Having established a dictatorship in the 1920s Il Duce, famous in history as Benito Mussolini turned his attention to trying to mobilize the nation behind the regime. The sport was fundamental in this and despite his initial lack of enthusiasm and unquestionable deficit in talent, football, or Calcio as fascism’s linguistic nationalism demanded, became its keystone. This resulted in the formation of a national league, Serie A. The intent was twofold: firstly, to forge a sense of national identity and, secondly, to create a stronger, more competitive structure that would result in a national team capable of rivaling the best.
FASCIST ITALY, THE FOOTBALL POWERHOUSE
The efforts were fruitful in turning Italy into a footballing powerhouse in Europe. The Italian club teams began to challenge the teams from England and Central Europe, the two most developed footballing zones of the continent. But the biggest triumph came when Italy won the World Cup in 1934 when they hosted the tournament for the first time.
The next edition of the cup was hosted by their neighbours France, who by that time thanks to Mussolini became highly publicised enemies of Italy and hated the nasty fascist regime in the country. The team upon arriving in France met with huge protests where anti-fascist protests became that tournament’s Mexican wave.
THE GERMAN CONTROVERSY
The controversy was not limited to the Italian team alone, with Germany’s coach Sepp Herberger blaming his team’s 2-4 loss to Switzerland in front of a hostile, bottle-throwing crowd in Paris, on a defeatist attitude from the five Austrian players he had been forced to include. This was the only time in the history of the World Cup where Germany failed to qualify from the group stages.
MUSSOLINI’S BLACK SHIRTS AND THE ROMAN SALUTE
In the most eagerly anticipated and politically charged game of the tournament, Italy met France in the quarter-finals. With both countries normally playing in blue, lots were drawn to decide who should change. Italy lost and rather than wear its traditional change colour of white, the team was ordered to play in all-black. It is rumoured that the decision to wear blacks came directly from Mussolini himself, as a message to all the anti-fascist movements and protestors. The already-charged atmosphere reached its boiling point when the Italian team gave the fascist right-arm salute before kickoff. The hostile crowd was silenced by a comfortable 3-1 Italian win as they produced their best performance of the tournament.
THE SURPRISED ABSENTEE
The rejuvenated and confident Italian team went on to face Brazil in the Semi-Final, where to everyone’s surprise, the Brazilian coach opted to rest Leonidas, their top scorer, confident of progressing through to the Final without him. The decision backfired as Italy went on to win 2-1 and advance to their second successive final in World Cup.
THE THREAT AND THE TRIUMPH
In the final match, the Italians faced a confident Hungary team who destroyed Sweden 5-1 in the semis. Rumour has it before the finals Benito Mussolini was to have sent a telegram to the Italian team, saying “Vincere o morire!” (literally translated as “Win or die!”). But despite such an unprecedented threat from their notorious leader, Italy successfully – and deservedly – defended its World Cup title in Paris, beating Hungary 4-2 in the final with two goals apiece from Gino Colaussi and Silvio Piola.
For all of Italy’s incredible achievement of successive World Cup win with a team of unquestionable talent and extraordinary willpower to perform under immense pressure, the political gestures of a black shirt and a double-Roman salute signifying the rise of Italian Football under the fascist regime sadly took the spotlight out of the game.
THE SHOEBOX WHICH SAVED THE CUP
The Italians would keep the Jules Rimet Trophy for another 12 years as the world descended into war. During the second world war, the trophy held by the 1938 winners Italy was kept in a Rome bank. Fearing for its safety, the Italian Football Federation’s president, Ottorino Barassi, smuggled the trophy out of the bank and into his apartment in the city. However, the Nazis had followed the scent and conducted a search of Barassi’s home. But they weren’t thorough enough. They missed the old shoebox stashed underneath Barassi’s bed, the trophy hidden inside.