Former Prime Minister and bastion of all things English, Sir Winston Churchill, once exclaimed "Italians lose wars as if they were football matches, and football matches as if they were wars", while many years later, Gianluca Vialli, wrote in his book 'The Italian Job' that "the Italians play with their heads, and the English play with their hearts". When the two nations met for the first time in pre-war conditions in Rome on May 13, 1933, it was an affair to remember.
The early 1930s saw the rest of Europe catch up ground on the early standards set by the English game. While it is unfair to suggest that English football was in 'decline' in a trying decade for the continent in political, economic and sporting terms, the advancement of the sport in other European countries was most noticeable in the pre-World War II years.
According to Peter Beck in 'Scoring for Britain: International Football and International Politics': "More frequent foreign victories over British teams and particularly the disappointing results of clubs engaged on close season tours, prompted media comment... As one newspaper observed, the defeats of leading teams like Newcastle, the FA Cup holders and Everton, had broader consequences: 'it must be accepted that the results of these Continental matches do matter. The prestige of British football is at stake.' "
Indeed the FA's relationship with world governing body FIFA was strained and, despite the opening of Wembley Stadium in 1923, it had withdrawn from the burgeoning organisation in 1928, just two years ahead of the first World Cup. Uruguay would walk away with the inaugural title on home soil, but they did so in the midst of scepticism from Europe - France and Belgium were the continent's only participants - over the long-term future of the competition.
While England avoided any major trips - playing most of their games at these times against other Home Nations - they performed well at home and were still seen by many as the best team in the world. However, they were notoriously bad away. Defeat to Spain in 1929 and France in 1931 may have been been reversed handsomely on home soil but there was a growing feeling that the once great nation of football was slipping.
Although they came out on top against Hugo Meisl's Austria in a thrilling 4-3 win at Stamford Bridge in December 1932 - with Meisl even claiming he owed Britain a great 'debt' for giving him the platform to launch Austria to the top of the world ranking - the status of England as the founding father of football and the standard bearer for all things on the international stage was in dispute.
Out of the picture as far as FIFA was concerned, at a conference in Barcelona the organisation decided that it was to award the 1934 World Cup to Italy. As the ever more aggressive foreign policy of Prime Minister Benito Mussolini began to take shape, politics was an unmistakable addition to the football landscape in the build-up to the event. Italy had a point to prove and sought out the English to play a friendly ahead of the tournament. David Goldblatt, in 'The Ball is Round', explains: "Unbeknown to the British government, the FA had accepted an invitation from the Italian Federation (FIGC) to play the fixture. There was considerable excitement and anticipation in the Italian press around the visit."
A date of May 13, 1933 was set, with the match to be played at the Stadio Nazionale del PNF (National Fascist Party Stadium) in Rome. There was some trepidation ahead of this meeting, especially on the English side, but it received global coverage not only because of the quality of the two teams on show, but also as it was a battle set against the changing political backdrop of Europe. The New York Times were moved to send a correspondent and they wrote: "No other contest in the history of modern Italian sport has caused so much interest."
If the inexperienced English side - they went into the game with six players winning their first cap and two others winning their second - were unsure of what to expect from their Fascist hosts, then they soon found out as they took to the field in front of 50,000 spectators. Mussolini arrived at the stadium to a crescendo of cheers and the mass waving of handkerchiefs. There would be no surrender, though, as white was not the colour of the day. Instead the PA announcer boomed: "With the Duce [a nickname for Mussolini translated as 'The Leader'] one is never lost; neither will we lose today."
For German journalist Walther Bensemann, the game itself was not much of a spectacle: "It was not a very great game because all of the players seemed to be overcome by the importance of their task. The Italians had been told to avenge the Austrians' defeat in London and the English were trying to uphold the prestige of the old country."
It was a nervous start for England and football historian Cris Freddi wrote: "The raw recruits went a goal down after only four minutes, and their new centre-half Tom White pulled a muscle. But Italy's great striker Giuseppe Meazza played nervously and missed chances, allowing the England new boys to escape with a deserved draw. Italy's superb playmaker Giovanni Ferrari blasted a goal from 25 yards, but Cliff Bastin soon equalised after cutting in from the wing. Harry Hibbs preserved the draw with some excellent saves. White was unfortunate to win only this one cap, but he was blessed in other ways: an Italian paper described him as one of the team's Adonises!"
A 1-1 draw allowed both sides to take some comfort from the result, even if the media took a different line: "50,000 spectators, Mussolini in crowd cheering," ran the standfirst in the next day's Observer. Later, England star Eddie Hapgood revealed in a book that Mussolini had been hit "just above his lunch" by a stray clearance and expressed the wish that it had been something more lethal than a football which caught him.
Bensemann summed up the game thus: "The Football Association has shown once more that there is life in the old dog yet, and Italy has shown that the great teams of the Continent, led by Connaisseurs [sic] like Hugo [i.e.Meisl] or [coach] Vittorio Pozzo, are on their way to assume supremacy."
The tide of European football (and indeed politics) was changing, but the FA was not impressed. The organisation's Secretary Fredrick Wall said after the match: "I have no desire to again be a guest of the Italian Football Federation" and duly refused the host nation's offer to pay all of their expenses to play at the 1934 World Cup.
What happened next? England faced Pozzo's Italy again in November 1934 in the 'Battle of Highbury' and won 3-2, but six months earlier the Italians had triumphed at the the second ever World Cup. Under 'The Old Master' they did so again in 1938 and sealed their place as one of the greatest teams to have ever played the game, before the Second World War ensured that football was put on hold until 1946, when England and the Home Nations rejoined FIFA. When England returned to Italy in 1948, they won 4-0 in Turin, shortly after proving their away blues were banished completely with a 10-0 win over Portugal in Lisbon.