Face of Fascism in Football/Italians Ace it for the Duce

We continue the saga of the history of the World Cup with the story of the second edition. After the brilliant success of the first World Cup tournament in Uruguay and the superb decision by FIFA to select them as hosts, they went ahead and did quite the opposite in choosing Italy as hosts in the next edition. Italy was under the iron fist of the Fascists led by ‘Il Duce’ Benito Mussolini. It was not a very popular decision and required eight meetings by FIFA to decide. Mussolini was in power for a decade and wanted to showcase this tournament as his personal success. Mussolini over the years has been depicted as a buffoon; however it was not much fun in living in a state of a single party rule with the fascist brown shirts unleashing their reign of terror with imprisonment and executions without trial. It was in these conditions that the Second World Cup was held. The main stadium in Rome was named as National Stadium of the Nationalist Fascist Party of Italy. The tournament itself had become very big and more than a single city was required to host all the matches. There was a requirement of qualification matches as only sixteen teams could be accommodated. It was the only instance where the host nation had to qualify for the finals with Italy hammering a weak Greek team 4-0 at Milan. The defending champions, Uruguay declined the invitation to participate in retaliation for the snub by the European teams who did not participate in the inaugural tournament they hosted.

The hosts were the favourites as the defending Olympic champions with one of the earliest exponents of the current managerial system of man management and strategy as their coach, the enigmatic Vittorio Pozzo. He used a lot of psychological and mental initiatives to strengthen the Italian team. The centre forward and the centre half of his team did not see eye to eye due to a spat during a league match. Pozzo made them share a room to iron out their differences. He had a take-no-prisoners style of play and he needed a player with a similar mindset. He found the perfect man in the great Luis Monti of Argentina who had become an Italian citizen after four seasons with Juventus. He needed a few speedy wingers who were also procured from Argentina in form of Enrique Guaita and Atillo Demaria. Guaita is possibly the only individual to have won a World Cup and a Copa America for different teams. To this, was added the talented Raimundo Orsi, another Argentinean who had played in the 1928 Olympics. There were home-grown talents in the team as well, the most famous being Guiseppe ‘Peppino’ Meazza after whom the San Siro stadium is currently named.

Das Wunderteam’ of Austria

The other strong contenders were the Austrians, known as ‘Das Wunderteam’ in the thirties and were coached by Hugo Meisl, one of the proponents of a system very similar to total football. The close ground passing game with a limpid style was augmented by the fact that they had two very good forwards in Sindelar and Bican. The Hungarians were also impressive with their centre half, Sarosi being the star. The Czechs had a very good goalkeeper in Plánička and good forward line of Nejedlý and Puč.  Another huge star was the Spanish goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora, a legend of those times.

The great Ricardo Zamora of Spain


The qualification matches also had its share of problems as the Mexicans travelled 5000 kilometres to lose and after a single match they had to undertake the long and arduous journey back on a ship. The Luxembourg team tried to qualify and till date are yet to do so, which make them the team to have not qualified for the finals for the longest period of time. All the teams played on 27th June with the eight winners to advance to the quarter final on 31st. If there were any draws, a replay would be played the next day which in turn would be replayed till the day before the next round if there was a draw again. In case the match was still drawn, a draw of lots would determine the winner. All the first round matches went by the form book with Italy winning against USA 7-1, Germany defeating Belgium 5-2, Spain overcoming Brazil 3-1 and Hungary overcoming Egypt 4-2. There were a few scares for some of the fancied teams with the Czechs defeating the Romanians 2-1, Austria edging out France 3-2 after extra time, Switzerland beating Netherlands 3-2 and Sweden defeating an Argentina team with eleven new caps 3-2. Argentina did not play another World Cup match till 1957 qualifying tournament, which robbed the World Cup the skills of the great Alfredo Di Stefano. Eventually none of the matches had to be replayed.

Nejedlý, the highest scorer of 1934 World Cup

The Quarterfinals had some intriguing match-ups. Italy played Spain, the only opponents who were willing to mix it up with them physically. Austria played Hungary, the neighbouring countries and bitter rivals. Germans played the dour Swedes and the Czechs played the industrious Swiss. All the matches were well contested. The Italy Spain match was the best contest with tackles flying in from both sides and feeble refereeing by the Belgian, Louis Baert. Italians had a penalty turned down when Schiavio was punched in the face in the penalty area. Then the Spanish took the lead through a volley by Regueiro which beat the Italian goalkeeper, Combi on his right. After this, the Italians used the strategy of crossing into the opposition penalty box and letting their forwards manhandle Zamora, the great Spanish goalkeeper. Ferrari equalised when Zamora was being impeded by Schiavio, using his elbows. Historical films also show Italian players knocking his cap off with forehand jabs and subjecting him to some shoulder charges which would make Rugby players proud. However, Zamora played the match of his life denying the Italians with some magnificent saves. This was the only drawn match in the first two editions of the World Cup. The replay which took place the very next day meant that Zamora could not play and the match was once again very poorly officiated, so much so that Rene Mercet, the referee was banned by his own national association. Italy took the lead early through a diving header by Meazza from a corner and after that it was all blood and gore. Four Spanish players had to retire due to injury; but they still managed to hold on to a respectable single goal loss.

The Austria-Hungary match promised to be a spectacle between two teams with a fluid ground passing style. The game ended up as a brawl, a forerunner of the many battles of the subsequent editions of the tournament. Eventually after two sending offs and the Hungarians down to nine men, it was the Austrians who triumphed 2-1. The Germans efficiently defeated the Swedes 2-1 in a very dull match where both mid-fields negated the forwards. It was after this match that the Germans earned the reputation of a team with efficiency minus any flair, which remained till the end of the 20th century. The Swiss fought till the wire against the Czechs in incessant rain and a very muddy pitch. To be fair the Czechs would have won easily if not for the terrible pitch, at the end they prevailed 3-2. The semi final line-ups were complete with Italy playing Austria which would be repeated in the 1936 Olympics final but before that Germany was playing Czechoslovakia.

The first semi final was the triumph of the short passing game of Czechoslovakia over the long ball and direct style of play of Germany. At the end however it was a story of two goalkeepers. Plánička was in better form than his opposite number, Kress who made two mistakes which led to two of the three goals scored in a hat trick by Nejedlý. Germans scored to equalise in the second half before the two errors by Kress.

The second semi-final was a clash of styles again. The Italians were disdainful about the Swiss habit of trying to stroll the ball into the opponent’s goal a la Arsenal of today. This was of course an individual clash between Monti the great defensive mid-fielder, against Sindelaar, the opposing forward who played in the hole below the strikers. Italy dominated the match in the first half with their physical style and direct game and Austria supposedly did not have a shot on goal till the 40th minute, as the Italian media reports suggest. Untroubled by any death threats as in the last edition of the tournament, Monti had decided that he would no longer be Mister Nice Guy anymore. There was a deluge in Milan before the match and the pitch was kept heavy and muddy to prevent the Austrian passing game (shades of West Germany vs Poland in 1974). The only goal of the match came in the 19th minute, Platzer the Austrian goalkeeper fumbled with the ball on the ground and Meazza slid in and the ball came back of the near post and Guaita got it over the line with a lunge. Bican, the Austrian forward, remembered in an interview many years later, the Italians knocking the ball away from Platzer after he had caught it. An old man’s reminiscences may have been a little clouded. For the third consecutive match, the Italians had scored just a single goal from a goal mouth melee. Austria had chances in the second half with Combi making good saves. However it was Platzer who was the busier of the two keepers as Italy controlled the match in a helpful heavy ground conditions. And the hosts were one match away from fulfilling their promise as pre-tournament favourites.

Before the final, Mussolini had decided to have a third placed match in order to raise funds for his Africa campaign. It was a good match where the Germans prevailed in a 3-2 win which had a wonder goal by the Austrian Sesta from a free-kick 30 metres from the goal. Four years later it was not just on a football field that Austria was being conquered by the Germans.

Combi (L) Referee Eklind (Centre) and Plánička (R) before the final.

The final on 10th of June 1934 unlike four years earlier, was not sold out with a lot of empty stands. The depression and the Fascist government’s strong arm ruling style may have been the major deterrents.  Mussolini turned up in a sailor’s cap. There was no moat but there were enough people in the stadium to create an intimidating atmosphere with the crowd just 10 feet away from the playing area. Pozzo sat behind Plánička’s goal for a major duration of the match trying out psychological tactics. The only final till date to have two goalkeeper captains started cagily on a narrow bumpy pitch where forwards of both teams were trying hard to break open the defensive shackles. With waist high tackles flying on all parts of the pitch, the lack of penetration was understandable. Italian left half, Luigi Bertolini was conspicuous more due to his wide white hair band than his tackling acumen.  Major part of old films show Plánička catching aimless balls pumped up towards his goal. With twenty minutes left on the clock and the tension palpable in the ground, Attillio Ferraris, the Italian right half crashed into Puč, the Czech outside right, who was carried off to the sidelines. Pozzo actually helped carry him off eager to see his attacking prowess off the field. A flask of ammonia was waved around his nose and lo and behold he was up and running thanks to the beauty of drug-taking of those times. The very next minute Puč ran inside from the right, evaded the lunging tackle of Monzeglio, the Italian right back and beat Combi with a low shot to the near post (0-1).  Italy suddenly looked frail in defense and Jiří Sobotka, the opposition centre forward hit the post in the 75th minute. Then Nejedlý after being bullied by Monti for the entire match managed to escape his clutches and shot over the bar with Combi and the goal at his mercy in the 78th minute. That was the last chance Czechoslovakia had to put the result beyond doubt.

Vittorio Pozzo (Extreme left) celebrating behind the Czech goal after the equaliser

Raimundo Orsi, the Argentine playing for the hosts, in his peak a brilliant dribbler, but at 32 years of age and well past his best, who had the tendency to drift in and out of matches, turned the match on its head in the 81st minute. He received the ball in the left wing, played a one-two with Meazza and reached the edge of the box. He curled in a ball with his trusted left foot. Plánička was criticised by his country’s media for being beaten, with the ball drifting high to his right into the net (1-1). Although at only 5’8” his reach was probably limited. This was similar to Ronaldinho’s goal against England in 2002, though the old films show Plánička in much better light than David Seaman. Pozzo was jumping more with relief than joy behind the goal. The match fizzled out to the end of 90 minutes with more resolute defending and no further chances to any side.

In the first World Cup final to have extra time, the match was settled by a master stroke by Pozzo, the Italian coach. He asked his centre forward Angelo Schiavio and outside left, Enrique Guaita to switch positions. These days it may seem to be a simple tactic but in those days with Czechoslovakia playing with an attacking centre half, essentially a sixth forward and with tactics of their coach Karel Petrů cast in stone, it was sheer genius. Just five minutes into extra-time, this move paid dividends as Schiavio scored from the right edge of the penalty box with a diagonal shot which beat Plánička’s valiant dive (2-1). It has been alleged by the English media that Meazza had got away with handball earlier in the move which resulted in the goal. There seems no evidence of this in the old film archives. The Italians then shut shop and passed the ball amongst themselves to become the second team and host to win the World Cup on debut after Uruguay.

Gianpiero Combi, the cup winning captain was only in the side because the first choice, goalkeeper Carlo Ceresoli had broken his arm in training. He was not even the captain for the first match, where veteran defender Virginio Rosetta had the honour. Rosetta was subsequently relegated to the bench for all the other matches. Vittorio Pozzo was carried off the pitch in a chair by the jubilant supporters. Italian left back, Luigi Allemandi received his winner’s medal seven years later as he was banned for life due to match-fixing. The winning goal scorer, Schiavio and the referee for the final, Ivan Eklind of Sweden shared the same birthday. Eklind was however photographed with a very serious looking Mussolini, a day before the final which led to a few questions about his impartiality. All said, the best team won not with the flowing and beautiful style but with an unsmiling military presence of their centre halves. Live radio commentary was introduced by Mussolini and he tried to use the propaganda that Fascism was the real reason behind the team’s success. It was the last World Cup before politics in Europe overtook its football. FIFA were moderately pleased with the tournament, but there were too many dirty matches and too many partial referees who allowed the touch players to be literally and physically kicked out of the tournament, something which would be repeated in the future editions. It was a gloomy tournament which gave the foreign visitors to the country the grim reality of the regime brutal and smug.

Kinshuk Biswas

About Kinshuk Biswas

Kinshuk Biswas is an architect by education, a consultant by profession, a quizzer, writer and an absolute football fanatic by choice. Follow him at http://confessionsofastonedmind.blogspot.com