The beautiful game as we know it today was not always so pleasant. While the Italian team of the 1930s played some beautiful football, they were the butt of a desire for collectivism. From monarchy to democracy, to the rule of church and despotism, every European political ideology was ripped up and rewrote in the ‘30s.
Whether it was fascism or Nazism, many ideas shared the same core. Throughout Europe, many nations had a desire for collectivism and the population was seen as ‘the mass’ – everyone would dance to the tune of the state, each person as a tiny screw in the huge machinery of the nation.
For the most part of the 20th century up until this point, sport was just a hobby, and the state were disinterested. In Italy, football was seen as a game of the dreaded inglesi – the English – so although many played it, the government were not bothered about trying to popularise it for national gains, such as health or fitness. It was around 1926, though, that this changed. Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, thought that he could use sport and football in particular to better his objectives.
The totalitarian regime had to stake out a moral dominion over every citizen’s life, and in the 1920s, powerful European leaders started to realize sport and recreation could be a key part of this.
In Paddy Agnew’s brilliant account of Italian football, Forza Italia: The Fall and Rise of Italian Football, he wrote about Mussolini’s realization that sport could help better his desires. Agnew noted that Mussolini wanted to make football ‘more consonant with the new life of the nation’. It was not an importation from the ‘football’ game of the English, but a different logical development of Italian football.
In fact, if you translate the term ‘football’ in many European languages, they will all be similar: football, fussball, futbol, le football, so on and so forth. Italians, however, refer to it as ‘calcio’, a differing arm of the game originating from Florence.
Il Duce, as Mussolini was known, played a huge part in setting up the Italian football system – Serie A, B, C etc as we know it today. The FIGC, Italy’s governing body, was overhauled in these years and the 1929/30 season was the first round-robin format of Serie A. Ambrosiana – Internazionale in their original form – won the title that season, with Giuseppe Meazza scoring 31 goals.
These early changes in the late ‘20s set in motion a glory decade for the Azzurri, who won two of the first three World Cups. In the history of looking at football through a political lens, it is hard to find one state regime that has directly affected a national team in such a way.
Mussolini wrote at the time: “Sporting achievement enhances the nation’s prestige and they also prepare men for combat in the open field and in that way they testify both to the physical well being and moral vigour of the people.”
He saw football as a way to ready men for war, but more importantly, he saw it as a PR tool, to promote his regime and give him opportunities to put himself at the forefront of international media. 20 years after Italy’s first ever football match – a 6-2 hauling over France in Milan – football in Italy had grown to be a force, and Mussolini had his eyes set on one thing: the 1934 World Cup on home soil.
Before that though was the inaugural World Cup in 1930. Five countries – Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Uruguay – put themselves forward to host the tournament. This list was shortened to just three, with Netherlands and Sweden pledging their allegiance to support the Italians. Jules Rimet, the father of the tournament, opted for Uruguay.
The reason he gave was to globalise the competition. Every game was to take place in the capital of Montevideo, at the home of the 1924 and 1928 Olympic gold winners (which they sometimes use as a claim for being one of the best football nations in history).
Italy were dismayed at the decision to take the tournament to South America and withdrew from the tournament in anger. La Celeste went on to be winners, with Pedro Cea the star man in their final victory over fellow South Americans, Argentina.
Uruguay returned the favour four years later, withdrawing from the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Under the tutelage of Vittorio Pozzo, Italy would go on to be winners on home soil, just like Uruguay four years prior. Strangely though, this didn’t stop Uruguayan nationals playing in the Italian World Cup. One of the stars of the show in Montevideo was Luisito Monti, who ended up playing for Italy in 1934.
This was thanks to the Oriundi policy, which allowed Italy to steal Monti, as well as Raimundo Orsi and Enrico Guaita. The politics of the rule is extremely complicated, but in basic form there were three rules that qualified who was available to switch allegiances and play as a ‘oriundo’: they had to play in the league of their country; they had to be able to determine their family history for their new country for three generations; they couldn’t possibly play against their former nation.
This, as you can imagine, was widely criticized and debated, but boss Vittorio Pozzo summed it up with a counter-argument that is hard to debate: “if they can die for Italy, they can play for Italy.”
As a side note, it is interesting to note that the Oriundi policy is not ancient and had an impact on Italy’s 2006 World Cup win. Mauro Camoranesi, a Juventus icon of that decade, won the World Cup with Italy despite being born in Argentina. The instantly recognizable winger did not sing the Italian national anthem and did make a nod to his blood origin upon winning the trophy in Germany. He said to a camera: “Para los pibes del barrio”, which loosely translates as ‘for the boys from the neighbourhood’.
The likes of Monti, Orsi, and Guaita had a key part in the 1934 World Cup. Italy kicked off their campaign with a staggering 7-1 victory over the USA, followed up by a 1-0 win against Spain after a replay. In the game against the USA, even the goalscorer on the losing side had an Italian feel – Aldo Donelli was the son of Italian immigrants.
It was the semi-final that the world started to stand up and take notice of the Italians, though. Against Austria’s Wunderteam, managed by the great Hugo Meisl, whose brother Willy wrote the revolutionary book Soccer Revolution. On paper, Austria should have walked past Italy, but this was Italy’s World Cup, and Mussolini had written what felt like a script for how the tournament should pan out.
It is strongly believed, though never confirmed, that Mussolini himself had dinner with the referee of that semi-final, the Swede Ivan Eklind. No one made any notes over what happened, but the presumption could be made that they weren’t talking tactics.
Seven days later, Italy triumphed in the final over Czechoslovakia, with goals from Raimundo Orsi and Angelo Schiavio. Both teams lined up in their interesting – yet standard in those days – 2-3-5 formation, more commonly known as the W-M formation.
The tactics were far from revolutionary, but the trailblazing style of one man set in motion the history of Italian football: Giuseppe Meazza – so good, they named the San Siro after him. Rumour has it that Meazza slept at a brothel the night before, and the star also punched a Czech player in the liver during the final.
In short, he was the first incarnation of the mold of striker who could pick up the ball from deep and run at his opponents, but still, have a deep locker of finishes. Vittorio Pozzo, the manager, said: “Having him [Meazza] on the team was like starting the game 1-0 up.”
Italy were champions. In the age of economic depression, Il Duce had used sport as a way to advance his relentless propaganda machine. He used football as a symbol of Italy’s superiority, and other leaders started to take notice – Hitler and Franco included. Mussolini had shown – in his opinion – that fascism was the way forward in the future. In front of the whole world, he had shown how happy Italy as a nation once.
Fascism may not have played a huge part on the pitch, but the four years between 1934 and the next World Cup saw Mussolini build many foundations of Italian football’s glory era in the ’90s and early ’00s. Stadia and mass transport links were built in this era, planting the seeds for a golden generation for calcio.
Four years after the successes on home soil, Italy were ready to do it all again, where fascism was even larger than it was in 1934. Held in France, Italy’s route to the final was fairly uneventful on the pitch. With wins over Norway, hosts France and Brazil, the Azzurri had booked a place in the final over another team of the mid 1900s – Hungary – although not as good as their Magic Magyars of the 1950s. Austria were not at the tournament, due to political tensions with Nazi Germany, and Spain also stayed at home due to their civil war, meaning Italy’s biggest contenders were likely to be hosts – France.
One of the more strange moments, though, was when the Italians wore black shirts. In the quarter-final against the hosts, the Italians sported this politically motivated all-black jersey and performed the fascist right-arm salute before kick off. Simon Martin, the author of Sport Italia, wrote: “The desire to forget saw Mussolini swept under the carpet, and the 1938 black shirt and Roman salute were consigned to one of the World Cup’s and FIFA’s least edifying but overtly political moments.”
The final was won in ease, with Gino Colaussi and Silvio Piola both netting a double in a 4-2 victory. Vittorio Pozzo’s influence was felt more here, with his W-M being slightly tweaked to more of a 2-3-2-3, known simply as ‘the method’ or better known as il metodo.
Before the match, though, a telegram was sent to all players reading ‘vincere o morire!’ or ‘win or die!’ literally. After the match, Hungarian goalkeeper Antal Szabó famously said, “I may have let in four goals, but at least I saved their lives.”
Italy completed back-to-back triumphs and went on to hold the trophy for 12 years due to a break because of the war. Benito Mussolini had used football for political gain, as a propaganda tool. While the two World Cup wins may be barred due to the coercion and corruption at the hands of Il Duce, it would be unfair to question a golden generation littered with talents such as Meazza, Monti, and Piola, who are all seen as legendary figures in Italian football history.