I recently wrote about Joe Elliott's first ever Coventry City game against Preston North End in a friendly in January 1956 & several other City fans remembered the game including Rod Dean and John Woodfield (his first ever game too). But 48 hours after Preston had ripped City's defence apart there was more controversial game at Highfield Road when San Lorenzo, four times the champions of Argentina from Buenos Aires, played another friendly. It turned out to be anything other than a friendly game.
It was the infamous Wembley World Cup quarter-final of 1966 — followed by the World Club Championship matches involving Manchester United, Celtic and Estudiantes — that established the reputation for conflict between teams from Britain and Argentina.
But there was a hint of what was to come at Highfield Road that night and shows Antonio Rattin was not the first Argentine footballer to refuse to leave the field after being sent off. That dubious honour went to José Sanfilippo, a 19-year-old forward with San Lorenzo on that cold January night.
San Lorenzo were on a tour of Europe, including matches in Spain, Britain, France and Italy. Before coming to Coventry they had played Brentford, Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Unused to the typical British pitches of that era — when most of the grass had disappeared by December — San Lorenzo blamed the pitches for four straight defeats and 21 goals conceded, nine of them at Hillsborough.
The previous Saturday 32,000 Wolves fans had watched their team beat San Lorenzo 5-1, but not before the Wolves players had to give protection to Mervyn Griffiths, the highly-regarded Welsh referee, after San Lorenzo players had threatened him when he awarded Wolves a penalty.
Another leading referee, Arthur Ellis, was appointed to take charge of the match at Coventry. He had experienced Argentine passions in 1953, when he was pelted with orange peel in Buenos Aires after he had controversially abandoned the Argentina v England international when torrential rain had turned the pitch into a quagmire.
San Lorenzo included Pizarro, Lopez and Benavidez, all Argentina internationals and City manager George Raynor named an unchanged side from the Preston game. The game was approaching half-time when the trouble started. Ken McPherson, a brawny centre forward who had scored five goals in nine games since signing six weeks earlier, had given the home side the lead after half an hour, only for Guttierez, the left winger, to equalise a minute later.
Just before half-time City's Dennis Uphill hit a post and, with the goalkeeper out of position, he was about to score when he was pushed off the ball by two San Lorenzo defenders. Ellis immediately awarded Coventry a penalty, which the whole San Lorenzo team disputed. Sanfilippo, the inside left, went further and kicked Ellis in a temperamental outburst. Ellis ordered him off and there followed five minutes of mayhem.
According to the Coventry Telegraph's reports of the evening’s events, “police were called on to the pitch to give Ellis protection and Sanfilippo was dragged from the pitch by his team’s reserve players and trainer, kicking and struggling like a wild tiger cat”. Ellis, meanwhile, had walked off the pitch and told officials of both clubs he was abandoning the game as he refused to continue under “impossible conditions”.
“The player kicked at my legs and I collared him, although all the Argentine players mingled in so that I could not get at the offender. I told him to get off but he refused to leave the field,” Ellis said.
After half an hour of appealing to Ellis to continue the game, the City chairman, Erle Shanks, told the crowd of 17,357 the game had ended as Ellis refused to continue and under FA rules a substitute referee was not allowed. The crowd, which previously had been whistling and slow hand-clapping, received the decision well and quickly dispersed from the ground.
After the game, Coventry officials and players mingled with their visitors in the boardroom and Shanks presented the chairman of San Lorenzo, Luis Traverso, with a plaque. Both clubs exchanged badges and Traverso, through an interpreter, expressed his deep regret for the incident. He said that Sanfilippo would be sent back to Argentina on the first available plane as his punishment and that the rest of the team would be severely censured.
Sanfilippo did not fly home until the team got to Paris a few days later. He went on to become a San Lorenzo legend, scoring 200 goals — a club record that stands today — and won 29 caps for Argentina, scoring 21 goals. His final international was against England in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, where he scored in the 3-1 defeat and one of his team-mates was a certain Antonio Rattin.