The Battle of Highbury: When Football Lost Its Temper

by | Jul 10, 2021

England play Italy in the final of the European Championships on Sunday evening but, while there may be frayed tempers and a considerable degree of gamesmanship, it seems unlikely that the match will reach the levels of intransigence achieved by one of their very first meetings. It’s been 87 years since it was played, yet it remains on the records as one of the most extraordinarily bad-tempered matches that England have ever been involved in. Indeed, it’s notoriety as a match can be gauged by the fact that it has earned itself a nickname shared by other similarly truculent meetings: The Battle of Highbury.

The match, which was played on the 12th November 1934, wasn’t the first between the two sides. That had come 18 months earlier, when the two teams played out a 1-1 at the Stadio Nazionale PNF in Rome. What mattered, though, was what had come before this match and what had happened since. The FA’s relationship with FIFA had always been somewhat fractious. They first joined in 1905, a year after its formation, but all four of the ‘home nations’ (England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales) opted to leave in 1919, when FIFA chose not to exclude those who had been their wartime enemies from the organisation. This position, however, turned out to be untenable and by 1924 they had rejoined.

Still, though, tensions remained, and they went beyond the involvement of the former wartime enemies. The British Olympic Association had fought against ‘broken time’ payments – compensation for amateur athletes to cover lost income when performing – when competing in the Olympic games. At the 1925 Olympic Congress in Prague, the British had made an amendment which concluded that governing federations should define amateur status for their sports, but only in accordance with the definition of amateurism accepted by the Olympic Congress. In 1928, though, Switzerland proposed to FIFA that in certain circumstances, ‘broken time’ payments should be allowed and FIFA accepted. The FA resigned from FIFA in protest against the proposal, and the other home nations joined them.

The 1930s, then, began with a first World Cup that was missing four teams that would have been expected to be amongst its strongest. The first tournament in 1930 was won by Uruguay, the host nation, and four years later the same thing happened again when Italy were crowned as the world champions, again with the home nations absent. Italy, then, were the world champions, but this fairly straightforward fact seemed to bypass the English media, who deemed this match “The Real World Cup Final”, on account of the perceived strength of an England team who hadn’t yet even deigned to take part in something that was considered by many to be an irrelevance of a competition.

Any idea that the FA not driven by pure xenophobia would be way off the mark. When Arsenal attempted to sign Rudy Hiden from the Austrian club Wiener AC in 1930, Charles Sutcliffe of the FA wrote that “The idea of bringing foreigners to play in league football is repulsive to the clubs, offensive to British players and a terrible confession of weakness in the management of a club”. The following year, the FA introduced a rule which required players to have been resident in the United Kingdom for two years before they could to play for an English club. The rule, which remained in place until 1978, effectively banned all bar a tiny number of foreign players from plying their trade in this country.

This arrogance and high-handedness, combined with the importance placed on sport for the purposes of propaganda by Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini, only inflamed matters all the more. Mussolini offered Italy’s players a new Alfa Romeo car, an astronomical £150 each – £10,800, adjusted for inflation to 2021 – and even, it was suggested, exemption from compulsory military service if they could return with a win.

There have, of course, been numerous rumours over the years that Mussolini fixed the 1934 World Cup in Italy’s favour, but none of this interfered with the collective belief that they had earned the right to call themselves the world champions of football, while England’s claim seemed solely based on exceptionalism and the fact that the game had originally been codified here, some 70 years earlier. The Liverpool Echo’s preview of the match seemed to sum up the question that many hoped to have answered:

England is still looked upon as the best football talent in the world, although the FA will not join in so-called world championships. Italy bears on its stamps the title “Football champions of the world” and all our exiles are asking that we shall beat them, because they will not be able to hold up their heads if defeat comes to us on our own ground. The team chosen for the home eleven is made up of stout hearts and brainy football feet. Italy is fast and strikingly clever; every one of our men who have seen them play say they are a revelation.

Highbury was selected as the venue for the match, and unsurprisingly so. Arsenal had bought the freehold to the ground in 1925 and extensive renovation work had begun in the early 1930s, with its ultra-modern, art deco West Stand opening for business in 1932. This growth had been matched by an improvement in the team’s performances after they won the FA Cup for the first time in 1930 under  Herbert Chapman, and Chapman’s premature death at the start of 1934 had cast a pall over the entire year, in this country.

The team selected that would play against Italy would feature no less than seven Arsenal players, a record number from one club for an England match which still exists to this day. None of this, however, meant that this was an experienced England team. Whether the FA’s selection committee was making a pointed statement about what they thought of Italy at the time is not known, but none of the eleven players had as many as ten previous caps for their country. Among the non-Arsenal players selected was a 19 year old Stanley Matthews, making his second appearance for his country.

Italy, on the other hand, were packed with experience. Coach Vittorio Pozzo had already developed Herbert Chapman’s innovative WM formation into a WW formation, in which half-backs pressed higher up the pitch, supporting counter-attacks, with a central half-back helping to keep the team solid defensively by covering them went they moved forward. Among their star players was Giuseppe Meazza, who was (and remains) the youngest player to score 100 goals in Serie A, and who is now recognised as perhaps Italy’s greatest ever player.

A recorded crowd of 56,000 turned out on a damp November afternoon for the match, and latecomers missed, to say the least, a dramatic opening fifteen minutes. Within sixty seconds a long ball into the Italian penalty area saw Ted Drake felled by Luigi Allemandi for an England penalty kick. Eric Brook, one of the other non-Arsenal players in the team, stepped up to take the kick, only to see it acrobatically tipped over the crossbar by the Italian goalkeeper Carlo Ceresoli. By the time 15 minutes had been played, though, England led 3-0. Brook had recovered from his penalty miss to score two goals in three minutes, with Drake adding a third, after just a quarter of an hour.

But an arguably even more significant incident came just after the penalty kick had been missed, when England defender Wilf Copping clattered into the Italy defender Luis Monti. Monti carried on until the third goal, but he’d broken a bone in his foot and its condition was deteriorating rapidly. He had to be withdrawn, reducing Italy to ten players for the rest of the match.

Apparently enraged by what they considered to have been a deliberate injury inflicted upon Monti, the Italian players decided to mete out a little justice of their own. Eddie Hapgood had to leave the pitch for 15 minutes to have his nose reset after Italian right half Attilio Ferraris elbowed him in the face, while Ray Bowden damaged his ankle ligaments. The England goalscorers also both ended up on the receiving end of this roughhousing – Drake was punched and Brook had his arm fractured – but none of this made any difference to the score. England led 3-0 at half-time.

During the interval we might reasonably assume that Pozzo, one of the world’s great football coaches, gently reminded his players that they would get better results from playing football than committing common assault. Italy came back strongly in the second half, despite being a man short. Two goals in five minutes around the hour mark from Meazza brought the score back to 3-2, and England were indebted to good fortune – Meazza was only denied a hat-trick by a couple of inches when he hit the crossbar late on – and an outstanding performance from goalkeeper Frank Moss, who pulled off a strong of superb saves to maintain England’s lead.

At the full-time whistle, both teams could claim a victory, of sorts. England had won on the day, but only just. Italy had pushed them all the way and could justifiably claim that they might have completed their comeback had Monti stayed on the pitch for longer than the first 15 minutes. The match had been covered on the radio in Italy – Mussolini himself had been on business in Bern and had been kept up to date with events from London – and the team subsequently became known as “The Lions of Highbury” in the Italian media off the back of their performance. With Pozzo still in charge and Giuseppe Meazza still captaining the team, Italy retained the World Cup in France in 1938. In 1980, following Meazza’s death a year earlier, the San Siro – home of Internazionale and Milan – was named for him. It carries his name to this day.

Back in England, though, reaction to the match was mixed. On the one hand, some journalists were quick to praise the Italian comeback in the second half, with The Times noting that Italian performance improved considerably after half-time with their change in temperament, while The Guardian’s reaction to the early penalty save by Ceresoli could scarcely have been more complimentary:

The cohorts of Italy cheered and Englishmen wondered what sort of a goalkeeper was this leaping acrobat. In his spectacular style he soon convinced the crowd that he was a Spring-heel Jack with a splendid sense of anticipation.

It wasn’t all magnanimity the next day, though, with the Daily Mirror triumphantly declaring that the 3-2 victory offered “irrefutable proof that Italy are world champions in name only.” There was, however, considerable disquiet at the way this match had played out. Some newspapers ran editorials on the events of the day before, and there was even conjecture that England might withdraw from international football altogether, if this was how to be treated by their opponents in the future. The FA would eventually rejoin FIFA in 1946, and England would play in their first World Cup – suffering an ignominious exit in the first round – four years later.

But for those who wanted the increasingly troubling politics of the era kept out of football there would only be only disappointment. England played Germany at White Hart Lane 13 months after this fixture, welcoming 10,000 German supporters who’d been hand-picked to show off Germany’s desired public face to the world. There were protests by trade unions and Jewish groups before the match and England won comfortably. In April 1938, though, England played a return fixture in Berlin and, prior to the match, the team gave – reportedly against the will of the players themselves – the Nazi salute. Within eighteen months of this match, Britain and Germany would be back at war.

The Battle of Highbury didn’t resolve anything, of course. It never could have done. The two opposing sides, at least once we step back from the players themselves, both came into the match with values to uphold. Mussolini’s political intentions with regard to the Italy national football team were pretty much transparent but, while the Football Association of the time may not have felt as though they were playing politics in the slightest, they were.

The whole set of circumstances which resulted in the FA withdrawing from FIFA in the first place were an extension of a fractious debate about professionalism against amateurism that had been ongoing in football in England since not long after its inception, and which had its roots deeply embedded in the British class system. Just as politics has been unable to shake extremism over the intervening decades, so football has been unable to escape those who insist on applying their own political worldviews onto a game which, whether inadvertently or otherwise, continues to act as a blank canvas for them to do so.