This week’s journey back through history sees Alan Flood reflect on Italy’s hosting of the 1934 World Cup.
In December 2010, there was widespread consternation in the football world when FIFA awarded the hosting of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
Though the richest country in the world, to say Qatar has a questionable human rights record is like saying Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ contained a question of handball. The Qatari working class, which consists of predominantly immigrant workers, earns an average of $300 a month. The average Qatari wage sits at around $11,000 a month.
Those building the stadiums that will host the 2022 World Cup work long days in treacherous conditions. Then, during the limited free time they are given, they are systematically excluded from Qatari society.
Furthermore, according to the World Travel Guide, Qatar boasts a ‘subtropical desert climate, though June to September is oven-hot and best avoided.’
Hardly an idyllic location for a football tournament, traditionally held in June and July.
But Qatar is the richest country in the world.
There was less consternation in the football world when allegations emerged in 2014 that representatives from the African and American football authorities had received bribes from Qatari officials prior to the voting for the 2022 host nation.
FIFA though are nothing, if not consistent.
The second World Cup ever held was awarded to Italy, a country that in 1934 was in the grips of a fascist dictatorship, headed by Benito Mussolini and his band of violent Blackshirts.
Mussolini had taken control of the country in 1922. His twelve years in power had been repressive and violent. Political enemies were murdered, any citizens heard muttering disapprovals would soon disappear as Il Duce, as he liked to be referred, introduced an Orwellian police state across Italy.
Though a football fan, Mussolini had the foresight to recognise what hosting and ultimately winning, the World Cup could do to boost propaganda for his totalitarian regime.
The dictator wanted to show the rest of the world just how effective, organised and productive his fascist society could be.
Despite his wishes though, Mussolini’s fascist Italy, with its police violence and aggressive Roman Empire-inspired foreign policy, was generally perceived to be an unsuitable host.
A county like Sweden, who were also bidding for the right to host the 1934 tournament, seemed a far more likely destination.
Not long into the bidding process, however, rumours were rife of illegal payments and intimidation by members of Mussolini’s government as well as the Italian FA.
Ahead of the vote, Italian football chief Giovanni Mauro is said to have assured FIFA that were Italy to host such a tournament, any losses would be covered by the state.
Always an organisation to judge success according to profit, FIFA promptly awarded Italy the right to host the second World Cup and Mussolini swiftly set about planning to use the tournament as a platform for Italian fascist propaganda.
Everything from posters to postage stamps saturated Italian streets and shops. One such print depicting Hercules, poised over a football, arm outstretched in fascist salute, was typical of the general tone.
Mussolini, who had a talent for the theatrical, made a big play of queuing with the public to purchase his ticket for the opening game, before proceeding to take his prepared seat in the royal box.
One issue that did trouble the Italian dictator during the tournament’s opening games was that of filling the stadium terraces. Mussolini’s World Cup was the first to hold matches in multiple cities, which made it difficult for fans to travel from game to game.
In a characteristically fascist solution, the dictator instructed the radio commentators to repeatedly comment on just how impressively full the stadiums were, no matter what the reality.
Italy progressed to the quarter-finals without much difficulty, eliminating the United States in the opening game following a 7-1 victory.
In Florence, Spain were the quarter-final opponents in a match infamous to this day for its indiscipline and violence. A number of players from both sides were forced from the field of play through injury, with Italian midfielder Mario Pizziolo suffering a broken leg.
The game ended 1-1, which in 1934 meant a replay would be contested the following day. Spain were forced to make seven changes to their starting eleven such was the ferocity of the previous day’s play.
The Azzurri emerged victorious from the replay with a 1-0 win, yet some decidedly favourable calls from the referee left a sour taste for many neutrals, as Mussolini watched on approvingly.
The hosts took the lead in the eleventh minute through a Guiseppe Meazza goal. Spain then had two goals disallowed, one for a questionable offside, the next so that the referee could pull play back and award a free-kick to Spain bizarrely.
Italy then beat Austria 1-0 in the semi-final while the other semi-final, contested by Czechoslovakia and Germany, was a source of further controversy.
Rinaldo Barlassina, an Italian, was the appointed referee. An unusual situation given his nation had an undeniable vested interest in the game and Barlassina, it is contended, felt particularly patriotic that day.
Barlassina is said to have made a number of questionable decisions in favour of Czechoslovakia, a side who would provide a far weaker opposition for Italy in the final. The Czechs won 3-1.
The final was held in Rome and was, of course, attended by Mussolini and his band of fascist dignitaries. The opponents, Czechoslovakia, opened the scoring in the second half but Italy equalised in the 81st minute as the game, like the Spain match a number of days previously, ended 1-1.
There was no need for a replay this time, however, as Italy scored again in the fifth minute of extra-time and held on to record their first World Cup triumph and the victory that Mussolini so craved.
Mussolini had not only got his wish in hosting the tournament, he had succeeded in exemplifying the power and success of his fascist Italy, culminating in the Jules Rimet trophy being lifted by Italian captain Gianpiero Combi.
In the annals of World Cup history, however, Mussolini’s presence will always cast a shadow over Italy’s first win.
Alan Flood, Pundit Arena.
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