The night England could claim to be European champions: The Three Lions humbled the continent’s finest in an exhibition match at Highbury in 1938
England may never have won a European Championship but back in 1938 the Three Lions could claim to be the unofficial rulers of the continent.
That they could give themselves that title was the result of a peculiar, now forgotten, match that was held to mark the 75th anniversary of the Football Association.
The governing body had invited a select XI of the finest players from mainland Europe to face England at Highbury for a match that was the first of its kind.
England welcomed a Rest of Europe XI to Highbury for a star-studded match in 1938
A formidable line-up, managed by Italian legend Vittorio Pozzo, came to London for the encounter on October 26 — less than a year before Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany, whose soldiers had already marched into Austria. Incredibly, of Pozzo’s XI, eight would soon effectively become enemies of Britain.
As the sports sections of Britain’s newspapers built up to the match, the front pages brought only the grim spectre of war. On the day of the game, the news pages were full of talk of Hitler’s designs on Czechoslovakia, with foreign secretary Lord Halifax still desperately making the case for peace.
Yet the game went ahead and England had good reason to fear defeat given that Pozzo’s side boasted no fewer than five World Cup winners from Italy’s triumphant side four months earlier.
One of those, Michele Andreolo, also had a Copa America title on his c.v. having represented Uruguay before he switched allegiances to the Azzurri. Yet the jewel among the Italian quintet was undoubtedly Silvio Piola, who had scored twice for Italy in their World Cup final victory over Hungary and remains, to this day, the highest goal scorer in the history of the Italian game.
The other six players for Europe were a Frenchman (Alfred Aston), a Belgian (Raymond Braine), a Norwegian (Arne Brustad), two Germans (Albin Kitzinger and Andreas Kupfer) and a Hungarian (Gyula Zsengeller). All had played in the 1938 World Cup finals, with Zsengeller receiving a runners-up medal.
Back in 1938 the FA, of course, were still pretending the World Cup didn’t exist — it wouldn’t be until 1950 that they would first enter a team — so matches against the continent’s finest sides offered England their only opportunity to exert their superiority, real or imagined.
Stanley Matthews (left), pictured playing for in England in 1955, orchestrated the victory
England — managed by Tom Whittaker, a trainer at Arsenal and later the club’s manager — entered the match with their confidence fragile, having been thrashed 4-2 by Wales at Ninian Park four days earlier. The Rest of Europe side had warmed up against a Dutch B team, winning 2-1. Yet England had never lost at home to a team from the continent, so went into the match as hot favourites.
Whittaker’s line-up was strong and featured six players who had drubbed Germany 6-3 in Berlin in May that year after they were infamously forced to perform a Nazi salute.
Yet despite such an impressive result, Pozzo was dismissive of his hosts. ‘English football is on the decline,’ he said. ‘It is no longer what it used to be — the football of artists, the football I saw played before the war (WW1).’
Pozzo had faced England four years earlier in the notorious ‘Battle of Highbury’ which had turned into a bloodbath before England had triumphed to claim the title of unofficial world champions (Italy had won the 1934 World Cup).
The Englishmen charged with proving Pozzo wrong were Vic Woodley (Chelsea), Bert Sproston (Tottenham), Eddie Hapgood (Arsenal), Stan Cullis (Wolves), Ken Willingham (Huddersfield Town), Wilf Copping (Arsenal), Wally Boyes (Everton), Tommy Lawton (Everton), Stanley Matthews (Stoke), Willie Hall (Tottenham) and Len Goulden (West Ham).
Aldo Oliveri, the Italian goalkeeper for Rest of Europe, makes a flying save during the match
The European players had been spooked by a blanket of fog that had covered London in the days leading up to the match. Pozzo said several of his team had developed sore throats and even speculated that the contest could be called off if the weather did not improve.
It did, thankfully, and Europe started the match promisingly, dominating the opening exchanges but rarely calling Woodley into action. Then, against the run of play, Hall smashed in England’s opener, having been sent through by Matthews.
The Wizard of Dribble had a hand in England’s next goal, his corner finding its way to Lawton, who finished from close range after 39 minutes.
Half-time arrived and the visitors were in disarray. In the European dressing room, the players were ganging up on the sole Hungarian, Zsengeller, blaming him for England’s opener. Zsengeller found a lonely corner of the room to hide in, while Pozzo found another to hold a private tactical meeting with the Italian players.
The Europeans came out to attack but that only left Matthews with bigger spaces to exploit. Hall spurned several chances but Italian goalkeeper Aldo Olivieri, known in his homeland as the Magic Cat, was beaten for the final time, by a powerful shot from Goulden.
The FA were jubilant and celebrated the win and their anniversary with 400 guests from the football world at a Holborn restaurant.
Media reaction to the result ranged from the triumphant to the unimpressed. The Daily Mail hailed England’s superiority, saying: ‘The completeness of England’s victory was marked in every phase of the game’.
The Daily Mirror declared that ‘by their convincing victory, England have shown that they remain the masters and that the Europeans are still the pupils… although extremely promising pupils’.
Oliveri picks himself off the Highbury turf after making another save during the 3-0 defeat
The writer added: ”The skilful and pretty football which the visitors served up was a joy to watch but came to nothing when confronted by the solid determination and sturdy tackling of the English defence.’
The Daily Herald report was less approving of England’s display, pointing out that the European players had never played together before and many did not share the same language. ‘England did not rise to the occasion’ was the downbeat headline. ‘As a big birthday show for the FA, it fell well below expectations.’
The FA, too, did not escape criticism. The tickets for the game had been overpriced. Some were as high as a guinea, a substantial portion of any working-class person’s weekly wage in 1938 and many fans had stayed away. The attendance of 40,185 (gate receipts of £7,000) was well short of Highbury’s record gate of 73,295 just three years earlier.
Nevertheless the match proved enough of a success for the FA to schedule another one like it, for their 90th anniversary in 1953, this time England and Europe battling to a 4-4 draw at Wembley.