When the World Cup came to Roker Park and it ended in disaster for Italy
A big connection exists between Sunderland and the Italian national side; England’s opponents in the Euro 2020 final – but it’s not one the Italians look upon fondly.
When England staged the World Cup in 1966, Roker Park was selected as the venue for three Group 4 games, two of which involved Italy Roker also staged the USSR’s quarter-final win over Hungary.
St James’ Park might also have been used, but Newcastle United were in dispute with the council over improvements. FIFA consequently decided that the other three Group 4 games would be played at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park instead.
Roker Park meanwhile was specially renovated. A new roof was built over the Fulwell End and temporary seating installed. Posh.
After a squad sightseeing tour of Durham, Italy’s first game at Roker was a 2-0 win over Chile on July 13. But there was more to it than that.
The two nations’ previous meeting had been at the 1962 World Cup in Chile. This became known as the “Battle of Santiago”, so we can imagine what sort of game it was. The police were needed to assist the referee during an incredibly bad tempered match. Chile won 2-0 and Italy had two players sent off, in the days when red cards were rare. Have a look at it on YouTube, because seeing is believing.
This provided a backdrop to the game on Wearside, where four years later the ill-feeling had not abated. Among the 27,199 Roker crowd was 22 year-old Bob Gillan from Ford Estate.
Now 77, lifelong Sunderland fanatic Bob said: “I was in the Roker End. There were very few people in the Main Stand because they were charging a fortune for tickets.
“The game was a bit naughty. Two teams with a Latin temperament. I think it was a bad tackle that got things going. It wasn’t the dirtiest game I’ve ever seen - but it was still pretty dirty. It wasn’t as bad as that game in 1962; but it was bad nevertheless.”
Italy and Chile have still only ever met three times; and never in a friendly.
Three days later Italy returned to Roker to face the USSR with the incredible Lev Yashin in goal. Bob was there too and described it to the Echo.
He said: “It was dull. The Soviet Union had no flair. They played football ‘correctly’ but didn’t do anything tricky. The Italians were all about their tight defence.”
Italy lost 1-0. Obviously this was bad, but not a disaster for the Azzurri. Real disaster would strike them at Ayresome Park on July 19.
Needing only a draw against rank outsiders North Korea, the double world champions lost 1-0, were eliminated from the tournament and pelted with rotten tomatoes on their return to Italy.
To compound the embarrassment, North Korea’s goal scorer, Pak Doo-ik, wasn’t even a full time footballer. He was a corporal in the army; although to be fair he was soon promoted to sergeant.
While the English will forever cherish 1966, the same is most definitely not true of the Italians. But be warned.
Italy’s worst World Cup since then was the last one, in 2018 when they did the unthinkable and failed to even qualify.
However, two years after their 1966 debacle on Wearside, they became European champions.