Last rays of sunshine before the clouds of war

The winning Italian team with their coach Vittorio Pozzo holding aloft the trophy

The times were dark and difficult in Europe when the World Cup was awarded to the land of its founders – France, by FIFA. The second tournament had given the people a glimpse of ‘Fascism’. By 1938, the entire continent was reeling under the spectre of fascism and its leaders, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.  The outlook in the continent was bleak and depressing as the people could feel that they were hurtling towards a war which none of them wanted but had to endure due to the whims of their leaders.

Italians came into the tournament as overwhelming favourites to retain their trophy. The charismatic Italian coach, Vittorio Pozzo had retained only three players from the 1934 World Cup winning team – Guiseppe Meazza, Eraldo Monzeglio and Giovanni Ferrari. To this were added three good players from the Olympics team- Alfredo Foni, Pietro Rava and Ugo Locatelli. This time there was only one South American – the Uruguayan, Michele Andreolo who was playing in the same position as the great Luis Monti. Above all, the Italians had the best forward in Europe- Silvio Piola.   The team whom the Italians had defeated in the Olympics final, Austria, were still a very strong side despite their ageing forward line of Matthias Sindelar and Josef Bican.  Hungary had developed into a side with very fluid ball playing skills and a lot of goal scoring ability with Gyorgy Sarosi and Gyula Zsengeller. Czechoslovakia, the last runners up were back with Frantisek Plánička, Oldrich Nejedlý and Antonin Puč, the heroes of the 1934 tournament. Brazil had not played an international in a year but they had in their ranks a then unknown genius by the name of Leonidas who had not played for the national team for four years. Spain was embroiled in a bitter civil war and did not participate. There were a lot of debutantes amongst the nations with Cuba and Dutch East Indies, the first Asian country to play in the finals.  The first match was scheduled on 4th June in Paris, and the rest of the seven matches in seven different cities the following day.

Leonidas the top scorer in 1938 Silvio Piola player of the tournament

On March 12, the Third Reich under Hitler invaded Austria under their policy of Anschluss, which aimed at integrating all German speaking countries. The Austrian FA subsequently informed FIFA that they had ceased to exist as a national federation and team. This was later dubbed as ‘Shame of 1938’ in the football world. The Germans immediately drafted seven Austrian players into their national team. It was very unfortunate that one of the best teams was out of the tournament even before the matches had started. England was offered Austria’s place in the tournament, which they refused. Had England played, with players like Sir Stanley The Magician Matthews, Cliff Bastin, Ted Drake and Eddie Hapgood, they might have made an impact. Mexicans also pulled out allowing Cuba to make their debut in the tournament. Uruguay refused to participate as their bid to host the tournament had been rejected by FIFA. Argentina, the Copa America champions also refused to participate protesting against the FIFA decision to hold the tournament in Europe. Finally fifteen teams played in the tournament, with Austria being the only casualty from the confirmed list.

The format of this tournament was the same as the last edition with all matches being knock-outs and subsequent replays in case of a draw. The replays were luckily not on the very next day, allowing the teams some recovery time.  The previous World Cup had only a single match which was drawn; in contrast this edition had a spate of draws and replays. The opening match pitted the German team, complete with five Austrians in their starting line-up, against the industrious Swiss who were a good team in their own right. The Germans dominated the match and took the lead in the 29th minute. The Swiss equalised through a defensive error in the 43rd minute and held on till the end of extra time due to the heroics of their goalkeeper, Willy Huber who pulled off a string of spectacular saves. The replay was held five days later and this time it was the Swiss who prevailed in a 4-2 victory. The media proclaimed that the brave little Swiss had humbled the mighty Nazis, but in reality the German team with its mix of Austrians did not gel well enough to be a good team.  Cubans, who were making their debut, surprised the Romanians holding them to a 3-3 draw. The replay was possibly the first big upset of the World Cup as the Cubans defeated their more fancied European opponents 2-1, mainly due to the acrobatic saves by their keeper, Juan Ayra. In the first real World Cup mismatch, Hungary played the Dutch East Indies. The French press had dubbed the Asians as diminutive dynamos and terrific dribblers. The captain of their team played in glasses and their goal keeper brought a man-sized doll which he placed behind his goal for good luck. The Asians though very good dribblers were very poor passers and even worse in defensive acumen. The Hungarians scored four goals in the first half and then availed themselves of passing practice and still managed to score two further goals for a 6-0 win. The hosts, France defeated Belgium easily using a crisp passing and attack oriented game, 3-1. The last three matches of the 1st round were all classics.

Czechoslovakia was held to a goalless draw in normal time by a plucky Dutch side playing with ten men due to an injury to a player in the second half as there were no substitutions allowed then. Eventually, the finalists of the last tournament began to have some cohesion in the play of their forwards in extra time. Nejedlý and Josef Zeman scored after Josef Košťálek had put them ahead with a long range shot. The Czechoslovakians won with a 3-0 score line which did not reflect how closely contested the match had been. The Italians had won the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics where they met stiff resistance from two sides – Austria, in the final and Norway, in the semi-finals. The former was no longer a threat due to Italy’s ally, Germany and their military forces, the latter was the opponent of the defending champions in the first match. Italy took an early lead when the Norwegian goalkeeper could not keep control of Ferrari’s shot. After that, Italy were on the mat for the rest of the ninety minutes. Piola was marked and the wingers made ineffective by the Scandinavians. The Norwegians were also a constant threat in the front. Eventually they equalised through Arne Brustad in the 83rd minute skipping past Eraldo Monzeglio, his designated marker. Pozzo dropped Monzeglio for the rest of the tournament. Italy’s chances were kept alive in the game by two players – Pietro Rava, the left back who kept the speedy opposition winger Knut Brynildson at bay and the other saviour being Aldo Olivieri, the goalkeeper who was so outstanding that even the opposition forwards shook hands with him after a few of his phenomenal saves. The Italians managed to find the winner in extra time due to the error of the opposition goalkeeper, Henry Jacobsen who dropped a weak shot by Piero Pasinati and Piola pounced to send the ball in the back of the net. The referee, Alois Beranek was another Austrian making a guest appearance for Nazi Germany. The best match of this round was the clash between Brazil and Poland, a genuine contender for the ‘greatest match of football’.  Brazil took the lead through Leonidas, only to see the bizarre sight of his defender, Domigos bringing down Ernest Wilmowski with a perfect Rugby tackle to concede a penalty which was converted by Fryderyk Scherfke. The Brazilian forwards were luckily much better than their defenders and Romeu and Jose Perácio put them 3-1 ahead at half time. The pitch was muddy and Leonidas had torn the sole of his boot in the 10th minute. He took the shoes off and tried to play bare-feet, but was promptly ordered by Eklind, the referee not to do so. He just ripped off his sole and played the rest of the match wearing his boot minus the sole. The second half belonged to the 21 year old young Polish striker, Ernst Wilmowski. He scored a hat-trick to take the match into extra time. His third goal came in the 89th minute to equalise a Perácio goal which had put Brazil up 4-3 in the 71st minute. In extra time, Leonidas took over and scored two goals in the first half of added time. Wilmowski scored in the 118th minute and also hit the post a minute later to end up with four goals and on the losing side. Wilomowski was made to play in friendlies representing Germany, after Poland was invaded from 1939 to 1944 albeit having to change his first name Earnst to please his Nazi rulers. Sweden did not have to play in the first round due to the absence of Austria and qualified directly to the quarter finals.

The quarterfinals had Italy against France, Sweden playing the giant killers Cuba, Hungary taking on Switzerland and an intriguing clash between Brazil and Czechoslovakia.  The Swedish team routed the Cubans, who looked out of their depth. Two Swedes scored hat-tricks in an 8-0 trouncing.  The Swiss were without two of the heroes from the match against Germany, Minelli and Aeby, who had not recovered from the replay. The Hungarians bossed the match with goals by Sarosi and Zsengeller in each half. The Swiss just couldn’t get past the excellent defensive pair of Lajos Koranyi and Sandor Biro, the match finished 2-0 in favour of Hungary. The last two editions of the tournament had been won by the hosts. The French supporters were expectant of a repeat of the same. The Italian coach, Pozzo after the tribulations of the Norway match rung in the changes. Monzeglio, a hero of 1934, made way for Alfredo Foni, and two new wingers,  Amadeo Biaveti and Gino Colaussi were included. Italy scored early through Colaussi, and France equalised two minutes later when Oscar Heisserer rifled in his shot. The best French player, Guisti Jordan suggested during halftime that Piola be man marked by Etienne Mattler. Mattler, the French captain also vetoed the idea, stating that it was not the right moment to initiate his career as a man marker. The manager did not seem to have supported the idea as well. This decided the match as Piola scored a brace in the second half to end the participation of the hosts, with the Italians winning 3-1.

The last quarterfinal was dubbed as the battle of Bordeaux, the first match in the tournament to gain such a sobriquet. Paul Von Hertzka, the Hungarian referee, just could not take control of a match where both sides were prone to clumsy defending. The Brazilians took the lead through Leonidas, the film shows him to be in a possible offside position. After the goal, the Brazilians used some physical tactics. Zeze was sent off after a wild tackle on Nejedlý, who later converted a penalty. The match then degenerated into a fighting competition which resulted in Plánička with a broken arm and Nejedlý with a broken leg. Machado had earlier stamped on Puč which left him with torn ligaments. Riha retaliated with a punch and both were duly sent off. The game ended as a 1-1 draw with bodies strewn all around the ground. The replay was just a day later and both teams were forced to make a number of changes due to the bruising match played earlier. The important Czech players could not play while Leonidas could, that was the difference between the two teams.  Leonidas scored the equaliser and set up the winner by Romero to cancel Kopecky’s opening goal enabling Brazil to win 2-1. The semi-final line-ups were complete with Hungary playing Sweden and Italy clashing against Brazil. The first semi-final started like a dream for Sweden, with Nyberg scoring what was then the fastest goal in any edition of the tournament in 35 seconds. After the dreamy start, the Scandinavians came crashing back to the ground as the Hungarians equalised due to a Swedish own goal and their forwards ripped their defence to shreds. Playing their only match against the Cubans was not ideal practice for the Swedes as they were being hammered with Pal Titkos and Zsengeller adding further goals to put Hungary 3-1 at the break. The situation did not improve after the break as Sarosi and Zsengeller scored again. The final score was 5-1 in the favour of the Hungarians. The only flip side was that the Hungarian defender Koranyi was injured and missed the final. One half of the best defensive pairing who had only conceded a single goal in the tournament till then, did not play in the final and it hurt their chances a lot.

The Italians were slowly getting into their stride and improving with every game. Their coach, Pozzo was not afraid to make necessary changes to his side. Brazil was still a dangerous opponent. However, the danger was much reduced when Leonidas did not start. There have been many conspiracy theories behind this omission, the main being the overconfident coach Adhemar Pimenta saving him for the finals. In an interview many years later, the coach revealed that Leonidas had not recovered after playing the two brutal encounters against the Czechoslovakians with a single day of rest. The match was controlled by Italy on a bald pitch, with their mid-fielders and defenders keeping possession. The forwards created quite a few chances with the Brazilian goalkeeper Walter making some good saves to keep the game goalless at halftime. The Italians started imposing their physical superiority on the tiring Brazilians in the second half. Colaussi scored, banging in a shot off a cross from the right wing. Then Piola was brought down by Domingos in the penalty area. To be fair to the Brazilian defender, the foul was that of exasperation as he was being battered by the forwards who liberally used their elbows. The penalty was a great talking point as just when he was placing the ball, the elastic of Meazza’s shorts snapped. The great man now visibly slower had the panache to hold his shorts up by his hand and score high to his left. Brazil pulled one goal back three minutes from the end through Romeu. The Italians then kept possession to round out the match. The defending champions were in their second consecutive final facing yet another fluid and free passing Carpathian nation of Eastern Europe.

As with the last edition, there was a match to determine third place between Brazil and Sweden. Leonidas was back and made captain. Sweden took a 2-0 lead totally against the run of play. Romeu reduced the margin a minute before the break. In the second half, Leonidas imposed himself and scored two goals to give the Brazilians a deserved lead. Peracio added a fourth Brazilian goal for a final score of 4-2. Leonidas finished the tournament as the highest scorer with seven goals; one is but left to wonder what could have been achieved had he played in the semi-final.

Paris was the city which hosted the final at the stadium built for the 1924 Olympics. Before the start of the final, a telegram was sent to the Italian team by their leader Mussolini. It was believed to have contained three ominous words: “Vincere o morire” – “Win or die.” Historians later have debated over the authenticity of the telegram with many dismissing it as a prank. For the Italian team under the iron fist of Fascist rule it must have been a terrifying experience. The French press had huge articles on each of the players of both teams. Sarosi’s running style was showcased in series of photographs.  Italian winger, Amedeo Biavati’s foot over the ball feint was a subject of many debates. On their way to the stadium, the Italian team’s motorcade was held up due to a large number of supporters. Pozzo ordered the driver to turn back to their hotel so his players wouldn’t have to wait in a bus before such an important game. He was possibly the earliest coach who understood that the game is played between the ears as well as on the ground. The Italians made it to the stadium at their second attempt. Both teams employed a 2-3-4-1 formation with Piola and Sarosi as the lone striker. The question was – whether the flowing style of the Danube valley could breach the Italian defensive walls?

Guiseppe Meazza(L), Georges Capdeville- referee(C) & Gyorgy Sarosi(R)

The third World Cup final started on the same ground where the legendary Uruguay side had won their first Olympic gold medal fourteen years ago. The Hungarians brought in Polgar to partner Biro in the defence in place of Koranyi, but the defence was unsettled and lacked the assurance of the previous matches. In the 6th minute, the Italian left half, Ugo Locatelli passed to Meazza in the right wing, who passed to Biavati to run ahead and cross the ball from the right. The Hungarian defence was totally absent and an unmarked Colaussi poked the ball home from close range (1-0). The goalkeepers did not come off their lines then as coming off the line would usually entail the attention of the elbows and fists of the opposing forwards. In the very next minute Hungary was level with Tiktos, the outside right, scoring with a crisp high shot to the near post (1-1). The Italians were not giving the Hungarians the opportunity to play their languid passing style by increasing the pace of the game, another stroke of brilliant strategy from their manager. Sarosi, the Hungarian captain was marked out of the game by Andreolo, the Uruguyan born successor of Luis Monti.

Titkos and Sas the Hungarian wingers were the only threat, and the Italian midfield of Serantoni and Locatelli made sure that they were starved of possession. In addition, the Italians had Silvio Piola the player of the tournament and possibly the best striker of those times. In the 11th minute, Giovanni Ferrari, the Italian inside left hit a twenty yard shot which was fumbled by the Hungarian goalkeeper Antal Szabo; Piola was first to the rebound and his shot came back off the post to maintain the status quo momentarily. In the 16th minute, Piola went through the middle unmarked and passed to Ferrari on his left. Ferrari, who had just the goalkeeper to beat instead of scoring passed it to the right to Meazza, who in turn laid it back to Piola who put an end to this passing around by hitting a right footed drive high into the net inside the near post (2-1). The Hungarian defence did not make a tackle in the midst of all this passing and committed the cardinal sin of not marking Piola. Szabo again stayed on the line. Colaussi scored his second goal of the match in 35th minute by walking in the ball from the same position as his first goal, this time he had Polgar for company with arms around his waist trying to prevent the his scoring (3-1). The defending champions looked in command during the break, two goals up with Hungarian defence in disarray.

Alfredo Foni (ITA)(L) &  Gyula Zsengeller(HUN)
Szabo(R) saves a Piola(L) shot with Biro in centre

The Italians shut up shop in the second half and relied on Biavati’s pace for counter attacks. The Hungarians with all their ball possession could not feed their wingers or penetrate the tight Italian defensive system.  In the 69th minute, Sarosi turned in a left wing cross initiated by Sas from close range to reduce the margin (3-2). All hopes of a Hungarian fight back were quashed when Biavati in a lightning counter attack from the right broke through and crossed for Piola to score his second of the match with a grounder, eight minutes from time (4-2). The rest of the match was a series of hopeful balls into the box by Hungary which were efficiently dealt with by the Italian defence. The final whistle was blown by the French official, Georges Capdeville and Italy became the first nation to successfully defend their trophy. Pozzo became the only coach to have won back to back World Cups. Meazza received the trophy with a fascist salute. The Hungarian goalkeeper later commented that he may have lost the match but saved eleven lives referring to the infamous Mussolini telegram. Mussolini met the winning team minus his sailor’s cap this time, but the entire team wore sailors cap to please their ruler.

The winning Italian team wearing sailing caps with Benito Mussolini (C)

FIFA had a moderately successful tournament where few spectators turned up as they had a lot more on their minds. Soon the conflict moved from the football fields to the battle fields of Europe and there was no World Cup for more than a decade and Italy was the defending world champion for a period of twelve years – the longest ever.


Kinshuk Biswas is an architect by education, a consultant by profession, a quizzer, writer and an absolute football fanatic by choice. Follow him at