Arrivederci Its One On One: England v Italy
When England step out in Kiev on Sunday night to face Italy, they carry with them a history between the two nations of fleeting yet intensely impassioned encounters upon their shoulders. Having met only six times in major international tournaments or qualifiers, the battle is one which has not had the breathing space to develop as vehemently as, say, meetings with Germany; yet they are clashes which hold weighty relevance in the narratives of the English national team.
It was not until 1976 that the paths of the two nations would cross competitively, yet there were significant friendly meetings previously.
1934's ‘Battle of Highbury' saw England take a 3-0 lead before being pegged back to 3-2, yet most widely reported were numerous skirmishes on behalf of the Italians seeking retribution for perceived English foul play. Four England players suffered notable injuries in the first-half alone. Only the second meeting between England and Italy would set the tone for a series of stilted, combative matches to follow throughout the 20th Century.
In the first of the competitive meetings honours were uniformly even, as the 1978 World Cup Qualifiers saw a 2-0 victory for the home side on both occasions.
Back in the 1970s before the World Cup Finals expanded, there were no second chances to qualify. Italy ended England's hopes of going to Argentina 78. In November 1976 England went down 2-0 in Rome to goals from Giancarlo Antognoni and Roberto Bettega, in a match played on a midweek afternoon. Radios were smuggled into factories and schools across England only to listen in on the disappointment.
England won the return by the same score with goals from Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking. but by then the efficient Azzuri had locked up enough points and goals against the smaller fry to make the victory a hollow one. Needing to win by six, England failed to wrestle back the necessary goal difference as the Italians scarcely scraped their way through to the finals.
Between the two games Don Revie had resigned the manager's role and Ron Greenwood had come in restoring some vigour and pride to the side.
England were given the opportunity to assail their failings just two years later in Turin as the 1980 European Championships drew Greenwood's side against the hosts.
A partisan home support proved too much for England as Marco Tardelli tapped home from close range just twelve minutes before the end to give Italy victory. Intriguingly, however, the hosts would not progress from the group stage as the 8-team format saw Belgium into the final on goals scored, only to perish against winners West Germany.
The footballing relationship between England and Italy took on a sinister and ominous flavour as the 20th Century drew to a close, with the Heysel disaster of 1985 ripping open an uncomfortable abrasion amongst supporters, players and national associations. No longer were hostilities confined to devious challenges and underhand tactics: divisions between the two nations now cut far deeper into wider society, a cultural disunion adding a further stain to a national game already critically blighted in England. With the Hillsborough disaster to follow in 1989, England travelled to Italy for the 1990 World Cup in search of redemption, bringing with them a wounded national pride in need of vital healing.
England's travails in Italy proved something of turning point for English football. Though still tainted by hooliganism at the tournament, those watching at home had their zest for football renewed by the on-field heroics of the England squad, missing out on the final by the breadth of a crossbar. Interest renewed, English football became credible once again. It was the primary beginnings of the English renaissance. The Premier League and Euro 96 subsequently followed and set in motion the development of the self-titled ‘Best League in the World'. Arguably, however, English football's emergence as the dominant domestic league in Europe was initiated that summer in Italy. England were once again defeated by the hosts in the Third-Place Play-Off, this time 2-1, but that mattered little to a country who welcomed their boys home as redeemers of national pride, as well as both of the host nation's goals were somewhat iffy.
Italy had won with a Salvatore Schillaci penalty after David Platt (on a roll at that tournament) equalised Roberto Baggio's opener. In truth though, everyone just wanted things over after the desperate loss on penalties in the last four. The feeling was that both teams were better than Argentina and West Germany who had prevailed in the semis.
Seven years later it would prove a similar story as England toiled, laboured and grafted their way to a memorable outcome on Italian soil, this time in Rome.
Having plundered to a 1-0 defeat at Wembley earlier in the France '98 qualifying campaign courtesy of Gianfranco Zola, Glen Hoddle's charges went into the final game needing only a draw to secure automatic qualification.
The game was characterised by the sight of a bloodied and battered Paul Ince scampering around a vivacious Stadio Olimpico with his head in a bandage after a clash with Italy's Albertini. It typified the defiant and insolent nature of England's game that night. Disciplined and organised, England repelled a talented Italian attack for 90 minutes, though were not devoid of startling scares. England's confidence grew as Italy became further frustrated and Ian Wright struck the post from a narrow angle in the dying seconds, only for Christian Vieri to glance a header alarmingly close some thirty seconds later.
England were to hold on, however, replicating the valiant battling qualities which conquered the Italians at Highbury some sixty-four years previous. That night in Rome perhaps best epitomised England's footballing history against Italy: taxing, strenuous and uncompromising. Limbs on the line, bodies sacrificed in honour of the nation.
All the other encounters have been in minor tournaments or friendlies.
In May 1961 England beat Italy 3-2 in Rome. Trailing 2-1 with 13 minutes remaining, goals from Gerry Hitchens and Jimmy Greaves secured a friendly victory for Walter Winterbottom's side.
Twelve years later in June 1973, Italy beat England 2-0 Turin, after goals from Pietro Anastasi and Fabio Capello gave Italy victory
An experimental England side delivered an amazing 3-2 win, after being 2-0 down at half-time thanks to a Francesco Graziani brace, in a summer tournament in the USA in 1976, played in the Bronx. Mick Channon also bagged a brace in the second half and Phil Thompson netted the other.
Again in North America, the two nations met again in 1985 in Mexico City as a dry-run for the following year's World Cup, which also included the hosts Mexico and our old foes West Germany. This time Italy took the lead through Salvatore Bagni only for Mark Hateley to equalise, but the Italians had the last laugh when Alessandro Altobelli hit a last minute winner.
England beat Italy in 1997 in Le Tournoi, in another test competition, this time for the 1998 World Cup.
Goals from Ian Wright and Paul Scholes gave Hoddle's side a 2-0 win and confidence for the upcoming World Cup qualifier later in the year.
Before WW2 the rivalry was intense, as the Azzuri sought to overturn England's superiority as the founding nation of football. In 1934 there was a brutal game at Highbury which England won 3-2 and in 1939 in the last summer before war England came away from Rome with a 2-2.
After the war England were in their pomp and a legendary line-up delivered a 4-0 pasting in Torino in 1948, with Mortensen, Lawton and Finney the famous names sharing the goals. England won again in 1949 before two draws in the Fifties and a win for England in 1961 - thereafter the Italians established their edge.
By and large Italy have edged England in the most significant matches since the war winning both Finals games and the cut throat 1978 World Cup qualifying group.
Under Glenn Hoddle England matched Italy for discipline and technical skill but the Blues won the friendlies in 2000 and 2002 - though the 2000 match saw a very young and experimental England squad skippered for the first time by David Beckham.
This game is remembered more for the England caretaker manager Peter Taylor's solitary game at the helm than for Gennaro Gattuso's second-half screamer and earlier elbow into Beckham's face.
The latter friendly in March 2002 at Elland Road, saw Vincenzo Montella tuck home a last-minute penalty, his second goal of the game, to give Italy victory, with Robbie Fowler grabbing England's goal.
England can anticipate a similar contest to the 1997 battle in Rome on Sunday night. Two sides engaged in the art of solidity over extravagance, strength in place of showiness. Gareth Southgate said of the goalless draw in Rome that England "had played the game in an Italian manner", soaking up pressure and focusing upon organisation.
With Hodgson's team significantly echoing these attributes so far at the tournament, England will aim to emulate the class of 1997 but need to take their game one further. History shows that battling spirit, determination and resolve are all necessary requisites in deterring Italy. But to effectively dispose of Italy and ensure progress, England will need to build upon these traits with dexterity; a touch of enchantment to prevent the skirmished, scrapping spectacles that have defined the history of England vs Italy.