There were no bizare circumstances leading up to Italy’s elimination from the World Cup against Sweden on the 14th November. The last time this happened to them was in Windsor Park, Belfast in1958.
The story is as follows:
Italy started off playing well, beating Northern Ireland in Rome 1-0. However, the situation began to change when the Azzurri lost to Portugal in Lisbon 3-0, leaving them with two points through two matches. (At that time, wins were worth two points and draws were worth one for each team).
The Italians played the first two matches of the group with no simultaneous kick offs due to the odd number of teams participating. This is when things started going haywire for the team.
Northern Ireland, sitting on three points, were schedulled to play its home leg against Italy on December 4th 1956, but on the eve of the match, a-behind-the-scene drama began to unfold.
The weather was to play a major role in this drama. Heavy fog in London prevented the referee, Istavan Zollt, who happened to be the stage manager of the Budapest Opera House, from boarding the flight to Belfast. The standby referee, English man Arthur Ellis was to take the ferry to Larne but the Northern Ireland FA, for some unknown reason, did not take the decision on time. As a result, there was no referee for the match between Northern Ireland and Italy. Behind closed doors, a hasty, radical decision was taken reducing the World Cup tie to a friendly match.
When taking this decision, nobody took the fans into consideration, which was to prove to be a big mistake. The forty thousand crowd who turned up at Windsor Park discovered the change upon arrival, and this did anything but please them. Many had taken time off work, abandoning their posts at the very busy shipyard, and they were in the mood to cheer their players on to victory not to be spectators at a phoney friendly match. Howls of protest greeted the teams followed by fierce jeering as the Italian national anthem was played. This helped to incite the visiting players who punched and kicked out left, right and centre at the first opportunity.
After a very physical match ending in a 2-2 draw, the incensed fans were more than ready to invade the pitch. The Italians trembled as they remembered how a Belfast Celtic player had once been dragged into the crowd and had his leg brutally broken. Fortunately for the visiting team they were safely led through the tunnel by the police and later flown back to Italy.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the home side fans gave the Italians a “hundred thousand welcomes” when they returned for the rescheduled match on the 15th January. It seemed they knew what the result of the match was to be as N.I. beat their rivals 2-0, and the Italians were left to wallow in their sorrow as we saw them do so very recently.