed as is clear from referee Olssen’s comments to the Daily Mirror after the game (16 November 1934): “Their ideas of the rules differ from the English view. They were warned before the game started that it would be conducted according to English laws, but they could not change the style which they have adopted in Italy”.

The game has since entered the folklore of English soccer history under the title of ‘The Battle of Highbury’, perhaps the first and only time the Daily Worker (newspaper of the Communist Party), which coined the term, has made a significant contribution to the game’s history. In Italy the team became known as ‘The Lions of Highbury’ for what in fascist rhetoric was a near triumph against great adversity.

Tonight’s game is unlikely to produce such controversy although it is probably worth noting that England’s recent record against Italy is far from good. Since 1961 the teams have met 16 teams, with England winning just four times and losing nine. The most recent competitive fixture between the two was in the 2012 European Championship finals when Italy triumphed 4-2 on penalties in a quarter-final tie in Kiev. England’s two successful strikes came from Gerrard and Rooney, both likely to play this evening.


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