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 – Demar