England 3-2 Italy 14 November 1934
Friendly, Highbury, London
Scorers: Brook (2), Drake (England) Meazza (2) (Italy)

This was truly a clash of footballing titans. England were the unofficial champions, still widely regarded as the best team in the world, and Italy were the official champions, having won the World Cup five months earlier. Italy were coached by the great Vittorio Pozzo, and had lost only four out of 34 games under the tactical maestro. ‘Il Vecchio Maestro’ (‘the Old Master’) is credited with establishing the Italian metodo system of pragmatic defending and precise counter attacking. The Italians lined up with nine World Cup winners, including the great goalscorer Giuseppe ‘Peppino’ Meazza, and three controversial South American ‘ringers’, including Luis Monti, who uniquely played in the 1930 World Cup final for Argentina and in the 1934 World Cup final for Italy. (‘If they can die for Italy, they can play football for Italy,’ Pozzo reasoned.)

England, still selected by committee, had never been beaten on home turf by continental opposition. They offered debuts to Arsenal duo George Male and Ted Drake. Indeed, seven members of the England team were Arsenal players, including Cliff Bastin, Frank Moss, and skipper Eddie Hapgood. Their Highbury home ground was rammed with more than 56,000 supporters, and enveloped in fog and rain. That the match is remembered as ‘the Battle of Highbury’ says much about what followed.

Within a minute of the kick-off England won a penalty. But Manchester City striker Eric Brook saw his spot-kick brilliantly saved by Italian keeper Carlo Ceresoli. 60 seconds later Ted Drake got stuck into a tackle with Luis Monti that saw the Italian stretchered from the field with a dislocated kneecap. The furious Italians, forced to play the remaining 88 minutes with 10 men, were convinced that the injury had been inflicted deliberately, and began to kick and lash out at the English. Undeterred, Brook immediately made up for his penalty miss by heading a third-minute goal. He added a second direct from a free-kick in the 10th minute, and Drake made it 3-0 in the 12th. But the Italians’ kicking game was beginning to take its toll on the English. Hapgood had his nose broken, and was forced to leave the field for 15 minutes. Brook suffered a broken arm, and Drake acquired two black eyes and a cut leg, although both played on. Several other England players suffered bruises and cuts.

At half-time, as England patched up their wounds, Italy calculated a comeback. Perhaps coach Pozzo reminded his charges that Mussolini, who had offered the team huge win bonuses, would not accept sporting failure. Certainly it was a more focussed and determined Italian side that emerged after the interval. As the game restarted in pouring rain, the brilliant Peppino Meazza took control of the game, scoring two goals in quick succession in the 58th and 62nd minutes, before hitting the crossbar, and forcing Frank Moss into a raft of saves. Ultimately, however, the battered English were able to hold out against the 10-man Italians. England won the battle between unofficial and official champions by the skin of their loosened teeth.