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England in Friendly Competition - History

Friendly Match Record Overall

Friendly Match Record by Opponents

Friendly Comps

England in Friendly Competition

The very first international match, featuring England away to Scotland on 30 November 1872, was a friendly.  Friendly internationals preceded the first tournament matches, those of the British or Home International Championship, by more than 11 years.  As of 3 March 2010, England had played 345 friendly matches.  More than a third of England's total matches have been friendlies, although, with the increase in tournament matches over the past few decades, that percentage is constantly diminishing.

Friendly Match Classification

Friendly matches are those which are not part of a tournament or cup competition.  They are commonly contrasted with "competitive" matches, and the implication is that they are not competitive.  But friendlies are competitive in the sense that both teams are trying to win the match or at least supposed to be trying to win under FIFA's fair play rule.  Indeed, many of England's friendly matches have been distinctly unfriendly and have been hard-fought affairs, as competitive as any tournament match.  Through the greater part of the team's history, England met teams from outside the British Isles only in friendly matches, and considerable prestige was at stake.  Some of England's most famous victories and defeats have come in friendly matches.  For these reasons, we have titled this section of our website "England in Friendly Competition."

Because of the rather narrow popular concept of "competitive matches," it is also common to designate as a "friendly" any match which is not part of one of the major tournaments in which England have taken part - the British Championship (also known as the Home International Championship), the World Cup and the European Championship (formerly known as the European Nations' Cup).  But we also exclude from the "friendly" category certain minor tournament or cup matches which, although not part of one of the major tournaments, nevertheless present a distinctly competitive element missing from friendly matches.  

Thus, unlike some other works on the national side's history, we do not label as "friendly" any match played in a minor tournament or any stand-alone match played for a cup that England contested on a regular basis.  However, we do label as "friendly" stand-alone cup games which England played on a one-off basis.  Those games are more akin to friendly matches in which the winning team just happened to be awarded a trophy than they are to competitive tournament or cup matches.  

Thus, for example, we have classed as minor tournament/cup matches rather than friendly matches all those which England played for the Rous Cup because, although it involved only a single match against Scotland the first two times it was contested, England competed for that cup regularly from 1985 to 1989.  But we have classed as a friendly, for example, England's match against South Africa on 22 May 2003 because, although the International Launch Trophy commemorating the launch of South Africa's bid to host World Cup 2010 was awarded to England for their 2-1 victory, the match was a one-off affair and in substance merely a friendly in which the winning team was awarded a cup. 

Friendly Match History

The first 19 matches England played, from the scoreless away draw against Scotland on 30 November 1872 to the 3-2 home loss to Scotland on 10 March 1883, were friendlies.  No tournament existed until the British or Home International Championship was [retrospectively] established in the 1883-84 season.  The next 75 matches England played, from the 8-1 away win against Ireland on 23 February 1884 to the 1-1 draw with Scotland on 4 April 1908, were all part of the annual British Championship tournament.

England resumed playing friendlies only on the first Continental tour at the end of the 1907-08 season when they met foreign opposition for the first time in two matches against Austria followed by single games against Hungary and Bohemia.  At the end of the 1908-09 season came another tour with two friendly matches against Hungary followed by one in Austria.  But England had no further encounters with foreign sides until after World War I, and a string of 21 consecutive British Championship matches followed.  The next friendly match did not come until the end of the 1920-21 season, when England met Belgium in Brussels.  Beginning with the 1922-23 season, friendly matches became a regular feature of the England programme.  In only one season since then--1971-72, when England played five European Championship preliminary and three British Championship matches--have they failed to play a single friendly match.

Because England did not enter the World Cup until its fourth edition in 1950, they played foreign sides only in friendly matches for the greater part of their history.  Their first tournament match against a foreign team came at the World Cup 1950 finals in Brazil.  As late as 1956, England had played only six tournament matches of any kind against foreign opposition--against Chile, the U.S.A. and Spain at the World Cup 1950 final tournament and against Belgium, Switzerland and Uruguay at the World Cup 1954 final tournament--because British Championship matches served as qualifying matches for the first two World Cup tournaments they entered, those of 1950 and 1954.  But for these six matches, all England's matches against foreign sides had been friendlies.

Until the mid-20th Century, then, friendly matches against foreign sides were the only means of gauging England's standing in the world game.  They were also the only way in which England gained exposure to technical and tactical advancements developed abroad.  That is not to say England learnt much from meeting foreign opposition; the prevailing attitude until well into the 1950s was that England had nothing to learn from foreign footballers and that nothing was to be gained from coaching and tactical instruction.

Some Famous Friendlies

Partly because of the self-imposed isolation which kept England from World Cup participation, some of the most famous matches in England's  history have been friendlies.  Among the most memorable friendlies were:

Spain 4 England 3, Estadio Metropolitano, Madrid, 15 May 1929 - England's first defeat by a foreign side.

England 7 Spain 1, Arsenal Stadium, Highbury, London, 9 December 1931 - England gained revenge at home for their first loss to a foreign team.

England 4 Austria 3, Stamford Bridge, Fulham Road, Fulham, London, 7 December 1932 - England beat, but just barely and with luck, the "Wunderteam," which had the better part of the play and showed why they were regarded as Europe's best.

England 3 Italy 2, Arsenal Stadium, Highbury, London, 14 November 1934 - England edged the newly-crowned World Cup 1834 champions in a thoroughly ill-tempered affair still remembered as the "Battle of Highbury."

Germany 3 England 6, Olympiastadion, Westend, Berlin, 14 May 1938 - After giving the Nazi salute in pre-match ceremonies, England trounced the Nazis' pride and joy before several Third Reich big-wigs.

Portugal 0 England 10, Estadio Nacional, Lisbon, 25 May 1947 - Everything fell together for England's post-war forward line, with Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney playing together for the first time, on either wing.

Italy 0 England 4, Stadio Communale, Turin, 16 May 1948 - The World Cup holders from 1938 were humbled by England's post-war greats.

England 0 Republic of Ireland 2, Goodison Park, Walton, Liverpool, 21 September 1949 - England had begun to lose some of the stars from their first post-war team and suffered their first home defeat by a team from outside the United Kingdom.

England 2 Argentina 1, Empire Stadium, Wembley, 9 May 1951 - England's first meeting with the team that was to become one of its main rivals in the first visit of a South American national side to England.

Austria 2 England 3, Praterstadion, Vienna, 25 May 1952 - Nat Lofthouse's "Lion of Vienna" heroics inspired England to victory over the team regarded as Europe's finest, although Hungary were about to displace them as No. 1.

England 3 Hungary 6, Empire Stadium, Wembley, 25 November 1953 - England were humiliated in their first defeat at Wembley by a foreign side.

Hungary 7 England 1, Népstadion, Budapest, 23 May 1954 - England endured their record defeat in the return match as Hungary demonstrated their Wembley performance was not a one-off.

England 4 Brazil 2, Empire Stadium, Wembley, 9 May 1956 - England served notice that they were regrouping in their first meeting with the South American side.

Spain 0 England 2, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Chamartín, Madrid, 8 December 1965 - Manager Alf Ramsey tried out his wingless wonders formation to critical acclaim.

Brazil 0 England 2, Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho, Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro, 10 June 1984 - England's only victory against the masters in Brazil, featuring John Barnes' very Brazilian goal.

Spain 2 England 4 - Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Chamartín, Madrid, 18 February 1987 - Gary Lineker scored four as England showed they were one of the top teams in Europe, but they still managed to flop the following year in the European Championship.

Friendlies Under Fire

Friendly matches are now under threat.  The national team has always had difficulties in gaining club cooperation, but clubs have become much less willing to relinquish their players for friendly matches over the past decade as the growing number of matches in European club competitions added to fixture congestion and as the monetary value and wages of the players increased astronomically.  The clubs, as well as their supporters, have become increasingly critical of friendlies, and "meaningless friendly" has become a catchphrase.  

Friendly matches, however, are far from meaningless; they continue to carry great value for the national side.  They serve as practice or warm-up matches for important tournament encounters.  They allow players from many different club sides the opportunity to become used to playing together, and since football is a team game, that is essential.  They also serve as a risk-free way of experimenting with new players, new formations and new styles of play.  They give newer players the opportunity to gain international experience, which is important because the international game is so different from the English domestic game and the quality of the opposition is often much higher.  And, in an age when depth in the squad is important, they allow players who are not regulars in the England first eleven to gain playing time at international level.

Nonetheless, England are highly unlikely to play as many friendlies in the future as they have in the past.  The national side will suffer as a result.  Increasingly, England have left open dates set aside on FIFA's international calendar when they could have played friendly matches.  Sometimes England have remained idle when most European national sides have played, even in the critical period before important international tournaments. 

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