The wave of change that swept through Europe in the 1930s shaped much of the world we know today. The Weimar Republic and the Spanish Republicans fell and the March to Rome saw Benito Mussolini become the then youngest Italian Prime Minister ever. The rise of nationalism in the era would see the intertwining of football and politics cemented forever.
It seems obvious to us now that the cores of fascism and football share a similar reliance on the collective, on promoting the team over individuals, and on propagating myths that promote your group over everyone else. That twinning was born in the late 1920s in Italy with Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. No political leader before him understood the promotional value of sport more than Il Duce.
Understanding the unifying power of the sport Mussolini placed football at the heart of his government. Though he wasn’t much of a fan, he was ever aware of the appeal of the sport to a country he saw as one nation ripe to be ruled by one man. Italy had been on the winning side of World War 1 but had felt slighted by its allies in the aftermath. The ill feeling had caused successive problems for governments leading up to Mussolini seizing power in the 1920s. With the rise of both communism and fascism, there was a sense of a country at psychological war with itself and its neighbours. It needed a catharsis, something to pull it together. Mussolini saw that in the Azzuri.
Mussolini’s governing fascist party took to moulding the sport in their spirit almost immediately. The Viareggio Charter in 1926 banned foreign players and legalised professionalism in football. This in turn led to the official formation of Serie A in 1929 as a means of developing better players and fostering nationwide both the unity and divisiveness that is still recognisable to anyone who supports football. Money was given to local authorities to develop stadia to lease to clubs, a situation that remains a problem for Italian football to this day. The national team were not entered in to the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay for fear of losing and breaking the emerging spell, a tactic Joseph Stalin would copy in the Soviet Union for any sport he felt his country could not win.
All of this had one goal in mind, hosting and winning the 1934 World Cup. The first part came to fruition in 1932 when Fifa’s executive committee chose Italy over Sweden to be the first European nation to hold the tournament. A huge budget was given to help make it a success, some three and a half million lire. Italy was ready and, thanks to the oriundo policy, so too were the team.
The oriundi were non-Italian players who qualified to play for the country when certain criteria were met. First, they had to be able to prove that they had Italian blood in their family. They also had to be plying their trade in Italy and they could not play against any country they had already represented. This situation led to three of the losing Argentine team of 1930, Luisito Monti, Raimundo Orsi and Enrico Guaita, turning out for Italy in 1934. However, the Azzuri coach Vincent Pozzo ably countered criticism within the country by referring to conscription laws at the time, ‘“if they can die for Italy, they can play for Italy”.
For Mussolini, it did not matter that they were not homegrown Italians. All that mattered was the symbolism of an Italian victory on home soil. As the 1934 World Cup neared, visiting journalists were shown around new stadia in Trieste and Turin, in Naples, Bologna, and in Florence, and told here was the rise of Mussolini’s nation. Here was proof that Italy slow to industrialise in the early part of the Twentieth century, could now compete with France and England. Everything off the field was prepared for and perfected. That side of the World Cup would go off without a hitch; all that remained was to win the trophy on it.
The Italian side that marched out for their opening game against the United States were hugely talented and would have been among the favourites regardless of Mussolini’s spin machine. Coached by Pozzo, a man compared by many to a dictator style coach and believed to be a huge supporter of the National Fascist Party until papers found in the 1990s showed that he aided the anti-Fascist resistance movement and, later, Allied soldiers. As well as the rehomed Argentine trio, the side contained talented players like Angelo Schiavio and Gianpiero Combi. Pozzo’s authoritative managerial style worked and the Azzuri played as the unified team Mussolini had envisioned. They dominated that first match and ran out 7-1 victors, moving on in the round robin tournament to face a pre-Franco Spanish side. Following a 1-1 draw and a replay, Italy would progress to the semi-finals through a single goal victory. Here they would face the tournament favourites, an Austrian side led by arguably the greatest player of the 1930s and 40s, Josef Bican.
Bican was a very modern footballer by our standards. As fast as a sprinter and able to use both feet he scored 607 goals in 406 games at club level in his career. The Austrian side he was part of had been nicknamed the Wunderteam, due to their attacking style of play and thumping victories over some of their closest rivals. They had already defeated Italy 4-2 in the final of the 1932 Central European International Cup, a predessor to the European Championship, and were thought to be the greatest obstacle in Italy’s path to glory.
The game, however, played out to the disbelief of the Austrians, as the deciding goal in the 1-0 Italian win came through Guiata, standing in an offside position and following a clear push on the Austrian goalkeeper in the build up. Bican himself maintained it was fixed up until his death, pointing out that the ref had even headed a cross of his to a waiting Italian player. Many share the opinion, as it’s rumoured that Mussolini had met Ivan Eklind, the Swedish referee for the match, the night before for dinner and a talk about football tactics. Italy had progressed to the final in Rome to face Czechoslovakia and Mussolini would be in attendance. The referee chosen for the match would be the very same Ivan Eklind.
The build to the final betrayed some of the nerves felt in Italy and the regime. There was no lavious pre-match ceremony, the likes the world would witness in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics, and the first half echoed that timidity. The second half started much the same before finally coming to life in the closing twenty minutes, as first Puc of Czechoslovakia gave his side the lead on the seventy-first minute and then Orsi, one of the oriundi, equalisied ten minutes later. The goal was indisputable; the team’s naysayers had to accept it. The game went to extra time where, five minutes after the restart, Scvhiavio netted the winner. This time there was no push on the keeper or offside call. Italy had achieved all that Mussolini had demanded they would. They had played in front of a combined 193,000 people in Milan, Florence and Rome and proved that they were the best in the world.
To celebrate the famous victory Il Duce had a secondary trophy created to tower over the Jules Rimet. The Coppa del Duce, named in honour of Mussolini himself, was built to be six times the size of the coveted world trophy. Allegations of match fixing remained but the objective of the Italian National Fascist Party’s vision had been realised. The country had been united under the banner of football and Mussolini had transferred that fixation and love on to himself. Both the Italian team and the nation were on top of the world and, unbeknownst to them, both were heading for a showdown with the rest of the world via France by the end of the decade.