Only four European teams made the trip to Uruguay in 1930, and of those only Yugoslavia made it out of the group. In Italy four years later, it was a different story. 12 of the 16 competing nations were from Europe, and they were ready to show the world what it had been missing.
By the end of the first round, all of the non-Europeans had been eliminated, including 1930 runners-up Argentina. Holders Uruguay had refused to send a team in protest at the Europeans' reluctance to compete four years previously. And they weren't the only ones still refusing to play ball...
“The national associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have quite enough to do in their own International Championship," said FA committee member Charles Sutcliffe, no doubt bristling with self-importance. "Which seems to me a far better World Championship than the one to be staged in Rome."
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That statement may seem pompous and delusional, but prior to the creation of the World Cup, the British Home Championships had been seen by many as the pinnacle of international football. It was fiercely competitive, and England had no guarantee of winning.
Against European opposition on the otherhand, England’s games often descended into farcically one-sided affairs. The Three Lions played 21 games and scored over 100 goals against non-British opponents before they even lost a match. In the FA's eyes, England had already proved that they were better than the rest of the world; so why travel to Italy to prove it?
However, if England had swallowed their pride, could they have been the first European world champions? At the risk of typically English levels of blind positivity: yes. And it was mostly because of one team, and one man.
The England team of the early 1930s was based around the Arsenal side that won three consecutive First Division titles between 1933 and 1935. This was a feat only previously achieved by Huddersfield Town the previous decade, and the link between the two was Herbert Chapman.
In early 1930s, the great Herbert Chapman of Arsenal innovated the formation into the WM. He brought 1 halfback down to defend (becoming a centrehalf), and asked the inside forwards to play deeper (attacking midfielders) 🤓— TwtBola/ADMIN (@twt_bola) December 5, 2017
This is why older commentators call CBs centrehalves 😬 pic.twitter.com/c59SmCxcrI
Arguably football’s first truly great manager, Chapman introduced tactics and training methods hitherto unseen in the English game. Most famous among these was the “WM” formation, a sort of 3-4-3 set-up with a revolutionary THIRD defender – crazy, right? Chapman was also possibly the first purveyor of counter-attacking football; sitting back and absorbing pressure before hitting opponents on the break.
Appointed in 1925, Chapman slowly began to assemble the squad that would eventually become the backbone of the national side. David Jack joined from Bolton in 1928, followed by Alex James and Cliff Bastin in 1929. Eddie Hapgood - a future captain for club and country - was also plucked from Kettering Town.
As the 1930s began, Arsenal started to reap the rewards of their shrewd acquisitions. They continued to add the missing pieces to the jigsaw. Frank Moss in 1931, Ray Bowden in 1933, Wilf Copping in 1934. Ted Drake also joined in 1934 and was Arsenal’s leading scorer for five consecutive seasons before World War Two broke out.
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The England selection committee had to sit up and take notice as Chapman built his dynasty. The Gunners won five titles in eight seasons as they took over as England’s dominant domestic force, and slowly the stars of the team started to filter through into the national side.
Even though Chapman died in 1934, the legacy that he had built lasted for the best part a decade. However when people talk about that great Arsenal team, and when they speculate as to whether England could have lifted the World Cup, they are usually thinking about only one game.
In November 1934, six months after they had won the World Cup on home soil, Italy visited Wembley for an exhibition friendly match; although there was to be nothing friendly about it. To many snooty English journalists, this was “the real World Cup final”.
And that day, England set a record which they have never matched since. Seven of the players on the field played for Arsenal. Never again has there been an England lineup so dominated by one club.
At the FIFA World Cup, Italy had conceded only three goals. Within 12 minutes at Wembley, England had matched that. Manchester City’s Eric Brook missed a penalty before scoring twice, and Drake added a third as the Italians failed to cope with the speed of England’s play.
It didn’t help the visitors that talisman Luis Monti had broken his foot during the opening exchanges. He tried to play on, but gave up after 15 minutes. Realising the match was probably a lost cause, Italy turned it into a battle instead. Brook's arm was broken; Drake suffered a swollen jaw, and Bowden a damaged ankle.
Giuseppe Meazza scored twice in the second-half, and suddenly the ten men were showing their mettle. Meazza also hit the woodwork and called goalkeeper Moss into action as Italy rallied. But England held on, and limped over the line - quite literally in some cases - for a famous victory.
Some declared the home side world champions, but most in the media were more preoccupied with moral outrage. The Guardian said it was a match of “unusually robust character”; the Daily Mail, more bluntly, questioned whether England should even deign to compete with such barbarians. The match is still known as the 'Battle of Highbury'.
This was a day that proved England could compete with the very best. If the FA had only relented and allowed them to test themselves at the World Cup, maybe today we’d be talking about Sir Ted Drake as the great hero of English football, rather than Sir Geoff Hurst.