Italy won the 1938 World Cup as well, and were still reigning world champions in May 1948, when England again anointed themselves as Unofficial World Champions after another memorable victory. This result was more comprehensive and less controversial, a 4-0 win at the Stadio Communale in Turin. Stan Mortensen, Tommy Lawton and Tom Finney, twice, were the goalscoring heroes, and this was one of the great England teams – Stanley Matthews and Wilf Mannion completed perhaps the country’s strongest five-man forward line ever. But the Italians were no slouches either, their team containing seven of the dominant ‘Grande Torino’ side destined to perish in the Superga air disaster 353 days later.
England were magnificent, although whether they deserved to win by *four* is a moot point. Mortensen scored early, after which Italy pushed the visitors back with extreme prejudice. Romeo Menti and Guglielmo Gabetto both tucked the ball past England keeper Frank Swift – who would be killed in the Munich crash of 1958; this really was an ill-fated collection of stars – but the goals were ruled out for offside. Gabetto then saw a shot cleared off the line by Laurie Scott, and began pummelling the ground in impotent frustration. Matthews dribbled up the other end to set up Lawton. Two-nil after 24 minutes, against the run of play. And still Italy weren’t done. According to the report in the Guardian, Swift then made five spectacular saves during the period before half-time, three of them in one frenzied attack, the legendary Valentino Mazzola at one point heaving into view carrying the kitchen sink.
The second half continued in the same vein. Italy pressed and pressed, but became increasingly weary. Their startled players found themselves being revived by jets of water dispatched from a soda siphon by double World Cup winning manager and wannabe barkeep Vittorio Pozzo. But England hit them with a sucker punch, and one of the great counter-attacking goals, Swift throwing out to Scott, who found Mannion, who in turn fed Lawton, who finally slipped the ball forward for Finney to round Valerio Bacigalupo for the third. Finney scored again to make it four, and would later claim the result to be the high-watermark of England’s efforts, 1966 included. England had certainly impressed the knowledgable home crowd, some of whom went home under the mistaken impression that Matthews, the flash bugger, had at one point whipped out a comb to style his hair mid-dribble! Turns out he was just wiping a bead of sweat off his brow, a terrible shame, the mundane truth a hammer blow. Print the legend.
But how about the English, huh? Unofficial world champions! Sadly the claim rings a little hollow with the benefit of hindsight. Italy may have been technically reigning champs, but their second title had been won a full ten years earlier, the war having got in the way. And England would thoroughly embarrass themselves at their first World Cup in Brazil two years later, the USA and Joe Gaetjens snapping everything into shameful perspective. Italy had a shocker too, rocking up on a cruise boat all fat and bloated, but they at least had the excuse of not wanting to fly in the wake of Superga, which among its 31 victims had claimed the aforementioned Bacigalupo, Gabetto, Menti and Mazzola.