Football and Fascism: The 1934 World Cup

Filippo Marinetti's 1934 World Cup tournament poster.

Filippo Marinetti’s 1934 World Cup tournament poster. Note the fasces, the symbol of Italian Fascism, in the bottom left corner and on the Italian players shirt.

As with all three pre-World War II World Cups the tournament was hindered by the varying availability of competitors. The English FA, who had refused to travel to Uruguay in 1930, were reluctant to attend once again. A friendly game against Italy in 1933 had been arranged without the consent of the British government. The British at this time were keen to  keep sport and politics explicitly separate.  The Italian hosts, however, treated the game as one large propaganda exercise. The game ended 1-1 but FA secretary Frank Wall declared ‘I have no desire to again be a guest of the Italian Football Federation’ and so the 1934 World Cup invite was declined on political grounds by all of the Home Nations.

South American sides were also under-represented. Reigning champions Uruguay had been hit by the Great Depression and were no longer able to afford the Atlantic boat crossing. Only Brazil and Argentina, who sent an under-strength side, could stump up the cash and both lost their first round fixtures, in a straight knock-out format, to Spain and Sweden respectively. The USA also traveled the Atlantic while Egypt made the shorter trip across the Mediterranean but they too lost their opening games.

Despite the depression, the Italians were happy to throw money at the event. As much as 3.5 million lire was spent on the Futurist stadium designs, high quality printed match tickets, Filippo Marinetti’s tournament poster (at the top of this post) and even expenses for foreign supporters. Visiting fans could claim as much as 75% of their travel expenses, but only in lire, and travel within the country was free to all ticket holders. One of the more bizarre expenses was La Coppa del Duce named in honour of Mussolini. The trophy was specially commission and designed to be awarded alongside the Jules Rimet trophy that has been presented in 1930; though La Coppa was six times larger than the original.

The Italian winners with the monumental Coppa del Duce.

The Italian winners with the monumental Coppa del Duce.

Without the England and Scotland, the two powers of world football prior to World War II, the favourites for the 1934 World Cup came in the form of Austrian. From 1931 to 1932 the Austrian Wunderteam had gone 14 matches unbeaten before losing 4-3 to England at Stamford Bridge; at the time England were unbeaten at home against mainland European sides and would remain so until 1953. During their unbeaten run the Austrians had twice defeated Germany as well as Switzerland, Italy and Hungary. They were the overwhelming favourites for the 1934 title.

The only challenge to the Austrians seemed to come in the form on the hosts – Italy. The Italians could rely on not just home advantage but also their leader Benito Mussolini. Il Duce was not himself a football fan though he was a keen hunter and, quite bizarrely, was once filmed skiing bare-chested. Mussolini attended each of Italy’s games and is even said to have influenced the selection of referees for Italian matches.

Having thrashed the USA 7-1 and overcome Spain 1-0 in a replay, after a 2-2 draw, the Italians met the Austrians in the semi-finals. Here they would be truly tested. It seems a number of things worked in favour of the Italians. Firstly the Milanese pitch had been drenched by downpours and was caked in thick boggy mud that disrupted the free-flowing Austrians and favoured the stronger more physical Italians.

Secondly rumours pursuit that the great Austrian striker Matthias Sindelar was injured and Austria suffered as a result. Thirdly the Austrians had left Vienna, where almost all of them lived and played, in political turmoil. In the 1920s the Socialist ‘Red Vienna’ that had made the city a centre for political, intellectual and artistic debate despite the fall of the Austrian Empire. Now it was under threat.

Conservative politicians were desperate to keep power and control but the Nazi Party had spilled over the Austrian-German boarder and was causing even more trouble. A four day Civil War had broken out in February 1934 and tensions threatened to boil over once more. The threat of Civil War was almost certainly on the minds of the players.

Finally it seems the Austrians had one more obstacle to over come – the referee. The ‘story’ goes that Mussolini had become involved in the ‘selection’ of referees for Italian matches. Not an unfamiliar story for Italian football as recently as 2006 the Luciano Moggi Scandal followed broadly the same pattern. The referee selected was the Swede Ivan Elkind who was supposedly ‘wined and dined’ by Mussolini prior to the game. Speaking in 1998 Austrian forward Josef Bican even claimed that his coach, Hugo Meisl, and team mates were aware of the fix before the game. He even accuses Eklind of intercepting one of his passes and returning it to the Italians. Such an incident is highly unlikely.

The Italians line-up with their coach Vittorio Pozzo ahead of the semi-final against Austria.

The Italians line-up with their coach Vittorio Pozzo ahead of the semi-final against Austria.

For the final Elkind was once again ‘selected’ as the referee in a move that has never been repeated; nor did it happen in 1930. The Italians won again, this time 2-1, against Czechoslovakia. Footage, with the customary behind the corner camera angle of the 1930s,  is available online. One of the major talking points around the Italian side was the number of oriundi  in the side. The oriundi were players of Italian descent who had returned to their parents homeland from South America to play football.

One such player was Raimundo Orsi who scored in the final and was born in Argentina. He even represented Argentina before moving to Italian side Juventus and changing his international allegiance. Two other Argentinians played in the final Luis Monti and Enrique Guaita.

Selection of the oriundi was controversial in Italy and Argentina. When Juventus had signed Monti and Orsi the Argentinians accused the Fascist government of paying their transfer fees and wages on behalf of the club so they could play for the national side. At the same time questions were raised over their validity in an Italian shirt by the troubled Italian public. The best the Fascist propagandists could come up with was that the oriundi were an extension of Italy’s colonial power and influence over the world. They were not.

John Foot, author of Calcio: a History of Italian Football, comes to some interesting conclusions about the tournament. Firstly that without the oriundi Italy would not have reached the level that they did in the 1930s and that referee Elkind showed nothing more than home advantage to the Italians. Most interestingly of all he describes the heavily censored Italian press, the major source for the event, as a major stumbling block in our understanding of what actually happened on the field. The thick veil of Fascist propaganda hinders our understanding of a tournament already difficult to analyse.

Once the tournament had finished and the dust settled FIFA President and ‘father’ of the World Cup Jules Rimet lamented that the tournament did not feel like it belonged to FIFA rather the Fascist Party. The 1934 World Cup was the Fascist World Cup. Italy dominated, Mussolini was highly visible and the country showed off in the face of the European, if not world, press. As famous as ‘Hitler’s Olympics’ of 1936 are they owe a lot to the Italian organisation of World Cup 1934.

Further Reading/Bibliography

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