On This Day in 1997: The Battle Of Rome

In June 1997, England had remarkably won Le Tournoi, with the Three Lions finishing top of a group containing Brazil, France and Italy, who between them boasted some of the world’s finest young stars in Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero.

Though Le Tournoi was intended to be a warm-up for France ’98,  England’s berth for the World Cup the following year was far from guaranteed – even after the mini-tournament success – and the Three Lions were still left with a mountain to climb as part of a gruelling qualification campaign that went right down to the wire.

The deciding fixture came against Italy, who boasted a wealth of talent throughout their squad in an era when Serie A was undoubtedly the world’s finest domestic championship.

At Wembley, in February of that year, however, it would be an Italian plying his trade on English shores who would pile on the misery for his host nation. Chelsea’s biggest star at the time – and voted their best ever player by fans in 2003 – Gianfranco Zola, who ironically rode the first wave of foreign stars sewing the seeds of the Premier League’s eventual dominance over its rival European counterparts, scored the winner in a scrappy 1-0 victory for the Azzurri in the first showdown between the two teams.

In October, for the return fixture, just a point was needed to avoid a play-off, but the task at hand was hard: holding the fort in Rome, was a daunting prospect. Going into the tie, the country was haunted by memories of failing to qualify for USA ’94, paling in comparison to their 1990 predecessors who had performed so well in these Mediterranean climes, and the disappointment of again losing to German opposition in the semi-finals as had been experienced on home turf at Euro ’96.

Manager Glenn Hoddle had a crucial decision to make: sit back and hope for a stalemate, which was the undoing of Graham Taylor in the aforementioned disastrous 1994 qualifying campaign, or go all out on the attack against an outfit with an embedded defensive culture and try and claim all three points.

Instead he went for neither and charged his men with holding on to the ball and controlling the tempo from the outset in what would be Paul Gascoigne’s final competitive game for England as their midfield outclassed that of their Italian opponents consisting of Dino Baggio, Demitrio Albertini and Angelo Di Livio.

Paul Ince, making history by becoming his country’s first ever black captain, put on arguably his best ever performance in a bloodstained England shirt and matching impromptu head bandage with echoes of Terry Butcher in a memorable 1989 qualifying clash against Sweden in Stockholm.

The encounter was far more dramatic than its final 0-0 scoreline would suggest. Wound up in the heat of the midfield battle, Di Livio would receive a red card as Arsenal’s Ian Wright clipped the post and Christian Vieri came close to diverting a header from close range that was too high to hit the target.

Breaking an impressive run of 15 consecutive Italian home victories, the English team would receive plaudits from pundits and fans across the map for the execution of their new approach to international football, which, as we know now, was incredibly short lived.

Exiting to Argentina in the last 16 in France, Hoddle would be fired not long after for unecessary and inappropriate comments in relation to the disabled community, and an era of sadly familiar mediocrity would be ushered in by two Howard Wilkinson stints either side of Kevin Keegan’s ill-fated tenure.

There’s something rather tragic in the admission that, barring Euro 96, a qualifying tie remains one of the high points of English football in this decade. For just an evening, though, England fans were given a taste of what could have been against elite level opposition and were embodied with an old sense of classic fighting pride.