by Adamo Digby
Recent history in international football offers a number of examples of teams exerting their dominance over a length of time; Germany, France, Brazil and Spain have all won consecutive tournaments over a two-year spell to prove themselves to be the superior side of that particular period. Yet never has a team managed to repeat the remarkable and undeniable achievements of the Italian team of the 1930’s.
Led by the man ranked ninth in the ‘Football’s Greatest Managers’ series here on The Equaliser, Vittorio Pozzo, not only were Italy the first team to win back-to-back World Cup’s in 1934 and 1938, but they also triumphed at the Olympic Games of 1936.
The team were truly remarkable, with some real legends of the game among those called upon to form part of the most successful international team ever assembled. Yet to discuss their accomplishments without a true understanding of the politics and politicking that surrounded the side is to know only half the story. While there is no doubting their excellence, Pozzo’s men were certainly handed every possible advantage both before and during all three tournaments, and while the fascist regime of the time was not directly responsible for their glory, the two are intrinsically linked. Perhaps the first point of note is the locations in which they were held; the 1934 World Cup was in Italy while the ’38 edition was in France, and the Summer Olympics of ’36 were hosted by Berlin.
Despite the obvious links to the regimes of the era, the simple truth is that Italian football was highly respected and the team had begun to dominate before the ascension to power of Benito Mussolini, and it’s influence and excellence continued after his fall from government. The 1934 World Cup was one of the first recorded instances of a sporting event being used overtly for political gain, as Mussolini’s party saw it as a chance to spread their fascist propaganda and extol the virtues of their regime. Yet a cursory glance at the line-ups and results amassed by the Italy during the competition quickly dispel the myth that the team were given anything.
With Gianpiero Combi, one of the all-time greats in goal, Angelo Schiavio, Raimundo Orsi and Giuseppe Meazza formed the crux of a formidable side which demolished the USA 7-1 in its opening match before being held to a 1-1 draw by Spain in the Quarter-Final. The game was replayed the next day and Italy triumphed as Meazza scored the only goal in a game marred by refereeing controversy; Swiss official Rene Mercet was banned from taking charge of games upon his return home. Wins over Austria and Czechoslovakia gave them the trophy as they became the World Champions for the first time.
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin are obviously infamous for Hitler’s control and the zeal with which he exerted it, no image more synonymous than Jessie Owens’ triumphs in the face of ultimate adversity. Clearly the Italian team would suffer no such treatment as a team made up of Serie A players once again dispatched lesser opponents with ease. USA were beaten 1-0 before an 8-0 trouncing of Japan preceded extra-time wins over Norway and Austria. Italy famously saluted Hitler from the field and ditched the Azzurri shirts of the Royal house of Savoy in favour of fascist black, both images repeatedly used in propaganda material.
France ’38 saw the confirmation, should any be needed, that this team and coach were one for the ages as they dispatched Norway, the host nation, Brazil and Hungary with relative ease. Pozzo forced his players to hold their fascist salute until the crowd stopped booing before the Semi-Final, a move which would see the coach forever linked with Mussolini’s ill-fated regime. This would ultimately be the reason the Stadio Delle Alpi was not named in his honour despite him being one of Turin’s most successful sons and a founder member of Torino FC.
Giovanni Ferrari, Guido Masetti, Eraldo Monzeglio and Meazza are among a list of only seventeen other men (all but one are Brazilian) to have won more than one World Cup. These men and Pozzo also lifted the Central European International Cup held between 1933 and 1935, the front-runner to the European Championship, giving an aura of invincibility to a team that truly were all-conquering. These men are still revered today, and while Mussolini always attempted to claim responsibility for victory, the only dictator to truly exert any influence on the side was Pozzo, and the 1930’s will always belong to him and Italy’s Nazionale.