Vittorio Pozzo is Italy’s most successful International manager but he failed to defeat one team in his trophy laded career – England.
Vittorio Pozzo’s reign in 1930s ushered a golden era which would see Italy win consecutive world cups & an Olympic gold medal. Pozzo’s Italy defeated each of the three teams of the Danubian school of short passing football – Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary to stamp their manager’s own “Metodo” system on continental football. Yet, for all his success Pozzo would never be able to outmaneuver the team which believed itself to be best in the world – England. This was an intriguing pre war rivalry, which climaxed in the infamous “Battle of Highbury” of 1934.
The first meeting between two countries came on 13th May 1933 in Rome, ending in a 1-1 draw. This match would pit two of the great pre-war minds of football against each other with Vittorio Pozzo facing off against Herbert Chapman. Italy, largely comprised of players who would win World Cup a year later, took the lead through Giovanni Ferrari, only to be pegged by Cliff Bastin’s first goal for the national team. Over a year later Italy travelled to Highbury, as world champions. England had not participated in world cup but for the English press, they were the best team in the world & this was the “real” world cup final. Seven players from First Division champions Arsenal started for England in front of 56,000 spectators. There was great pre-match hype and Il Duce Mussolini had reportedly offered each player money and an Alfa Romeo car if they managed to defeat England.
The world champions were in complete disarray from the start. Center half Luis Monti, only man to play for two countries in a world cup final, went off injured as Italy had to play with 10 men, with no subs allowed. Italian keeper Carlo Ceresoli, described by an English paper as “Spring-heel Jack with a splendid sense of anticipation”, saved an early penalty but was powerless to stop Eric Brook who scored a brace within 10 minutes. Ted Drake added a third on 12th minute as England seemed to be staying true to their pre match billing of being best in the world. In second half Italy rallied brilliantly, with Giuseppe Meazza scoring twice. The legendary Italian striker also struck the post once and forced off a series of good saves from the English custodian. But by this time the match has descended into chaos and a number of players would get injured in off the ball skirmishes. English captain Eddie Hapgood suffered from a broken nose, five other English players suffered serious injuries. England held out the 3-2 scoreline but Italian players were hailed in their homeland for their fight back. Even the English press while universally criticizing the “unsportsmanship” of Italian players, praised their second half comeback. “England’s prestige was bruised badly by the things that happened in that second half”, noted a prominent journalist grimly.
Pozzo’s Italy went on to win more silverware but defeating England remained a distant dream. In 1939, Italy was just 13 minutes away from a historic win but an equalizer from Willie Hall resulted in a 2-2 draw. Both countries had to wait for 9 years to play again. Pozzo had been one of the most powerful men in Italian football for over three decades but by this time his legacy had begun to lose its sheen. In the post fascism Italy Pozzo’s ties with the Mussolini regime was seen with suspicion.
Pozzo’s post war record was still solid and Italy had defeated the likes of Austria, Hungary, France and Switzerland when football restarted. But their run would shatter when they came up against Walter Winterbottom’s England in 1948. Italy was not a weak team by any means and was largely made up with players from Il Grande Torino, captained by the legendary Valentino Mazzola. Tactically though, the only coach to win back to back World Cups may have got it wrong even before the ball was kicked. Pozzo tried to apply his favourite “Metodo” formation to a team the crux of which came from a club used to playing the “WM” formation. Italy began as the stronger of two teams but soon found themselves trailing thanks to a brilliant strike from Stan Mortensen. Italians continued to pour forward but were thwarted by English ‘keeper Swift, who was having the game of his life. The English front five continued to pick out gaps in their opponents’ defence while the Italians had a goal ruled out controversially. Tommy Lawton doubled England’s lead in first half while a brace from Tom Finney in second half ended this match as a contest. In the end, what was supposed to be a chance for Pozzo to finally outwit England became a body blow to his national team career. England’s 4-0 thrashing remains the worst defeat La Nazionale has suffered at home, ever.
Pozzo lasted just two more matches before being dismissed after a loss to Denmark in 1948 Olympics. The man who had learnt English in Manchester as a young man and picked up football from the Isles won a lot in his career but in his four meetings with England he was never able to defeat them.