'Friendly' turned into the Battle of Belfast
Published 10/05/2014 | 11:00
It might be better not to mention the Battle of Belfast to our visiting Giro friends this weekend. For this unseemly skirmish broke out at one of the last major sporting events involving visiting Italians in 1957 – a World Cup football qualifier which ended in a riot.
More than 50,000 passionate supporters were already starting to arrive through the Windsor Park turnstiles when it was announced that the match had been downgraded to a friendly because the Hungarian referee was fog-bound and still in England and the Italians were refusing to accept a local official. But it turned out to be the unfriendliest friendly imaginable, with incessant brawls, an Italian sent off and a crowd who reckoned they'd been cheated out of a real match.
Immediately after the end of the meaningless 2-2 draw, in which home favourite Wilbur Cush scored a famous goal (below), furious supporters invaded the pitch and proceeded to attack the Italians, who had to be escorted off the pitch by their opponents.
Questions were asked in the Italian parliament and there were fears of a repeat of the riot, after the game was re-run five weeks later, but peace broke out and Northern Ireland won 2-1 to qualify for the World Cup Finals in Sweden.
There are a couple of clips of the Battle of Belfast on YouTube and though much of the violence on the field has been edited out, there are several shots which capture the anger of the crowd.
For every time the camera pans to the fans, several shifty-looking characters make cut-throat, or V signs, in its direction.
When ice cream ruled the road
The welcome on the Newtownards Road for the Giro cyclists yesterday was, thankfully, a warm one.
But in the 1950s, the road was the capital of cool. Italian cool.
Local historian, Bobby Cosgrove, says street directories from the time show that the Newtownards Road was home to an astonishing SIX ice cream parlours, owned by immigrants at a time when Belfast also had its very own Little Italy area in the north of the city.
Four of the Newtownards Road parlours belonged to the Fuscos and two to the Desano family.
Not far away, the Fuscos also had another ice cream shop on Castlereagh Street, which also had a Sorrento cafe, and the nearby Ravenhill Road boasted a Cafollas parlour.
On the North Coast, of course, it was the Morelli family who served up the pokes and the sliders, and they've recently opened up in east Belfast, too.
For some reason, tubs of peas were also specialities of old from the ice cream vendors in and around the east Belfast area.
And, no, it was nothing to do with the peas process ...
Eccentric Ciro put Italian on the menu
He was the original Ciro d'Italia ... an Italian restaurant owner who cooked up a food revolution in Belfast.
Ciro did what other people were afraid to do at the height of the Troubles here in the 1970s: he launched a restaurant in the middle of the madness and opened up the Golden Mile in the process.
His trattoria in Great Victoria Street was always packed – probably because there was really nowhere else to go.
And while his food was hardly Michelin fare, Belfast loved it, again because there was little or no competition.
Ciro, who'd moved to Belfast from Downpatrick, was as eccentric as his dishes. He could be raising the roof with his singing one minute, swearing the house down the next. But his restaurant was never dull.
His success encouraged others to follow his lead and before long, Great Victoria Street really was the hot spot for food and craic.
But, almost unnoticed, Ciro vanished. If you know what became of him, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fake footballer talked a good game
It's a question which is regularly asked in pub quizzes. But few people can ever remember the name of the young Italian 'footballer' who tricked Lisburn Distillery into signing him in a con which later made national headlines.
Alessandro Zarrelli was the name of the bluffer who turned up at New Grosvenor in 2005 saying he was being sponsored under a 'collaboration scheme' funded by the Italian Football Federation. He said he had been a youth team player for Glasgow Rangers, MK Dons and Sheffield Wednesday, but while he talked a good game, he couldn't play one.
After doing his Italian Job on the Whites, he was eventually given the boot by manager Paul Kirk. Zarrelli was subsequently exposed as a fake by a Sky TV documentary team, whom he later had the cheek to thank for making him famous.
GAA taking off in foreign climes
Italian rugby teams are making slow, but steady progress at international and club level.
But the oval ball game isn't the only comparatively new addition to the sporting ranks in Italy.
For it appears that the Italians are now also hurling themselves rather enthusiastically into GAA games as well.
And it's all thanks to a man called Raffaello Franco, who fell in love with gaelic football when he was on a visit, on his honeymoon, to Croke Park in Dublin.
He subsequently returned home and decided to establish the Ascaro Rovigo GAA club.
There are other clubs in Padova and Rome and there are plans afoot to bring the game to Florence, Milan, Verona and Treviso.
Wheels of love spun at ballrooms
Thousands of people in Northern Ireland owe their very existence to Italians.
For it was in the Bangor ballrooms, Caproni's and Milano's, that countless boys met countless girls and eventually married and produced countless children. The dancers and romancers were entertained by the likes of Brian Rossi, whose showband was called – aptly enough this weekend – The Wheels...
And next time you get plastered in Belfast's Crown Bar just remember, the Italians were responsible for most of the intricate tiling, glass and woodwork in the pub, carrying it out as homers, away from their full-time jobs working on churches under construction in the late-19th century.