Masters Versus champions: British Perceptions of Calcio in the Fascist Era

On 2 April 2013, Paolo Di Canio entered the pressroom at the Stadium of Light to begin his first press conference as Manager of Sunderland AFC. The line of questioning soon moved from football to Fascism. Di Canio’s flamboyant career has been a long-running narrative of the overlap between politics and football. His back is adorned with a tattoo of the Fasces surrounding Benito Mussolini’s head. He has Dux inscribed in ink on his bicep, the title Il Duce used to represent his leadership. Di Canio notoriously celebrated a goal for Lazio in the 2005 Derby della Capitale against Roma with a straight-arm salute to the Curva Nord. Photographs of this act remain, like his tattoos, a potent reminder of his political views.

Sunderland is a left-wing town with a proud industrial heritage. The appointment of a demonstrably Fascist manager provoked a response. Sunderland’s vice-chairman and former British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, resigned. He is Jewish and members of his family died in the Holocaust. The Durham Miners’ Association asked that the Monkwearmouth Miners’ banner, presented to the club in 1997, be returned.

The wider reactions to Di Canio’s appointment illuminate British perceptions of a personification of residual Italian Fascism. A vocal minority admonished Di Canio. But supporters continued to brave the brisk North Sea breeze as they crossed the Wearmouth Bridge to the Stadium of Light. Di Canio was praised for revitalising a Sunderland team that went on to avoid relegation. Most people were ambivalent. In the 1930s, Fascism’s influence over football amounted to more than the ink on Paolo Di Canio’s back. Fascism and calcio were intertwined and inseparable. Meanwhile, blinded by insularity, British football barely glanced up from its daydream of assumed superiority.

One of the golden ages of Italian football coincided with the ventennio, the two decades of Fascist rule in Italy. The national team, the Azzurri, hosted and won the World Cup in 1934, and retained it in France in 1938. In between, a supposedly amateur Italian side won the gold medal at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. The Azzurri played sixty-three matches in the 1930s. Coached by Vittorio Pozzo, a tactical visionary, they won forty-five, drew twelve and lost just six. Very few national teams have replicated this level of domination. Italian clubs were also successful. Bologna won the Mitropa Cup, a precursor to the European Cup, in 1932 and 1934, and beat Chelsea convincingly in the final of the 1937 Paris Exhibition Tournament. Juventus also reached the semi-final of the Mitropa Cup on four occasions. Historian Simon Martin is correct to state that ‘calcio took the regime to the pinnacle of sporting achievement.’

The Fascist government used these achievements to strengthen the regime domestically and internationally. Within Italy, calcio became a vehicle to cultivate nationalism and promote social cohesion. Internationally, calcio was a diplomatic tool to increase the regime’s prestige and project an image of an idealised Fascist society. Crucially, the imperious Azzurri embodied characteristics that the regime wished to flaunt to the world. Pozzo moulded the Azzurri based on the primacy of athleticism, aggression and autocracy. Although not necessarily a Fascist, his footballing ethos complimented Fascist values.

The Azzurri had a robust claim to be the best team in the world, but football is a slippery political tool. The British response to the Azzurri’s dominance in the 1930s was one of disinterest. The football establishment assumed an innate superiority in a sport that British emigrants had exported to the world. The Football Association withdrew from FIFA in 1928, and did not enter a World Cup until 1950. As England did not compete, World Cup matches barely featured in the British press. In 1934, The Daily Mirror published a sixteen-word announcement of Italy’s victory on the bottom corner of the page, underneath an article about the bowls and to the left of an article about the greyhound racing.

This placement is striking. It seems symbolic of the perceived irrelevance of the World Cup as a footnote to the sport in which Britain was, and would always be, the master. Local newspapers did not breach their usual parochialism, as demonstrated charmingly by The Gloucester Citizen, which published the pigeon racing results from the Gloucester Southend Flying Club, but ignored the football. The British press reported the Italian victory at the 1938 World Cup even less. None of the British newsreel companies appear to have bought footage, and no major newspapers sent journalists to cover the tournament. The Italian team’s gold medal at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 passed almost unnoticed. The all-conquering exploits of the Azzurri barely registered in Britain in an era when the footballing establishment viewed the continental game with haughty disdain. British newspapers rarely informed the public of footballing matters beyond the English Channel, unless they directly involved the England team.

As a result of this insularity, successful Italian club sides remained peripheral to the British consciousness. No Italian clubs embarked on tours to Britain during the ventennio. Interestingly, the visit of Dynamo Moscow to Britain in 1945 caused much curiosity. The Russians played four matches across the country, before a total crowd of approximately 271,000. There is no reason why the visit of Juventus or Bologna would not have captured the public’s fascination in a similar manner. Yet the somewhat arrogant belief in performance against English teams as the true barometer of quality was as prominent in the 1930s as it remains in 2016. Italian club football was not dismissed. To be dismissed, it would have to have registered in the first place.

Matches between Italy and England generated far more excitement. Anglo-Italian fixtures were presented as a series of test matches between England, the masters and exporters of the game, and Italy, the World Cup and Olympic champions. Off the pitch, the matches assumed political significance. Fixtures between England and Italy in Rome in 1933, London in 1934, and Milan in 1939, placed eleven symbols of liberal democracy against eleven symbols of Fascism.

When the England team travelled to Rome in May 1933 for its inaugural fixture against Italy, the ‘masters versus champions’ narrative was not fully developed. Italy, of course, was yet to win the World Cup. But the match was still presented in England and beyond as ‘The Match of the Century’ and an epic clash between masters and pupils. The match at the Stadio Nazionale was finely balanced. Cliff Bastin cancelled out Ferraris’ opener for Italy to secure a draw for England. A report by Ivan Sharpe, a former player who became a prominent journalist, bemoaned ‘conditions which were not suitable to the English players.’ British journalists often rationalised negative results by emphasising the impact of poor playing conditions or questionable refereeing.

Generally, though, journalists were complimentary, if a little condescending, in their assessments of the Azzurri. The Daily Express concluded that ‘Italian football is not yet up to the standard of English football, though the Italians can give England a first-class game, and are opponents to be treated with the utmost respect.’ It is not clear why, after a match that finished as a draw, the journalist claimed that Italian football remained inferior. Particularly given The Manchester Guardian’s appraisal that ‘on the run of play Italy should have won’, and the more populist Mirror’s belief that ‘England [were] lucky to share in a game of missed chances.’ Despite this praise, some reports were clearly shaped by existing cultural assumptions about Italians. Casual xenophobia became increasingly tangible as the decade progressed and the political significance of matches increased. But it was still apparent in ‘The Clubman’s’ column in The Daily Mirror in 1933, which mused of the England team’s diet in Italy that ‘if it was anything like the Italian meal I sat down to once, then… well, it wouldn’t be surprising if that costs them the match.’ Such views were a means to cling to the enduring but increasingly fragile assumption that these continental pupils could not possibly usurp their English Mister.

The draw in Rome inaugurated the footballing rivalry between England and Italy. The return fixture at Highbury in November 1934 ignited it. Italy had become World Cup champions since playing England in Rome. In light of this development, The Daily Mirror reminded its readers that ‘the prestige of England’ was at stake. England burst in to an early 3-0 lead, courtesy of two goals by Eric Brook and a third by Ted Drake. Luis Monti, the Argentina-born Italian defender, broke his foot after just two minutes, leaving his team with ten men. After half time, Italy fought back. Guiseppe Meazza scored twice and was denied a hat-trick by the crossbar. But England held firm, and the match finished 3–2. The question of superiority was unresolved; the Italians justifiably claimed that they had been severely hampered by playing most of the match with ten men.

The Manchester Guardian summarised pithily the dominant narrative to emerge from the match: ‘Battle. Not football.’ The match remains known colloquially as ‘The Battle of Highbury’. The Yorkshire Evening Post noted dryly, ‘apparently there is no foul in the Italian vocabulary.’ Many journalists identified the physical approach of Pozzo’s Azzurri as a product of Fascism, and some even called for Italy to be banned from international football. The Biggleswade Chronicle concluded that ‘into the Italian team of footballers at Highbury on Wednesday, had been instilled all of the national patriotism and the general ballyhoo of Fascism.’ The Daily Worker, the mouthpiece of the British Socialist Party, published a predictably polemic report underpinned by the claim that ‘Fascism has shown its ugly influence in sport.’ The intentions of a socialist newspaper are clear. Yet even beneath the veneer of more balanced newspapers, articles and reports are written by individual journalists, and are coloured by their prejudices and poor judgments, as well as the prejudices of the proprietor. Ivan Sharpe visited Rome in 1931 to cover a match between Italy and Scotland. Sharpe was impressed by Mussolini’s organisation of calcio. He wrote in Athletic News that Mussolini ‘is quite smitten by soccer’, and added in his autobiography that he ‘valued sport for sport’s sake.’ This was clearly the conclusion of a politically illiterate football correspondent, but it would have shaped his readers’ perceptions of Italian football, and Fascism.

The casual xenophobia that emerged following England’s visit to Rome became more pronounced after The Battle of Highbury. The Daily Mail set the tone before the match by publishing a cartoon of the entire Italian team with moustaches. A common assertion in the press was that the Italian players had been overzealous because of their volcanic Latin temperament. While Eddie Hapgood, who captained England and finished the match with a broken nose, complained that it was ‘hard to stay calm when somebody resembling an enthusiastic member of the Mafia is wiping his studs down your leg.’ Thus, a contradiction emerged from the portrayal of the Italian team in the newspapers after The Battle of Highbury. They were eleven malevolent practitioners of Fascist-inspired violence. Simultaneously, they were pesky Latins who could not be blamed for failing to control their emotions. Either way, they acted as they did because they were Italian.

The political atmosphere in Europe was tense when the England team travelled to Milan in 1939. The Azzurri retained the World Cup in Paris the previous year, perpetuating the narrative of a battle for world honours. But the press presented the result of the match as ancillary to its political implications. The Italian armed forces had invaded Albania one month before the match, and Ciano and Ribbentrop, the Foreign Ministers of Italy and Germany, were negotiating the Pact of Steel. John Macadam encapsulated the significance of a match ‘pulled in to the quagmire of politics’ in The Daily Express: ‘it was a political gamble and it came off. Thanks, not to the politicians, but to the twenty-two players who took part’. The match was 1-1 at half time. In the second half, Willie Hall, England’s inside right, equalised after Silvio Piola scored a highly contentious goal with his ‘clenched fist’. Ivan Sharpe concluded that ‘the greatest thing of the match was not the result, but the triumph of good feeling and sportsmanship on a tense occasion’. Despite Piola’s handball, the match had been played in difficult circumstances but good spirits. Macadam quipped that the ‘bad boy’ Italians had ‘put on their best Sunday clothes behaviour’.

Alongside Piola’s handball, the FA and the Foreign Office orchestrated the other contentious moment of the match. They decided that the Englishmen should give the Fascist salute during the Italian national anthem. Centre forward Tommy Lawton wrote in his memoir that ‘the British public later reacted with anger and disgust.’ This was not the case. Unlike after the England team gave the Nazi salute in Berlin in 1938, this salute was not widely scrutinised in the press. Most assessments were similar to that in The Birmingham Post, which noted that the gesture was ‘greatly appreciated’, but did not consider the morality of the action. It is important to remember that Lawton’s denunciation of the act was probably shaped by subsequent events. Between the match and the publication of Lawton’s memoir, Britain was at war with Fascist Italy. This may have affected Lawton’s ability to assess the reaction to the salute objectively.

The clash in Milan was the final time England and Fascist Italy would meet on the football pitch. It is reasonable to suggest that most Britons were ambivalent to Italian football in its decade of dominance, just as most Britons were ambivalent to the appointment of Paolo Di Canio as Sunderland manager. The Azzurri’s legitimate claim to be the best team in the world did not receive a fair assessment in the British press at a time when British football still assumed an innate superiority. The underlying thread in the press coverage of matches between England and Italy was that the latter’s attempts to displace England as masters of football were plucky, yet futile. This thread is frayed. It is difficult to unpick. The lack of recognition in Britain of Italian dominance was not an early form of ‘windy-night-in-Stoke-ism’, the inference that foreign players cannot match the hardy masculinity of their British opponents. On the contrary, the British press frequently complained of the combative tactics of eleven representatives of Fascism.

Instead, the origins of this thread emerged from the hazy belief that British football was a more benign, purer form of the sport that totalitarian governments had openly appropriated for political gain. In 1935 Sir Frederick Wall, the recently retired FA Secretary, epitomised this rosy, village-green view. Wall naively declared that ‘football in dear old England is merely a sporting entertainment.’ The belief in a clear separation between politics and sport was integral to the British self-representation. The schism in quality between the English masters and their Italian pupils narrowed on the pitch in the 1930s. The conviction that British football was ‘above’ politics assumed importance as it became clear that in footballing terms, Britain was no longer above Italy.

Words by Matt McGinn: @McGinn93 
‘Matt recently graduated from the University of Nottingham with a history degree, and managed to convince the staff to let him write about calcio in the process. He is fascinated by the use of football as a political tool, which led to an interest in Italian football under the Fascist regime.’