by Joseph Colubriale
Studies of Italian Fascism have spent a lot of time assessing the roles that rituals, myths and symbols of the regime played in “regenerating” a mystical, national collective; however, few have considered the cultural role that football played in the imagining of Italy’s national community under Fascism.
In the post-World War One era, Italy was still a rather disparate nation-state. During the 1920s therefore, one way the regime attempted to construct an imagined national community was through the popular sport of calcio (the “Italianised” term for football). According to Simon Martin, while Fascist ideology tended to prefer more ‘classical and scholarly sports, such as fencing, and the modern sport of motor racing’, ‘the regime was quick to appreciate the mass appeal of football’.
Calcio, which was effectively made a Fascist game in 1926, would be transformed into a political tool to both develop a specifically “Italian” identity and enhance the status of Italy in the international context. In 1934 Mussolini had the chance to display the glory of his nation to the rest of the world when Italy hosted Il Campionato Mondiale di Calcio, the World Championship of Football. While this was certainly a chance to showcase to the world the achievements of Fascism, it was also an opportune moment to instill into the hearts and minds of Italians throughout the peninsula, a sense of national community and glory. Football under Fascist directive, particularly during the 1934 World Cup, definitely provided a ripe context for national imaginings, however the nationalization and politicization of calcio was laced with revealing contradictions that inevitably lead to the questioning of whether Mussolini’s idealized nation state was ever an attainable reality.
In 1860, King Vittorio Emanuele and Giuseppe Garibaldi exchanged the “handshake” that fused the north and south, thus politically unifying the Italian peninsula. Despite this, in the days of the Risorgimento when Massimo d’Azeglio articulated that famous epigram “We have made Italy, now we must make Italians”, the idea of nation for the majority of the Italian people was still a novel concept. D’Azeglio’s words pointed to the obvious disparity between the people of Italy as well as the subsequent need to construct the nation in the “imagined” sense that Benedict Anderson alludes to. The political unification of Italy, however, was fairly limited in its popularity. Christopher Seton-Watson has noted that in 1860: ‘parochialism and provincialism were deep-seated’ and that ‘few outside the restricted educated class thought of themselves as primarily Italians’. According to Emilio Gentile, it is in this context that the origin of the myth of the Risorgimento as an “incomplete national revolution” emerged, incited by the views of Giuseppe Mazzini who condemned the state for not creating unity amongst Italians.
By the time that Mussolini and the Fascists had come to power in the 1920s, the “Italian” nation still ‘remained a disparate, disconnected entity, in need of physical and psychological integration’, and were ‘alienated by geographic, economic and linguistic barriers’. As Gentile suggests, the aim of Fascism therefore ‘was to transform Italians into a united community, capable of facing the challenge of the modern world’. Italy under Fascist rule thus attempted to overturn the existing deep-seated parochialism and provincialism, with a nationalist sentiment that would effectively imagine the national community into being.
During the 1920s, calcio emerged for Fascism as a significant cultural agent in promoting nationalist imaginings. Under Il Duce’s reign, football became Italy’s national sport, during which new stadiums were constructed and the national Serie A and Serie B leagues became a reality in 1929. While football was already on the rise in Italy before Mussolini, it is widely perceived that the Fascist regime’s intervention into calcio brought about Italy’s two World Cup triumphs in 1934 and 1938, and their Olympic gold medal in 1936. The international success of the national team (the azzurri) was also mirrored by Italian teams’ triumphs in European club competition, especially Bologna FC who won the Central European Cup in 1932 and 1934, going on to beat the English side Chelsea at the Paris Exhibition Tournament in 1937. Therefore, as Simon Foot argues, ‘Fascism was good for Italian football, and football was good for Fascism’.
Italian football’s success can be attributed to Fascism’s pragmatic, ideological restructuring of sport in which it became ‘a new method to penetrate and educate the masses physically and spiritually, thereby helping the regime insert itself firmly into the life of the nation until it became indispensable’. Institutional reform of physical education and mass participation of sporting activity, ‘occurred on several levels from 1922, and especially after 1925’. Such a restructuring of sport was essentially carried out in order to mould the next generation and create the “new man” (Italiano Nuovo) of Fascism, who was imbued with a kind of militaristic nationalism and regimented conformism whilst being physically primed for battle. Coupled with this educational and physical indoctrination of young athletes was the investment in sporting infrastructure, which ‘by 1930, over 2000 new local stadia or tracks had been built, and eighty-three out of a total of ninety-four official provincial centres in Italy had their own regional sports grounds’. Such a mass intervention into football therefore highlights the apparent potential of calcio as a vehicle for imagining national community.
The regime also championed the notion of developing a uniquely “Italian” style of play to further enhance a sense of national identity. The man that was the driving force behind the azzurri’s ‘organic collective between 1929 to 1948’, was the Italian coach, Vittorio Pozzo, ‘whose strategy was also to create a group of players that was stronger than the sum of its constituent parts’. While the so-called “il Metodo” (the Method) of Pozzo’s azzurri was deemed uniquely “Italian”, it was more or less made up of a mixture of the best tactical and technical elements of European football at the time. Deliberate contrasts were made to the English “kick and rush” style of play, which was maligned by Italian coaches and journalists, and thus an “Italian” version characterised by ‘fair play, style, superior technique, tactical improvisation and imagination’ was conceived.
Italian identity would, in a sense, become fashioned through football by acknowledging exactly what it was not, and competitive calcio in many ways displayed itself as ‘the antithesis of England and Englishness’. According to Rocco De Biasi and Pierre Lanfranchi, the style of “The Method” ‘emphasized the political ideology that the players were warriors for the nation, and closely related to the climactic and morphological situation of Italy’. Indeed, one aspect of Pozzo’s system that was propagandized as proof of the Italiano Nuovo’s success, was the consistent introduction of young debutantes into the national teams, who would be exhibited as testimony to fascism’s physical, spiritual and moral “regeneration”. “Il Metodo” therefore can be seen as means of developing a sense of national identity through a distinctly “Italian” style of football, which was displayed in metaphoric opposition to the English ethos.
Simon Martin correctly suggests that ‘despite the arguably successful attempt to construct an imagined community’ through the politicization of football, ‘the regime’s projected Italian identity met serious resistance that exposed some of the real and unavoidable conflicts and contradictions within Fascist society and the state’. Furthermore, while calcio’s national development and politicization was meant to act as a bonding agent, the inevitable outcome was the creation of strong micro allegiances to city-based teams and identities. As fans engaged in “battle” across the peninsula, ‘ironically, once again, the nationalization of calcio resulted in the atomization of identity’. This was only further amplified by the establishment of more powerful northern club teams, which basically classified Serie A into unequal categories; le grande (the big clubs), le provinciali (the small provincial clubs) and the others. As well as this, the national team rarely played competitive fixtures outside of northern cities, which effectively created the perception that calcio’s center was in the north of the country. Such divisions also permeated into passionate regional antagonisms between northern and southern teams, which were often defined by racialist ideas of nationality.
Given that regionalist sentiment still exists today, both on the terraces and in Italian society at large, it can be suggested that Italy was not the uniform and unwavering bundle of fasces that Mussolini attempted to portray. Calcio was both a vehicle for imagining the nation into being, as well as a disruption to it, which effectively reveals some of the contradictions in Fascist society.
Whilst provincialism had, to a large extent, been inadvertently bolstered through calcio, another challenge emerged for the regime, which concerned Italian nationality and the eligibility of “repatriated” players to represent the azzurri. The oriundi or rimpartriati, as they became known, were players of Italian origin and blood living abroad (mainly from Italian communities in Argentina and Uruguay), however most spoke little to no Italian and had often never been to Italy. As John Foot describes them, ‘oriundi were neither Italians, nor non-Italians’. While “repatriates” such as Raimundo Orsi and Luisito Monti would become key figures for Turin club Juventus as well as the national team during the 1930s, rimpartriati were always juxtaposed against the archetypal players of the Italiano Nuovo. One in particular, Giuseppe Meazza, was the azzurri’s poster boy and personified much of what fascism conveyed. At the same time however, some would suggest that Meazza’s role in the team as the main goal-scorer, a naturally individualistic role, ‘exposed the ethical dilemma of outstanding individual contributions to the collective good’. However, as always, the flexible nature of fascism allowed for a way around this contradiction by championing the myth of the “New Man” who was imbued with a characteristically “Futurist” nationalism that encouraged a uniquely patriotic individual drive. It is apparent therefore, that some of the contradictions that emerged through the nationalization of football suggest that the imagined national community that Mussolini had projected, was perhaps very limited and was not a reflection of actual reality.
The propagandizing and politicizing of the 1934 World Cup was to be expected from a regime attempting to win over its own citizens as well as gain international prestige. The role of the media was paramount in exploiting the sport to its full potential and for the World Cup, while sources disagree on the exact number, ‘between 275 and 400 foreign journalists from twenty-nine countries was accredited at the competition’. Furthermore, the ‘acceleration of state initiatives in radio, from the early 1930s, coincided with the build-up to the World Cup’. Radio and the broadcast of live commentary would become very effective in generating nationalism, as it was able to evoke powerful and patriotic imaginings of a homogeneous time-space in which the national community could be conceived. Some press however, contradictorily employed Anglicized terms such as “goal” or “corner” during broadcast or in match reports, which gave an involuntary non-Italian gloss to the tournament. Despite this, the performances of the Azzurri during the tournament were mythologized as metaphorical “battles” that united the nation under fascism and the Italian fans, whether in the stadium or listening to live broadcasts, became active spectators in the sporting conflict.
On their way to the final, Italy recorded “memorable” and “brave” wins against Spain and Austria, who were considered two of the best teams in world football. The quarter-final win against Spain in Florence, in particular took on an almost mythological status and was supplemented by the promotion that the ‘Florentine’s display of undivided support for the national team’ was crucial to the azzurri’s success. The final against Czechoslovakia was played in Rome’s National Stadium of the PNF, in front of about 50,000 spectators who witnessed Italy triumph 2-1 after extra-time. The notable absence of the English from the tournament however, as well as the suggestion that Argentina and Brazil sent weaker teams, threatened to subdue Italy and Fascism’s success. Despite this, Italy and Mussolini could boast being “officially” crowned the best footballing nation on Earth, which was arguably a convincing advertisement for the achievements of fascism. The tournament was nevertheless a ripe context for the imagining of a national community, which fascism attempted to take full advantage of.
Calcio under the Fascist regime became the national sport, and more significantly it became a vehicle for imagining a national community amongst a people who were still a disconnected entity in the post-World War One era. Mussolini therefore, arguably saw football as an opportunity to dissolve the “deep seated” parochial and provincial allegiances of the Italian people. Recognising the mass potential of sport, the organizational and infrastructural interventions into football after 1926 certainly allowed Mussolini to insert fascism into the daily lives of the Italian people, as well as physically and psychologically educate a generation of “new men”.
Equipped with a patriotic drive and a fascist ethos, this new generation of sporting soldiers was placed at the heart of also developing a uniquely “Italian” style of calcio, which was essentially in opposition to the “old” system of the English. Significantly for Italian nationalism, Mussolini also saw football as an opportunity to dissolve parochial and provincial allegiances. By the time Italy hosted the 1934 World Cup, football had garnered mass interest and support from the Italian people, but the international competition was a chance to display Fascism’s glory to both its own people and the rest of the world.
As discussed, despite the arguably successful attempt to imagine a national community through the politicization of calcio, it inevitably revealed many contradictions and conflicts within Italian society, which suggest the imagined national community that Mussolini had projected was perhaps very limited and was not a reflection of actual reality.
Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, (London: Verso), 2006.
Berezin, Mabel, Making The Fascist Self: The Political Culture of Interwar Italy, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997).
De Biasi, Rocco and Lanfranchi, Pierre, ‘The Importance of Difference: Football Identities in Italy’, in Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti, (eds.), Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football, (Oxford; New York: Berg, 1997).
Foot, John, Calcio: A History of Italian Football, (London: Harper Perennial, 2007).
Gentile, Emilio, ‘Fascism as Political Religion’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 25, 1990, pp. 229-251.
Gentile, Emilio, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, trans. Keith Botsford, (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: Harvard University Press, 1996).
Gordon, Robert S.C. and John London, ‘Chapter 3, Italy 1934: Football and Fascism’, in Alan Tomlinson and Christopher Young, (eds.), National Identity and Global Sporting Events: Culture, Politics and Spectacle in the Olympics and the Football World Cup, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005).
Martin, Simon, Football and Fascism: The National Game under Mussolini, (Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers, 2004).