In the second of our series reflecting on previous FIFA World Cups, James Fenton looks back on the 1934 edition which was held in Italy.
The 1934 World Cup was the second edition of the tournament and the first in which teams had to qualify in order to participate. Italy defeated Sweden in the bidding process and won the right to host the first World Cup to be held in Europe.
32 countries entered the competition meaning a qualifying tournament was needed to whittle the participants down to 16. Reigning champions Uruguay refused to participate in protest at the refusal of several European countries to travel to the first World Cup four years previously, which they had hosted.
Italy took part in qualification and remain the only hosts ever to do so. Eventually, 12 European teams qualified for the tournament along with the United States, Brazil, Egypt and Argentina.
The group stage format from the previous World Cup was scrapped in favour of a straight knockout tournament.
Benito Mussolini, leader of the National Fascist Party and Prime Minister of Italy at the time, wanted to use to the tournament as a means of promoting fascism around the world. Images on propaganda posters promoting the tournament included one of Hercules, foot on ball and arm outstretched in a fascist salute. The dictator, known as ‘Il Duce’ (the leader) attended all of Italy’s games and was greeted in similar fashion by the Italian team.
8 cities were chosen to host World Cup matches. They were Bologna, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Rome, Trieste, and Turin. There was no opening game as such, as all eight first round matches kicked off at the same time, 4.30pm. on the 27th of May. The Stadio Nazionale del PNF (National Stadium of the National Fascist Party) in Rome was chosen to host the final.
All four non-European teams were eliminated in the first round. The United States were hammered 7-1 by Italy in Rome. Argentina narrowly lost out 3-2 to Sweden. Brazil and Egypt were knocked out by Spain and Hungary respectively.
Austria needed extra time to eliminate France by a score of 3-2. Switzerland overcame the Netherlands in Milan, Germany knocked out Belgium in Florence and Czechoslovakia completed the quarter-final line up by beating Romania 2-1 in Trieste.
The quarter-finals saw the first ever replayed game take place in a World Cup. Italy and Spain drew 1-1 in Florence only for to hosts to win the replay the next day 1-0. The replay was a physical affair, with three Spanish players having to leave the field through injury. Italian Mario Pizziolo had his leg broken in a tackle and wouldn’t play for the national team again.
Austria, dubbed the ‘Wunderteam’ defeated arch-rivals Hungary 2-1 in Bologna. Czechoslovakia beat Switzerland 3-2 in Turin and Germany qualified for the semi-finals by beating Sweden 2-1 in Milan.
The semi-finals saw Czecoslovakia take on Germany and Italy face Austria, in what was dubbed by many the ‘natural final’.
The hosts, now fully backed by an excitable public beat Austria 1-0 to clinch their place in the final. Goalkeeper and captain Gianpiero Combi pulled off a number of outstanding saves to keep a clean sheet against the much-fancied Austrians.
It was another aggressive game and suspicions were beginning to grow about referees favouring the home side. Swedish referee Ivan Eklind missed or ignored several heavy fouls by the Italians. He would go on to referee the final also.
The Azzuri were doing a great job in promoting Mussolini’s propaganda machine and players such as Giuseppe Meazza, Angelo Schiavio were becoming national heroes.
Czechoslovakia ensured they would face the hosts in the final by beating Germany 3-1. Germany would go on to claim 3rd place by defeating 3-2 Austria in a third place play-off
The first World Cup final in Europe would see Italy take on Czechoslovakia in Rome on June 10th. The stage was set for the hosts to seal victory and Mussolini to revel in a national triumph which would do wonders for his fascist regime.
The dictator apparently handed each player a note at the beginning of the tournament reading ‘victory or death’. This rather extreme take on motivation arguably had a major effect on the team as they made their way through the tournament to the final.
In a tense affair the final remained goalless until the 75th minute when Czech striker Antonín Puč shocked the home crowd by giing his side the lead. This lead would only last for only 5 minutes though as Italy drew level through striker Raimundo Orsi. The match headed into extra time in order to find a winner.
Italy took lead five minutes into extra time through Angelo Schiavio and managed to keep the Czechs at bay for the final 25 minutes, urged on by 55,000 rapturous home supporters. The noise from the home crowd was so great that coach Vittorio Pozzo had to continually run alongside the pitch in order to shout instructions at his team.
The authoritarian Pozzo had led his side to victory in front of 55,000 rapturous supporters in Rome under the watchful eye of Mussolini, who handed the Jules Rimet trophy over to Italian captain Gianpiero Combi.
The final was not without controversy as Eklind, refereeing an Italian game once more, failed to penalize Italy for some notable incidents including Guisseppe Meazza’s punch on Rudolph Krcil. He also failed to award a penalty when Italy’s Eraldo Monzeglio clearly brought down Antonín Puč in the box. These controversial decisions in favour of Italy as well as some others in previous rounds were put down by many to Mussolini’s influence on the referees.
GOLDEN BALL WINNER
Internazionale inside-forward Guissepe Meazza had won the hearts of a nation with his scintillating displays throughout the tournament. Aged 23, he dragged the hosts through a tense semi-final versus Austria, in a stadium in Milan which would later be named after him (Stadio Guissepe Meazza, still more commonly known as the San Siro). He picked up an injury during this game yet still took his place in the final where he helped set up the winning goal for Angelo Schiavio.
GOLDEN BOOT WINNER
Czech forward Oldřich Nejedlý finished the tournament as top scorer with 5 goals. This was however only officially recognized by FIFA in 2006. He was initially credited with only four, making him joint top scorer with Angelo Schiavio of Italy and Edmund Conen of Germany.
There were accusations that Mussolini had more of an influence then he should have and had hand-picked some of the referees for Italy’s games and is to this day known as ‘the Mussolini World Cup’.
Referees were accused of bowing to the demands of the dictator, particularly Ivan Eklind from Sweden who refereed Italy’s semi-final against Austria and the final against Czechoslovakia. The game against Spain in the quarter-finals also raised questions about the performance of the referee Louis Baert from Belgium. In the replay, Swiss referee Rene Mercet also refused to penalise Italy’s aggressive behavior on a number of occasions and was banned upon his arrival home by the Swiss FA.
On the back of World Cup success, coach Vittorio Pozzo was deemed a national hero. He would go on to coach the side at the next World Cup in an attempt to defend the trophy.
The triumph of the Italian team was said to have united the nation behind the fascist regime. While celebrating victory, the public also celebrated Mussolini. The 1934 World Cup is remembered by many as much for the fascist propaganda as it was for the football. ‘Il Duce’ was perhaps the first political leader to realise the power that football could have in reaching the masses and manipulating a public into uniting behind him.
FIFA meanwhile were starting to realise they were sitting on a cash cow as interest in the tournament grew. Football was starting to emerge as the international game at a time of great political unrest all around the world. The following World Cup in 1938 would see 37 teams apply to enter, an increase of five from the 1934 edition. It would be the final World Cup before the outbreak of World War Two.
Pundit Arena, James Fenton.