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Five of the Most Brutal Games in Soccer History

| October 6, 2018 12:00 am PDT
Soccer Fight Stop Violence

Many soccer fans are sick and tired of the modern players who seem to dive far too often. The antics of players like Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo who fall on the ground far too easily under the slightest contacts are certainly one of the uglier sides of the sport.

However, there’s one that’s even worse than that. Before soccer became the global business it is today, it was a workers’ game. Many of the players came from the lower classes of society and were tough men who played for peanuts.

For decades, the rules of the sport and the official refereeing created a completely different environment than the one we know today. If you take a look at some of the games of the past, you will see red-card offenses in the present day that were barely noticed by the players and the officials back then.

As a result, things got way out of hand at times. The more gifted players were targeted with some nasty tackles that often resulted in all sorts of injuries. Ask anyone who watched English soccer in the 1960s and 1970s, for example. The sport was brutal back then.

Another contributing factor is that red and yellow cards were introduced in soccer in the 1970s. While players could be ejected before that, it was a rather rare occurrence, and there were no warnings in the form of yellow cards.

This meant the players weren’t sanctioned as strictly, which gave them the freedom to make some violent plays.

Since this side of the game is almost forgotten, it would be a good idea to remind ourselves of some of the dirtiest matches to ever take place. You won’t believe what kind of stuff happened on the pitch in the distant past.

The Battle of Highbury, England vs. Italy, 1934

This match is one of the most vicious in soccer history and has an interesting background. The English Football Association had left FIFA in 1928 and didn’t participate in the tournaments held by the organization.

England was absent from the 1934 World Cup that was won by Italy. Still, the team was believed to be one of the strongest around the globe by that time. This is why the newly-crowned world champions decided to visit for a friendly in November 1934.

The game was labeled “the real World Cup final” by the English media, and Benito Mussolini promised each Italian player a bonus of £150, an Alfa Romeo, and exemption from military service. You could imagine how “friendly” the whole atmosphere around this match was when the day came.

The English side was full of inexperienced players, as each member of the starting lineup had less than 10 international caps. Furthermore, this remains the only time in the history of the country when 7 players from the same club started on the pitch.

The backbone of this English team included most members of the famous Arsenal side of the 1930s which was managed by the legendary Herbert Chapman. Unfortunately, he passed away earlier this year, but his legacy lives on.

As for the Italians, manager Vittorio Pozzo picked almost the same team that beat Czechoslovakia in the 1934 World Cup final a couple of months earlier. The big star of this side was the exceptional forward Guiseppe Meazza.

The match was played at the Arsenal stadium Highbury and was so brutal that it was named “The Battle of Highbury” later on.

At the very start of the game, Ted Drake made an insane tackle on the Italian defender Luis Monti. He continued playing for another 15 minutes or so before leaving the pitch. There were no substitutions at the time, so Italy had to finish the game with 10 men. Later on, it turned out that Monti’s foot was broken.

Since he was the last man of Italy’s defense, England managed to take full advantage of his condition and was leading 3:0 by the 12th minute.

Once Monti was out, the world champions adjusted their tactics and started playing much better. Giuseppe Meazza managed to score twice in the second half, but that wasn’t enough, and England won 3-2.

Italy was unlucky, as the post and some brilliant saves by the goalkeeper Frank Moss denied the team an equalizer.

The score suggests it was an entertaining game with plenty of goals, but the reality is a bit different. The foot-breaking tackle of Ted Drake in the 2nd minute infuriated the Italians, and they did their best to revenge it multiple times.

England kept kicking their opponent all over the pitch as well, and as a result, this was one of the most brutal games in the history of the sport. There were multiple injured players on both teams.

Eddie Hapgood suffered a broken nose, Eric Brook had his arm fractured, and both sides threw punches on a regular basis.

The English legend Sir Stanley Matthews, who was only 19 during the game, recalls it as one of the most violent in his entire career. For a guy with more than 700 matches in the wild times of soccer, this speaks for itself.

It’s curious that after the Battle of Highbury, both teams felt like they’d won. England obviously got the victory, but the Italians were called “the Lions of Highbury” because of their brave display with 10 men for most of the game.

A more objective view is that probably no one in this game won. Fortunately, this level of violence can’t really happen in today’s soccer.

The Battle of Santiago, Chile vs. Italy, 1962

It’s not a coincidence that the second entry on this list is once again called a battle, this time “the Battle of Santiago.” The game was part of the 1962 soccer World Cup when host Chile met Italy in the group stage of the competition.

Many believe this is the most violent match in the history of the sport, and you will see why in a minute.

Soccer was much different at the time, and the rough career-threating tackles were a natural part of it. And yet, this particular clash simply went too far.

It all started when a couple of Italian journalists depicted Chile as a country that’s not fit to host the World Cup, to say the least. They described Santiago as a place where alcoholism, prostitution, and poverty had taken over.

Understandably, the host nation wasn’t happy with that. Especially since Chile was still trying to recover from the Valdivia earthquake which was the most powerful ever recorded up to this day.

It left the country in ruins, and the people of Chile saw the soccer World Cup as a way to bring some joy to a nation that had suffered a lot.

This is why the whole country took the stories of the Italian journalists personally and reacted. The Chilean media called the Europeans fascists and the team cheats, as there was a doping scandal involving Italy at the time.

As you can imagine, for both sides, that was not only a game of soccer but a true battle, the Battle of Santiago.

Only 12 seconds after the start of the match, the first flying tackle set the tone, and neither team looked back. It was a game full of various incidents, including tackles, punches, kicks, and any other dirty tactic you might think off.

Italy’s Giorgio Ferrini was sent off in the 12th minute of the match and had to be dragged away by the police after refusing to leave the pitch.

Referee Ken Aston from England tried to somehow keep the order, but there was simply too much going on.

Multiple punches and kicks off the ball were missed by the referee, as the players were literally fighting all over the place. All hell broke loose a couple of times, and the police had to intervene a total of three times to cool the players.

There were headbutts, broken noses, and punches flying every couple of minutes. Shockingly, there was only one player sent off, once again an Italian. Mario David tried to kick a Chilean player in the head after receiving a punch himself seconds earlier.

The whole game was like an endless chain of incidents where one brutal action led to another. The Battle of Santiago barely finished and certainly has a solid claim for being the most brutal game in the entire soccer history.

The BBC footage from this match is available, so you could see some of the action yourself.

The Battle of Montevideo, Racing Club vs. Celtic, 1967

If you haven’t noticed, there is a pattern here. The next game is the first one on the list between clubs, but it’s also described as a battle, and for a good reason.

The Scottish club Celtic won the European Cup in 1967, while the Argentinian Racing Club lifted the Copa Libertadores in the same year. As a result, both teams had to face each other in the Intercontinental Cup and see who was the best team in the world.

According to the rules, two games would be played, and the winner on aggregate would bring the cup home. The first match was played in Glasgow in front of more than 80,000 people.

Racing Club’s tactics were obviously to defend at all costs and get the draw.

The Argentinians committed a number of cynical fouls and kept spitting on the Celtic players. They tried to ruin the rhythm of the Scottish club and almost managed to get the point. Still, Billy McNeill managed to give Celtic a one-goal lead.

The overall impression was that the game was extremely ugly, and many of the Celtic players needed treatment after the end. However, this was only the beginning.

The Scottish team had to travel about 20 hours to reach Argentina for the second leg. The game was played in Buenos Aires, and the attendance surpassed 100,000. The security measures were rather poor, and during the warm-up, the Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson was hit by a rock from the stands.

He showed signs of concussion and was replaced by John Fallon. The savage atmosphere and the loss of their starting goalkeeper shocked Celtic, and the team lost 2-1, despite going ahead early on. Still, the overall impression is that the Uruguayan referee of this game, Esteban Marino, was able to keep things under control.

Since both teams had equal records, and the away goals rule was not yet introduced, there had to be another game to determine who was going to lift the Intercontinental Cup. The playoff had to be conducted at a neutral venue, and Montevideo was picked.

The Celtic manager, Jock Stein, wasn’t delighted by the idea of playing once again in South America, but the Uruguayan supporters were actually on the side of the Scottish club, and the stadium was secured by a lot of policemen, so Stein and his boys decided to play the game.

After the brutality of the first game and the total lack of fair play by Racing Club, the Europeans were determined to retaliate any dirty trick used by the opponent and defend themselves.

This didn’t affect the mentality of the Argentinians, who stuck to their violent strategy for the first two matches. The Celtic players kept their word and were more than ready to strike back.

There were crazy tackles flying around from the very start of the match.

Neither side was afraid of kicking their opponent, pulling shirts, and engaging in all kinds of dirty plays. The referee was unable to control the game and decided to stop it temporarily in the 23rd minute. He warned both skippers that there would be ejections if there was no change.

This made little difference, as both teams continued the same way, and about 15 minutes later, the first brawl of the game happened. Jimmy Johnstone was brought down by Juan Rulli, and players from both sides engaged in the scuffle.

The police came in to calm them down, and two players were sent off. Bobby Lennox from Celtic and Alfio Basile left the pitch, and the game carried on. Nothing changed, though, and there were numerous other incidents by the end.

The referee gave more than 50 fouls overall but missed a bunch of other violations all over the pitch. It was close to impossible to stop the incidents or even limit them. At the end of the day, Celtic had four players sent off, and Racing Club had two.

The police had to stop a couple of other brawls, and this remains one of the dirtiest games in soccer history.

The Shame Game, Celtic vs. Atletico Madrid 1974

Celtic was involved in another vicious encounter, this time against Atletico Madrid in 1974. The two teams met in the European Cup semifinal and had to determine who would face Bayern Munich for the trophy.

The first match of the tie was in Scotland, and Celtic seemed the favorite to get the upper hand. The team still had some of the players who brought the cup home in 1967, and they hoped another trophy was coming.

Atletico Madrid was in the shadow of its city rival at the time and was relatively unknown outside of Spain. Still, the side had the ambition to win the European Cup, and their main goal for the first game against Celtic was to get a draw and leave everything for the second leg in Spain.

Atletico was prepared to do literally anything to achieve that, and this desire transformed into some ugly tactics on the pitch. They were prepared to stop the Scottish players at any given moment when there was danger.

The Celtic lineup for this match included the young Kenny Dalglish and the legendary Jimmy Johnstone, who was the star man of the Scottish champion and the main target of the Atletico Madrid players.

The game was brutal from the very start, and the first half was full of all kinds of lunges, punches, and elbows.

Most of the brutality in this game came from the Spaniards to start with, but the Celtic players soon began going back at them every now and then to defend themselves.

Somehow, no player was sent off in the first half, but most of the Spaniards received bookings, including their goalkeeper. Still, there were two quick reds in the second half. First, Ruben Ayala was sent off in the 55th minute, and Ruben Diaz followed a minute later after brutalizing Johnstone.

His action was so violent that Diaz himself admitted years later that he should have been jailed.

But this wasn’t the end of it, as another player from Atletico Madrid actually received a red card in the 83rd minute. This left the team with only 8 men on the pitch, but somehow, Celtic failed to capitalize and punish the Spaniards, and the game finished 0-0.

On top of all the violence on the pitch, it wasn’t the end of it. After a bunch of scuffles during the game, the grand finale was left for the tunnel after the match. Jimmy Johnstone was punched, and this led to a vicious brawl which saw players, managers, and staff involved in a fist fight.

The police had to intervene to stop it, and this ended the disgraceful game. It received the name of the Shame Game later on, and many people believe it was even worse than the Battle of Montevideo, which says a lot.

Unfortunately for Celtic, Atletico Madrid showed some skills in the second tie and actually won 2-0 at home. With so many suspended players, though, the Spanish club was unable to do anything against Bayern in the finals, and the Germans won the European Cup in 1974.

The Battle of Nuremberg, Portugal vs. Netherlands, 2006

While most of the games on this list are from a completely different era when the sport was much more brutal, there are exceptions. We haven’t seen particularly brutal matches for a while, but there is one that deserves a place here.

It happened during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and surprise, surprise, it was called the Battle of Nuremberg. The city hosted the last 16 match between the Netherlands and Portugal, two teams usually known for their talented players and attractive soccer.

Well, I guess there always are exceptions, as this game was ugly from start to finish. The Dutch side set the tone, as Mark van Bommel was booked in the 2nd minute, and Khalid Boulahrouz soon followed him.

The defender threw a high kick with his studs at the young Cristiano Ronaldo, who got injured and left the pitch in tears.

Boulahrouz remained cynical after the incident, as he stated he hasn’t apologized to the Portuguese despite having the chance to and has no intention of doing so.

While the Netherlands was the team that started the whole thing with their brutal approach, Portugal caught up and quickly showed that they are capable of violent tackles themselves. Costinha threw a nasty challenge on Cocu, which lead to his first booking.

He received a second one and a red card before the halftime, this time for a handball. This was only the beginning, though. The first scuffle of the game came early in the second half when Giovanni van Bronckhorst slapped Luis Figo, who headbutted him. Both players received yellows.

This accident led to one of the most amusing comments after the match. The Portuguese coach famously stated the following.

“Jesus said we should turn the other cheek. Unfortunately, Figo is not Jesus Christ.”

Referee Valentin Ivanov from Russia kept giving cards to players from both teams, but he was unable to stop them. We saw Boulahrouz sent off, as well Deco and van Bronckhorst. It was a complete mess, and the official showed 4 red cards and 16 yellow cards, which is a record for an official game up to this day.

At the end of the day, Portugal managed to grab a 1-0 thanks to a Maniche strike in the second half. The Dutch side had plenty of chances to come back but was unable to find the net.

Since this was the younger team on the pitch, many believe the violent nature of the match affected the players more than their opponents.

To be fair, this match is not that violent compared to the previous entries on this list, but you have to consider the context. It happened at a time when the players were highly-paid professionals, and the governing bodies of soccer were much stricter.

This didn’t stop Portugal and the Netherlands from showing the ugly side of soccer with their display. It’s interesting that despite all the suspensions, Portugal was able to beat England in the next round but was knocked out by Zinedine Zidane’s France.

Final Words

Fortunately, this ugly side of the sport is rarely seen today. Sure, there are some dives and other forms of cheating, but horrible lunges and other nasty techniques are mostly gone, and I hope it stays that way.

I’ve picked some of the dirtiest games in the soccer history, but I’m quite sure there are many others that deserve a place in this post.

Do you remember another match that was particularly violent? Let me know in the comments section below.

Jerry Summer

Jerry Summer has a wide-ranging interest in gambling and the gambling industry. He's made a living out of both playing poker and betting on sports.

The English Premier League and the NBA are among Jerry's primary areas of expertise. He's knowledgeable about many other sports, too, along with poker and several casino games.

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