Before beginning this article, a disclaimer must be made. The video accompanying this piece is one of the best highlight films of the 1934 final available on YouTube. However, there are several still and video images of players and officials giving the fascist salute commonly associated with Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. These images do not convey any political beliefs of the writer or Bleacher Report. If you are not comfortable with these images, I recommend skipping the video.
Welcome to the the first of a series of Italy World Cup Rewinds. This series will look back on significant matches in Italian World Cup history. The triumphant and the heartbreaking will be covered in equal measure. Today, we start with the game that gave Italy its very first world title—the 1934 final against Czechoslovakia.
The Tournament Takes Shape
The World Cup was still a very new thing when it came to Italy in 1934. The first tournament, four years before in Uruguay, had been a success and saw the hosts come out victorious.
That first tournament had not been without its problems. The biggest teams in Europe had deep misgivings about the costly and time-consuming trip across the Atlantic and would not countenance any tournament held in the Americas. Two months before the tournament was set to begin no European clubs were committed to competing. It was only by the intervention of FIFA president Jules Rimet that four teams—France, Belgium, Romania and Yugoslavia—eventually made the voyage to Uruguay.
The backlash of that reluctance was felt four years later when defending champions Uruguay protested that decision by refusing to travel to Italy. The 1934 tournament would be the only one in which the champions did not defend their crown.
Indeed, unlike four years before, when the nine of the 13 participating teams were from North and South America, this time only four of 16 came from beyond Europe: Brazil, the United States, Argentina and Egypt—the first African team to play in the tournament.
As the competitors changed, so did the format of the competition. The group stage of the previous edition was scrapped in favor of a straight 16-team knockout tournament.
Italy had won the right to host two years before. Like Adolf Hitler two years later at the Summer Olympics in Berlin, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini intended to use the tournament as a propaganda tool to promote fascism. Ironically, it was one of the few times the dictator was more successful than his evil counterpart.
The Azzurri came into the tournament as one of the favorites, thanks in part to manager Vittorio Pozzo. Pozzo had a reputation as a disciplinarian and was the first player to institute the famous Italian "ritiro"—a sequestered team training session. But he was more than bluster.
Pozzo had lived for a time in Manchester and was friends with famous Arsenal coach Herbert Chapman, who innovated the famous 3-2-2-3 "WM" formation. The formation quickly replaced the old 2-3-5 "pyramid" formation in England as a response to the change in the offside rule that greatly opened the offensive side of the game.
Despite Pozzo's admiration of England and the British game, he resisted the addition of the so-called "third back" and sought a way to adjust to the rule change without abandoning the pyramid. His solution was to pull the centre-half deeper, but not deep enough to become a true third back. To plug up the room vacated by the centre-half, he dropped his inside forwards slightly farther back, giving birth to the "mezzala."
The result was a 2-3-2-3 formation—effectively a "WW." One thing Pozzo did take directly from Chapman was the employment of counterattack as a strategy rather than merely a response to attacking pressure. "Il metodo" was based around defense, long balls and striking on the counter.
It worked wonders in Italy's first round matchup with the United States. The Americans had surprised many by reaching the semifinals in 1930, but the elite of Europe proved too much for them, and they succumbed to Pozzo's men 7-1.
The quarterfinal against Spain resulted in the first replay in the history of the tournament. Spain opened the scoring after a half-hour at the old Stadio Giovanni Berta in Florence, but Giovanni Ferrari equalized on the stroke of halftime. The second half went goalless, as did 30 minutes of extra time. The replay a day later saw Spain deprived of star goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora due to injury, and an 11th-minute Giuseppe Meazza strike was enough to carry the day.
The semifinal against Austria was probably the highlight of the tournament. The Austrians were co-favorites, having perfected the short-passing game that came to be known as the "Danubian school." Unfortunately for the Austrians, the heavens opened and the field became a bog. The Italians complimented that by playing a hard, physical brand of soccer that clamped down on the Austrian flair. A first-half goal by Enrique Guaita was enough for Italy to triumph in their third game in four days.
June 10 dawned on Rome with the country in a patriotic fervor. The hosts marched into the Stadio Nazionale PNF wearing blue with white shorts and black socks, their opponents red with white shorts and blue socks.
The occasion was a pageant for the fascist party. Mussolini himself appeared in full uniform. All Italian players were required, as had become customary, to make the fascist salute before the game. It surprised some to see Swedish referee Ivan Ekland do so as well (you can see it in a still image from the accompanying highlight video). This highlighted questions that some had asked as to what influence Mussolini had over the referee.
The first half went by goalless. The Czechoslovakian keeper, Frantisek Planicka, had to deal with a steady diet of balls into the box by the Italians. On the other end, Antonin Puc had a penalty appeal controversially waved away. Some players complained to Ekland about the lack of whistles despite several hard tackles.
The physicality continued to escalate as the game went on. Midway through the second half Puc was carried off the field after he cramped. With substitutions not permitted at the time, Czechoslovakia played with 10 men until Puc managed to get to the back on the field. Moments after he was allowed back on, the ball fell to him after a corner. His long shot beat Italian captain Gianpiero Combi to stun the Italian crowd with 19 minutes left.
Moments later the Czechoslovakians nearly doubled their lead, but Frantisek Svoboda struck the woodwork instead.
The situation was becoming more and more desperate for the Italians. Then in the 81st minute, Raimundo Orsi scored one of the most legendary goals in the history of the tournament. Descriptions of the goal change from account to account, and most film is so grainy and badly angled it's difficult to pick out the exact sequence of events. What seems to be universal is that he dummied more than one defender with his left foot and then scored on a chip with his right.
The equalizer sent the game into extra time. It was here that Pozzo showed his tactical acumen and ordered Angelo Schiavio and Enrique Guaita to switch positions. It was this duo that decided the game.
Guaita took a ball from Meazza and fed Schiavio, who tucked a snapshot past Planicka in the fifth minute of the extra session. Czechoslovakia had no response. Italy were champions.
All three podium finishers—Italy, Czechoslovakia and third-place Germany—were present for the trophy presentation after the match. A jubilant Mussolini presented the silverware to the winners. Aside from the Jules Rimet Trophy, Mussolini presented his own Coppa del Duce—a massive trophy he had commissioned that dwarfed FIFA's award.
Pozzo was the coach of the national team until 1948. Two years after his triumph in Rome he led Italy to the Olympic gold medal, then defended his World Cup title in 1938. There was only one holdover on the roster—Meazza. Pozzo remains the only manager in history ever to win two World Cups.
In a training session shortly after the game Orsi was asked to recreate the trick he pulled to score his equalizer for some cameras. He couldn't come close.
Italy struggled when they returned to the international game after World War II. They finally got to defend their 1934 and '38 titles 12 years after they last won, in Brazil. They were expected to be amongst the favorites, but the Superga air disaster decimated the core of the team, and they were eliminated in the group stage. The Azzurri didn't advance past the group stage again until 1970.
Czechoslovakia were again bridesmaids at the World Cup in 1962, when they lost to Brazil in the final in Chile. Fourteen years later they tasted triumph for the first time at the 1976 European Championship, beating West Germany in the final on penalties. After the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1992 the team dissolved.