World Cup retrospect - Italy 34
The World Cup era had kicked off well enough in Uruguay, but the arrival of the tournament on European soil was not such a roaring success. It took FIFA numerous meetings to finally decide upon Italy as the host nation, a move which raised many eyebrows.
The competition was of course nowhere near the level of importance and prestige that it is today, but here the world stood up and took note as Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy were given a form of approval. Il Duce saw the finals as potentially a huge propaganda tool, as here was the perfect platform for him to show off his fascist state to the world. This was an opportunity he was not going to miss as FIFA made an unquantifiable mistake.
Italia 34 was the first tournament to use a qualification system in order to determine the entrants. In all, 32 nations competed in the qualification process, with 16 entering the first round proper. The qualifying phase however, was a far cry from the tried and tested group system that we have adopted today. One-off matches were played with fixtures determined by geographical factors. Although the system was different, the organisation was still poor, with the United States defeating Mexico a mere three days before the tournament kicked off - a shambolic affair which was contested in Rome. Quite why the qualifying process also had to be contested entirely within the host nation is still beyond the realms of realism. It was completely illogical for two sides from the Americas to travel all the way to Italy, with one of them certain not to progress beyond the first fixture. As it turned out, it was Mexico who were defeated, however, America were not far behind them, succumbing to a thrashing at the hands of the hosts in the first round.
The Italians were installed as favourites from the outset, and despite needing a replay to defeat the Spaniards in the quarter-finals, they were rarely troubled, owing to their aggressive and almost thug-like style on the pitch. So brutal were the Italians that it is widely believed that the tournament was rigged, with Mussolini rumoured to have dined with the referee the night before the final. Allegations of bribery and corruption were rife, and with Mussolini hoping to show off his Fascist Italian state to the world, he would have wanted them to dominate.
There was still competition for the Italians and this came from entirely within Europe. This was the era of the great Austrian side, a team which included the magnificent Mathias Sindelar, voted Austria’s greatest player of the twentieth century. Although perhaps past his peak at the tournament, he showed why he was held in such high regard, helping his side to the semi-finals where they tasted pain and defeat at the hands of the Italians. This contest pitted opposing schools of the great game against each other, but unfortunately, it was a triumph for aggression over grace. Hungary also showed great class in the competition, demonstrating signs of the future footballing power that they would become, but were defeated by the Austrian side at the quarter-final stage.
Indeed the entire quarter-final line up was composed of European nations. Perhaps indicative of where the power base in football was at the time. However, few conclusions should be drawn from this in truth. Uruguay snubbed the competition, most likely in protest at the lack of European sides who had competed in Montevideo four years previously. The Home Nations had also declined to compete, owing to their friction with FIFA. Most crucially perhaps, the Argentine side had been weakened, as many of their players, and indeed others from South America chose to represent the Italian side at this time. This was not exclusive to the World Cup, but there were certain stand-out examples - Demaría for one, who had played in the Argentina side in Uruguay. Europe was getting stronger on the football pitch, but this was due in part to a significant slice of help from South America.
On June 10, the Italians defeated Czechoslovakia 2-1 in a final which summed up the tournament quite aptly. The harsh tactics and aggression was still for all to see, although there was some attractive football on display, none more so than in Raimundo Orsi’s (another Argentine) equalising goal late in the game. Despite taking the lead, the Czech’s couldn’t hold on for the win to deny the host nation, in what would have been a very popular result throughout the footballing world. The winning goal came early into extra-time from Angelo Schiavio, although the Swedish referee had ‘missed’ a clear handball from Giuseppe Meazza in the build up play - a further piece of evidence to those who suggest that Mussolini had rigged the competition.
And so the finals ended in a manner which was of little surprise to anybody. The Italians had brought the Jules Rimet trophy to European shores with their aggressive tactics, bullying the graceful and exciting players of their European counterparts into often forced submission. The tournament was not at all easy on the eye for both the lack of flowing football on display, but also for the unashamed use of it as a propaganda tool for Mussolini’s fascist state. This was a triumph for right-wing politics, and certainly not for football.