There is often a lot to envy about the Italian national team. As well as having exceptionally talented players, they brim with the institutional nous and get-the-job-done-ability that is so frequently the difference in major tournaments. They are just smarter. They are cuter, cleverer, and their ‘big game’ players have that vital knack of actually turning up in the big games.
That is the impression, or at least it was until their failure to reach the 2018 World Cup when they were thwarted by a Zlatan-less Sweden without notching a single goal in 180 minutes of play-off football. This was the first time in 60 years that the Nerazzurri had not qualified for the sport’s summer spectacle, and it was certainly a lot less dramatic than the previous occasion.
The qualification process for the 1958 World Cup was a particularly streamlined affair, consisting of three-team groups with no play-offs and guaranteed qualification for the winner. The Italians found themselves in a very winnable group with Portugal, who had never previously won a World Cup qualifying match and had recently lost 9-1 to Austria, and minnows Northern Ireland, who had only joined FIFA in 1953.
Italy, by contrast, had already won two World Cups (the joint-most with Uruguay, at the time) and entered qualification with a star-studded team that included Juventus’ captain Giampiero Boniperti and Milan star Juan Alberto Schiaffino. One-club-man Boniperti was already Calcio royalty, well on his way to breaking the Bianconeri’s goal-scoring and appearance records.
Schiaffino’s career was slightly more cosmopolitan. He had arrived in Italy from Uruguayan side Penarol three years previously with a World Cup win with the country of his birth, Uruguay, under his belt. FIFA’s administrative procedures were a lot more relaxed in those days, and, provided they could lay some reasonable claim to the nation in question, would allow players to convert to a different national team. When Schiaffino moved from Montevideo to Milan in 1954, the World Cup winner with a Genoese grandfather simply switched his allegiance to Italy.
Initially, things began as expected as also-rans Portugal and Northern Ireland played out a 1-1 draw in Lisbon in January 1957. The Irish then travelled to Rome’s Stadio Olimpico where they suffered a 1-0 defeat at the hands of their hosts.
Italian eyebrows may well have raised in May of that year when Northern Ireland trounced the Portuguese 3-0, but confidence remained that the Italians would soon dispose of the plucky upstarts again. They first faced a trip to Lisbon to face a presumably fairly downtrodden Portugal side that was rooted at the bottom of the group with little chance of qualifying. A comfortable win, you would assume. Portugal won 3-0.
This was a disaster for Italy, Portugal now leapfrogged past them into second place with Northern Ireland in the driving seat as international football was put on hold until the winter. In their desperation, the Italians expanded their Uruguayan contingent with the introduction of Roma’s Alcides Ghiggia, scorer of the winning goal of the 1950 World Cup final against Brazil. A pacey, goal-scoring winger, Ghiggia has since claimed that his infamous goal made him one of only three men to ever silence Brazil’s Maracana Stadium, along with Frank Sinatra and the Pope.
When international football returned in the winter of 1957, Italy travelled to Northern Ireland needing at least a point to maintain hope of reaching the World Cup finals. They took no chances, arriving in Britain the week before for friendlies against Luton Town and Charlton Athletic to help them acclimatise to the inclement weather conditions and more ‘rugged’ style of play. They crossed the Irish Sea in early December and reached Belfast in plenty of time for the Wednesday afternoon fixture.
This was not a luxury afforded to Istvan Zsolt, the Hungarian referee who had left his more genial role as stage manager at the Budapest Opera House to officiate. His journey had taken him through Prague and Brussels before becoming stranded by fog in London, where he found himself unlikely to make it to Belfast in time.
The Irish FA helpfully suggested that one of their refs could be called up for the occasion but, unwilling to risk their qualification hopes on the impartiality of a local officiating mercenary, the Italians flatly refused and insisted on waiting for Zsolt.
However their patience was in vain and as kick-off drew near on the Wednesday 4th December, Windsor Park remained ref-less. Irish football officials were now in a pickle, with 35,000 high-spirited fans already in attendance and inebriated, having had to take time off work for this mid-week extravaganza. A cancellation, in other words, was not an option.
It was therefore decided that the all-important qualifier would have to be postponed, with a friendly being held in its place. But having left the decision so late it was only announced to the packed stadium minutes before kick-off. Robbed of their main event, the home support intensified as it became clear that it was the Italians who had so outrageously refused to allow someone’s mate to take up the whistle for the occasion.
According to a contemporary Guardian piece, the crowd appeared “unlikely to forget what they considered to be the intractability of the Italians over match arrangements and left no doubt that they felt should have agreed to a British referee”. In other words, tensions were raised.
What followed was 90 minutes of incredible sporting brutality in which the vociferous Belfast crowd whipped up such a storm of emotion that it seemed to cloud the pitch, raise the winds and hurl both sides together with a seething, fractious energy.
Irish captain Danny Blanchflower first took a fist to the jaw from Guiseppe Chiapella, before Schiaffino abandoned his usual South American guile to do the same to Wilbur Cush. Blanchflower tried his best to keep the peace, but all around him hunkered down in the trenches as Cush repaid Schiaffino’s assault with a two-footed cruncher that could have been heard from Milan.
The Italian goalkeeper Ottavio Bugatti was left sprawled in the Belfast mud after a ‘coming together’ with Peter McParland, and Chiapella was once again on the front foot (feet) with a double-legged lunge into the small of Bill McAdam’s back.
Irish forward Bill Bingham described the game in stark terms: “We were kicking the shit out of each other…I was getting whacked all the time. It was the unfriendliest friendly I played in.”
The game ended 2-2, ‘honours even’, thanks to two from Cush either side of goals for Ghiggia and Miguel Montuori, but that was not the end. As fans spilled onto the pitch at the full-time whistle it took a police baton-charge to quell a minor civil uprising that saw fans set upon the Italian team, the level of animosity in the stadium so great that the Northern Irish players actually began escorting their opposition to the changing rooms.
As per the Italian FA’s request, the 2-2 result would not be accepted and they would have to return in the New Year to settle things once and for all.
Italy had still to play their home tie against the Portuguese and were able to soothe their various psychological and physical wounds with a comfortable 3-0 win in Milan shortly before Christmas. The Italians went into the New Year sat atop the group, one point ahead of their Northern Irish sparring partners.
The rescheduled game was to take place on the 15th of January, and arrangements were made to ensure that there would be no further issues. The intrepid Mr Zsolt and his linesmen were there three days early this time, and the police presence was considerably beefier to protect against a repeat of the pan-continental mud-wrestling that had marred the end of the previous month’s fixture.
Rumour had it that the Italians were promised £500 each provided they got the point they needed to assure qualification, but the Northern Irish were in no mood to be generous. They raced into a two-goal first-half lead thanks to strikes from Jimmy McIlroy and the irrepressible Wilbur Cush. The Italians rallied after the break and got a goal back early in the second half, but hopes of a comeback were curtailed by a red card to World Cup winner Alcide Ghiggia after an altercation with Irish left-back Alf McMichael.
With an extra man on the pitch and tens’ of thousands of them in the stands, the hosts were able to play out the remaining time without any further footballing, or diplomatic, incident. As Zsolt blew the final whistle Windsor Park erupted, celebrating a result that sent shockwaves around Europe. Northern Ireland were through, Italy were out.
It was probably of little comfort to the Italians to see their plucky opposition reach the World Cup quarter-finals, where they eventually fell to France. In Italy, the reaction was near-apocalyptic as Gianni Brera, a legend of Italian football and editor-in-Chief of La Gazzetta dello Sport, asserted that Italian football had “Returned to year zero. Maybe we will never be able to get out of it”.
They did, of course, get out of it. In fact, it was only they and Brazil who appeared at each of the next fourteen editions, until Italy’s great World Cup run came to an end in 2018.
However while they would go on to win another two titles and were beaten finalists twice, 1958 was the end of the World Cup career of one of their adopted sons. Alcides Ghiggia was already 31 at the time of their second trip to Belfast, and his trudge off the Windsor Park pitch on a cold January afternoon was to be his final World Cup involvement.
Even the man who had, eight years previously, scored the goal that crippled the Brazilian footballing goliath was powerless to prevent Italy falling to another underdog story. He had silenced the Maracana but could not tame Windsor Park. One can only wonder whether Sinatra would have had better luck.