Nelson Mandela once said “Sport has the power to change the world.” Many decades before he actually said that, Italy’s 1938 World Cup win proved just that. At a time when Spain was being torn apart by civil war, the Nazis led by Hitler were occupying Austria and Europe was on the brink of World War II, football proved to be a beacon of light beaming over the dark and ominous clouds that were gathering over Europe.
The 1938 World Cup, perhaps more than any tournament, clearly demonstrated how sport, or football in particular could be used as a powerful advocator of change. For it was a tournament that was used by Benito Mussolini as a platform to promote his fascist dictatorship.
Acutely aware of the game’s powers of propaganda, Mussolini’s fascist regime started to invest heavily into developing the football culture in Italy. It was only on either side of the First World War that football actually started to flourish in Italy. And it was not until Mussolini’s rapid rise to power that the game took a shape that would alter the landscape of European football for the decades to come. Having risen to power, Il Duce was keen on ensuring it stayed that way and saw sport as a way of making the nation accept the fascist regime. And thus football, or calcio as it was called by fascists became a crucial player in this propaganda for change.
It all started with the signing of The 1926 Viareggio Charter, which turned calcio into a fascist game. It was led by the head of Bolognese Fascism, Leandro Arpinati. For all of its latent political agenda, the Federation was crucial in revolutionizing the game with the formation of a national league – the Serie A – which is still in existence to this day. One of the main reasons for the formation of the league was to not just create a stronger breeding ground for the national team, but also to forge a sense of national identity, in compliance with the fascist regime.
The investment bore fruit in the early 1930s as the Italians started to dominate the game. It was not just the clubs who overcame the powerhouses of central Europe and Britain but the national team too was quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with. That was clearly in evidence as Italy came to France in 1938, looking to defend the crown they had won on their home turf in 1934. Whilst the team was no doubt supremely gifted, growing doubts of corruption emerged on the back of their victory.
Italy came into the 1938 World Cup in France with just one thing in mind: to show the world that their victory, four years earlier was no fluke. The team was greeted with boos and jeers everywhere they went and anti-fascist protests became that tournament’s Mexican wave. Why? Because the team was a representative of the fascist regime and was reaping the rewards of the seeds sowed by fascism a decade earlier.
If the World Cup was decided by virtue of popularity, there is no doubt that the Italians would have finished last. But, that wasn’t the sort of thing to trouble Vittorio Pozzo, journalist and unpaid Supreme Commander or Commissario Unico of the national team. Pozzo was more than just a coach, he was the person who was tasked with the responsibility ensuring that every Azzurri who walked onto the pitch, gave their final breath to ensure victory for the team, and in extension, the fascist regime. Unlike the other coaches of his time, Pozzo was keen on ensuring that each and every player was reminded on the sacrifices made by their forefathers and thus his training camps were akin to the ones employed by the military.
It was not just the coach, even the symbol on their shirts was one that was appropriated by the fascist regime. The Fascio Littorio, was worn on every player’s left chest and it represented every thing the fascist regime stood for. Even the anthem that was played, was Fascism’s anthem Giovinezza (Youth). All of this coupled with the players’ Roman salute irked the ire of the fans, who were growing increasingly exasperated.
It was a tournament in which, football took a back seat from politics. And it was the politically charged Italians who were running away with it. After a 2-1 extra-time victory over Norway, Italy came up against France in the quarter-final. This match was probably one of the best examples of how the underlying political current spread through onto the football pitch. As both countries played in blue, one had to change. As Italy lost the toss, or what passed for a toss in those days, everyone expected them to wear their change strip of white.
Instead, the Italians emerged in an all-black outfit. One that proved that the Italian national team was nothing but an extension of Mussolini’s men and that in fact the side was controlled by Mussolini himself. A comfortable 3-1 victory over the hostile crowd was unmistakably one of the biggest achievements of the fascist regime thus far.
And by the time the final against emerging power house Hungary arrived, the Azzurri were one result away from clinching their third-consecutive major honor, after winning the 1934 World Cup and the 1936 Olympics Gold Medal. Having seen off Brazil 2-1 in the semifinal, the Italians knew that they were up against their toughest opponent yet in the form of the Hungarians who had destroyed Sweden 5-1 in the semi-finals.
With the tie on a knife edge at 1-1, Italy’s dynamic inside-forward partnership of Giovanni Ferrari and Giuseppe Meazza took control and set up two goals in 20 minutes and ensured that Italy went into half-time with a commanding 3-1 advantage. The game ended 4-2 and each squad member was rewarded with an 8,000 Lire win bonus (about three months’ salary) and a fascist Gold Medal. All of which was presented by Mussolini himself in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome.
With fascism at an all-time high, the Azzurri had already set their eyes on their third consecutive World Cup trophy, but the outbreak of the Second World War meant that the World Cup underwent a 12-year hiatus. For all of their undeniable talent, the 1938 World Cup in France will always be remembered as one that saw overtly political gestures like the black shirt and double-Roman salute take center stage and encapsulated how Italian football had risen, thanks to fascism.
Whilst the trophy and the way they achieved it, might be lost as a foot note in history, the circumstances they achieved it in make it one of the most iconic and least edifying moments in the history of the FIFA World Cup.