I WAS once involved in a football riot, or battle as they were then described, long before they became the unfashionable, lager-fuelled affairs so beloved of certain travelling English fans. To be fair to the English, however, the same current charge can be laid against the Dutch and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Germans. This column is being written some hours before the early morning showdown in Naples between the understandably anxious Italian side and the Russian team, who will enter the arena with very little to lose. It would be unfair to describe the Russians as minnows, but they are most certainly the underdogs. Russia can take heart - if they need to - from one previous cataclysmic World Cup encounter involving the Italians and the game that brings me back to the opening paragraph. It has been widely written in the lead-up to the crunch game in Naples that Italy last failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1958. It has not been so widely reported that they met their totally unexpected fate at the feet of Northern Ireland. The name Istvan Zsolt is buried somewhere in the mists of European footballing history. That is quite fitting if only because the Hungarian referee was fog-bound at Vienna airport when he should have been at Windsor Park in Belfast to officiate at a climactic World Cup game that was confidently expected to end with Italy going to Sweden the following year. Then, as now, the game was taking place towards the end of the year, but the failure of the unfortunate Zsolt to arrive left FIFA officials in a quandary. No neutral FIFA referee could be brought to Belfast in time so it was deemed that the showdown game should be played as a friendly with a local FIFA referee in the middle. Ultimately, many thousands of words were used to describe that game, but friendly was certainly not one of them. It may well be that my less-than-total enchantment with the Italian national team stems from that particular match where, using survival instincts that have stood me in good stead since, I ended up in the first wave over the perimeter fence and on to the pitch. Others may have had it in mind to vent their displeasure physically on certain Italian players who had used feet on men rather than on the ball, but concerns for personal safety were my sole motivation. The game was abandoned and it went down, fairly briefly, in football lore as the Battle of Belfast. It was my first, but far from last, experience of the less attractive side of football. In Hong Kong, an England B side led by Tony Hateley raised the ire of local supporters - in itself a rare occurrence - and a few cars parked rather too close to the Hong Kong Stadium were set alight. On at least two occasions police vans were required to remove some of us from the old Boundary Street ground and there was the first riot in Beijing since 1949 when Hong Kong won that famous World Cup game a dozen years ago. Throw in another set-to in the streets of Basle for a World Cup game involving England and the Swiss in 1981 and a fracas in Medan, Indonesia, and you can see that trouble is nothing if not global. Meanwhile, back to the year 1958. The Italians returned for the World Cup game proper in January and went down to a 2-1 defeat, a result that was greeted with disbelief in most corners of the football world. In a country where football is king, that result reduced the country, not entirely metaphorically, to tears and ensured the ritual reception of rotten tomatoes and over-ripe fruit on the return of the team to Rome airport. That scene was famously repeated in 1966 after the amazing defeat of Italy by North Korea at Middlesborough, despite the fact that the Italians slunk back after midnight. The stakes could not be higher in Naples and the Italians deserve to start favourites, naturally, but I suggest they are not exactly across the French border just yet. This is one of a great many bleary-eyed mornings in front of the television set to which I am really looking forward. There is a less-than-commendable pleasure in watching the Italian team under intense pressure, knowing that defeat spells disaster. The nerves will be jangling and an early Russian goal would have the heads in the spaghetti and the vino down the shirt-fronts across the nation. To be frank and fair, however, a World Cup without Italy would not be quite so palatable because they do, or can, contribute mightily to the enjoyment. But nobody gets to the World Cup finals by divine right and it would not be that much of a stunning surprise if Italy did make their exit almost 40 years since their last bad stumble. However, if it does happen, let's hope there is no riot this time.