Before beginning, I must once again make a disclaimer. In the video accompanying this piece a brief glimpse of the Fascist salute commonly associated with Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany can be seen. These quick images do not reflect the political or philosophical beliefs of the writer or of Bleacher Report. This image is only seen for a few seconds but if you find it too distasteful I recommend not watching the video.
Welcome back to our series of Italy World Cup Rewinds, which takes a look back at Italy's triumphs and failures in World Cup play. Today, we will look back on the game that gave Italy their second consecutive World Cup title—the 1938 final against Hungary.
The 1938 World Cup was the second and final tournament that followed a straight, 16-team knockout format. For the first time in history, the hosts and defending champions were not required to qualify.
The remaining 14 slots were contended almost entirely by European teams. Most teams from the Americas were under the impression that Europe and the Americas would alternate hosting the tournament.
When FIFA president Jules Rimet convinced the body to hold the Cup in his home country of France, almost all of the American teams withdrew from qualifying in protest. In the end the only non-European teams in the tournament were Brazil, Cuba (participating in its only World Cup to date) and the Dutch East Indies—now Indonesia, also participating in its only World Cup to date.
There was more intrigue to come. In March of 1938, Austria, which had qualified independently for the tournament, was annexed by Nazi Germany in the Anschluss.
Austria withdrew from the tournament and left FIFA scrambling for a replacement. After being turned down by England—who were still in the midst of their self-imposed (and self-important) exile from FIFA competition—the body decided to leave the spot vacated rather than offer it to Latvia, the runner-up in Austria's qualifying group. Sweden, Austria's intended opponent, thus became the only team in the history of the World Cup to advance by a walkover.
Vittorio Pozzo was still in the midst of his 19-year reign as the manager of the Italian national team. His innovative 2-3-2-3 formation—known as "il metodo" or "the method"—was still as sharp as ever.
In November of 1934, the Azzurri had contested a friendly against England. Despite their refusal to play in FIFA competitions, believing themselves superior to all other comers, they were still considered one of the best teams in the world, and many in England called the match the "real" World Cup final.
In a game known as the Battle of Highbury, the English took advantage of an injury to star Italian defender Luis Monti to score three times in the first 12 minutes.
After the severity of Monti's injury was finally recognized, he was removed from the field, and the 10-man Italian side—there were no subs in those days—reorganized to deny the English any more goals. Giuseppe Meazza scored twice in the second half to close the gap, but the game finished 3-2.
The English claimed victory and an unofficial title of the world's best, while the Italians were praised as the "Lions of Highbury" and pointed out that all three English goals were scored while Italy's best defender was incapacitated on the field and scored no further goals even with a man advantage.
The one thing not in dispute was the game's violence—England nearly withdrew from international competition outside the Home Nations as a result of the contest.
Pozzo kept the team's level of play high as the World Cup arrived. It was a testament to Pozzo's coaching ability that the team was still playing so well despite an almost total turnover in the team's roster. Only four players from the 1934 champions—Giuseppe Meazza, Giovanni Ferrari, Guido Masetti and Eraldo Monzeglio—remained in the squad in France four years later.
The new team gelled quickly, even though the first round presented a challenge. Five first-round games went to extra time, including the Azzurri's contest with Norway. Leading since the second minute, the Italians let in an equalizer seven minutes from time, but the legendary Silvio Piola struck three minutes into the extra session, and they saw the rest of the game out easily.
Next came a high-strung quarterfinal against France. Many Italians who had fled from Mussolini's rule had settled in France, and the reception of the Italians was mostly negative. The atmosphere wasn't helped when the Azzurri, who were to wear their alternate colors, came out not in their traditional white shirts but—at Mussolini's insistence—black ones.
If the evocation of Mussolini's black-clad thugs wasn't enough to stir the pot, the dictator also insisted that they hold the Fascist salute—a requirement before every match—until the crowd had jeered itself out.
The Italians scored first, but France equalized a minute later. A pair of second-half goals from Piola left the team with an easy victory.
The semifinal saw one of the most controversial coaching decisions in World Cup history. Brazilian manager Ademar Pimenta dropped star striker Leonidas—who had at that point scored five times in three games and would win the tournament's golden boot with seven—from the semifinal XI. No substitutions were allowed in those days, so the only way the striker could have played before the final would have been if the game went into a replay.
The motivation for the move is debated to this day. Some point to Pimenta's statement that he was "resting Leonidas for the final" as proof of massive hubris.
Pimenta himself later said that Leonidas didn't play because he was physically unable to do so. The Brazilians had been forced into a replay by 1934 finalists Czechoslovakia and the semifinal was their third game in six days, so such a claim may have weight. Some theorize that Mussolini himself pressured the Brazilian manager to drop his star.
Whichever the reason, the ensuing match was disappointingly dull. The first half was goalless. Gino Colaussi scored the opener in the 51st minute, and Meazza doubled from the penalty spot nine minutes later. The Brazilians managed a consolation three minutes from time through Romeu but were condemned to the first-ever consolation match.
Pozzo would bring his boys to Paris to defend their world title.
The final was set for June 19 at Paris' Stade Olimpique de Colombes. As they had done four years before, the Italians wore their traditional blue shirts with white shorts and black socks. Their opponents, Hungary, wore red shirts with white shorts and green socks.
Pozzo's influence on world tactics was keenly felt in this one, as both teams came out in identical 2-3-2-3 formations.
It was the champions who drew first blood. Meazza's long diagonal ball found Colaussi unmarked in the box, and he hammered the ball past Antal Szabo six minutes in.
It took about 120 seconds for the Hungarians to respond. Keeping the ball in the Italian area despite attempts to clear, the ball fell to Pal Titkos on the left side of the box, and he beat Aldo Olivieri from an acute angle.
The game settled down, and Italy began to dig in. In the 16th minute, Piola was supplied with a ball just to the left of the penalty spot and fired the ball into the top-right corner to give the Italians a lead. Meazza again was the provider. The Italians would not relinquish the lead.
Colaussi tucked in a second just under 20 minutes later, beating Szabo on the break after being fed by Giovanni Ferrari. The teams went to the locker rooms with the Italians leading 3-1.
Szabo made several saves in the second half to keep the deficit at two, before Hungarian captain Gyorgy Sarosi scored on the break with 20 minutes left to make it 3-2 and set up a potential scramble to the finish. Piola was having none of it, however, and put the game away eight minutes later by poking a pull-back pass low and left past Szabo, who gestured vainly to his defenders to figure out what had gone wrong.
When the final whistle blew, Pozzo's men had a hard-fought—and well-deserved—second title.
Some claim that the Hungarians allowed the Italians to win the match after receiving word before the game that Mussolini had sent the team a telegram that read "Vincere o morire!" Literally translated as "Win or die," the message was not, as commonly thought, a threat to the lives of the players if they lost but an common exhortation for the team to do their best.
Szabo was quoted on OnThisFootballDay.com as saying: "I may have let in four goals, but at least I saved their lives." A noble sentiment, but not necessarily an accurate one.
The Italians were the first repeat champions in history and the first team to win the tournament on foreign soil. Because World War II forced the cancellation of the next two planned World Cups, the Italians hold the record for longest reign as world champions, clocking in at 16 years.
Unlike other Axis nations Germany and Japan, the Italians were not subject to sanctions at the time of the 1950 World Cup and qualified as defending champions. Severely depleted after the death of the team's core in the Superga air disaster, they finished second in a three-team group and were eliminated. They would not advance beyond the group stage again until 1970.
Hungary did not enter the 1950 World Cup, but went into the 1954 tournament as heavy favorites. The "Magical Magyars," led by magnificent goalscorer Ferenc Puskas, are widely known as the best team never to win a World Cup. The team had not lost in five years—32 matches total—before blowing a two-goal lead to West Germany and losing 3-2. Hungary has placed third and fourth at the European Championship in the years since, but has never advanced past the quarters at the World Cup and has not qualified for the tournament since 1986.
Piola was joint third scorer in the tournament with five goals. He remains the top goalscorer in the history of Serie A and holds the distinction of being the all-time leading scorer at three different clubs—Pro Vercelli, Lazio and Novara. Vercelli and Novara both named their stadiums after him after his death in the 1990s.
Giuseppe Meazza ended his career as the highest-scoring player in the history of the Italian national team. His record of 33 was eclipsed by Gigi Riva in the 1970s. He was capped 53 times for the Azzurri and lost only six games.
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