The story of what is surely Charlton Athletic’s most unusual fixture started without them, in Vienna in March 1937, when a match between Austria and Italy was stopped by the Swedish referee Otto Olsson in the 73rd minute because of rising levels of on-field violence and off-field rancour. By the time a game described by the Guardian as “one of the most riotous football matches ever seen” was called off, three Italians were limping, one Austrian had been forced off the field by injury, another had been dismissed and Italy were angrily refusing to let a free-kick be taken.
“Both teams were in a fighting spirit, but it was political rather than sporting,” we wrote. “From the start fouls and disputes followed one another in rapid succession.”
Off the pitch the game had been the focus of anti-fascist demonstrations; the Times noted: “The performance of the fascist salute put a crowd of some 40,000 people in bad humour, and there was much booing and cries of ‘Down with Italy,’ ‘Down with Mussolini,’ and the like. Rough play on the field then aggravated matters. Scuffles and exchanges of blows between players occurred to a running accompaniment of angry cries from the crowd.”
As political tensions across Europe simmered as the 1930s built towards its explosive climax, such scenes were not entirely unheard of. “Our national team were participants in an odious episode, even if it was only as victims,” wrote La Stampa, the Italian press casting their team as innocents. “But we are not surprised, because our teams have been fighting for years against the violence of opponents and the animosity of their supporters … our heroes accustomed to rivals who pay more attention to their shins than the ball.”
They were not wrong about animosity from supporters, which had become an issue at many of Italy’s away matches. Their next was to be played in Paris the following month, where the Front Populaire – an alliance of left-wing movements – set to work organising protests. Concerned about the potential for unseemly violence the Italian FA sent its secretary-general to assess preparations; he threatened to pull out, the French talked him down, but eventually, at just 48 hours’ notice, the match was cancelled.
The Italians said the French were refusing to play, the French insisted it was the Italians, but it seems Achille Starace, president of the Italian Olympic Committee and secretary of the National Fascist party, had taken the decision. “The stadium would be filled with thousands of Italians giving the fascist salute and thousands of French Popular Front supporters giving the clenched-fist salute,” reported AFP. “In such circumstances it would have been almost impossible to prevent a riot which might have the gravest international repercussions.”
Henri Delaunay of the French FA immediately set about finding an alternative opponent. Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany were proposed, and for a few hours it seemed Germany might agree, which would hardly have calmed the Front Populaire. Then on the afternoon of 9 April, two days before the match, word filtered through that an opponent had been secured. It was, in a surprising twist, Charlton.
Quite how this happened remains a mystery. “I can tell you that if the full story of the frantic and finally successful effort on both sides of the Channel to fix up a France v Charlton game ever comes to be written – I haven’t the space now – it will be what the Americans call a regular wow,” hinted Clifford Webb, football correspondent of the Daily Herald, who never did get round to writing it.
With all due respect to Charlton this would appear to be something of a comedown for France. “Obviously, a match against Charlton does not have the same allure as one between two nations,” wrote the French sports magazine Match. “It lacks that passion that pushes each player to go beyond their limits because the honour of a flag is in play. But a match between a great English team and a team of our own is still of interest to connoisseurs.”
But Paris-Soir, the country’s biggest-selling newspaper, revelled in the announcement, saying that British teams had the double advantage of “superior technique and remarkable team spirit” and insisting that “right now Charlton are the most attractive team in England”. They were certainly used to success: the Addicks (their manager, Jimmy Seed, was in the midst of a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to rechristen them the Robins) had won the Third Division South in 1935, finished runners-up in the Second Division the following year and were on their way to coming second in the top flight in 1937, completing an astonishing three-year rise with what is still their greatest season.
The match was to be played at the Parc des Princes on 11 April, a Sunday. Complicating matters was the fact that Charlton had a home game against Huddersfield on the Saturday afternoon, now to be followed by a wild international sprint. They won that, Don Welsh (whom Seed did manage to change, from a left-half to a centre-forward) converting a Monty Wilkinson cross in the first minute to score the only goal of the game, then took the night ferry – a train that travelled from London to Dover, straight on to a specially modified ferry, was carried to Dunkirk and then continued to Paris, allowing its occupants a bit of time to sleep – briefly checked into a hotel to freshen up and change, strolled out – making only three changes – and thumped France 5-2. Despite their hectic schedule it was they who came good in the closing stages: Charlton took an early two-goal lead, France equalised before half-time, and three goals in the last 10 minutes decided matters.
“Charlton, who found the heavy going suitable to their style of play, rather bewildered the Frenchmen with their fast movements, especially in the closing stages, when they scored three goals in the last 10 minutes,” Reuters reported. “Welsh, who scored two of these, and the two wingers, George Tadman and Harold Hobbis, were a source of constant worry to the French defence.”
Marcel Rossini in Match was particularly enamoured of Hobbis, whom he declared “un artiste du ballon”. “Charlton gave our players a splendid demonstration of efficient football,” he wrote. “For them there were no frills, no pointless dribbles. Individually their players were perhaps less rapid, but it was the ball that moved quickly. In a matter of seconds and apparently without great effort they could switch from prey to predator.”
After the game an English journalist asked the France forward Emile Vienante for his thoughts. “This Charlton – they play in England yesterday, they travelled all night, yet today they come out and, what you say, seat upon us,” he said. “Are they iron men?”
Almost as remarkable as Charlton’s victory is the fact they nearly had a rematch. In April 1939 a game between France and Germany in Paris was cancelled at the last minute, again to prevent planned demonstrations amid heightened international tension, and the first call was to old friends in London. Seed said yes, but this time they had to play away at Stoke the previous day and the practical difficulties were insurmountable.
As the headline in Paris-Match reflecting this setback put it, slightly jarringly: “France-Allemagne, non! France-Angleterre, non! France-Charlton, non!” In the end France focused their efforts on setting up a game against England the following month, but sadly the English already had a fixture they didn’t dare cancel – against Italy.