This is the third in a weekly series of World Cup history lessons brought to you by our very own “Professor” Guy Bailey. He is not actually a professor; the only professor on staff is Jamie Clary. Well, sort of.
The 1938 World Cup
Staging the 1938 World Cup was a tricky affair. Three of Europe’s major powers were under fascist control, Spain was in a civil war with Germany and Italy allowing their forces to get some much needed training for forthcoming conflicts whilst the rest of Europe, with the exception of Russia, was sitting on the sidelines whistling and hoping the home team won. Unfortunately Franco prevailed and would remain in charge until the 1970s.
FIFA announced that France would hold the tournament, again pissing off the South American contingent who believed that the tournament would rotate between the two continents. Once again, this led to Uruguay and Argentina spitting their collective dummies out so Brazil represented the South. The tournament was again going to be a strict knock-out affair with a first round followed by quarter finals etc. The format was thrown into further disarray when Austria withdrew following the Anschluss (link-up/submission) to Germany in March depriving the Austrians of a team, several of whom were co-opted into the German side. This gap saw Sweden gain a bye to the Quarter Finals. Pushing neutrality aside for 120 minutes, Switzerland knocked Germany out on penalties. Brazil, France and Italy all moved on after extra time along with the dazzling Hungarians who overcame surprise qualifiers, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia in today’s money) 6-0. The other surprise package, Cuba, knocked out the Romanians on penalties after a 3-3 draw but were thoroughly dispatched by the Swedes in the quarters 8-0. Hungary overcame Switzerland, Brazil needed penalties again to overcome the Czechs and Italy eliminated the hosts 3-1 and added insult to injury by turning out in an all-black kit. Not to be confused with referees, this was the symbol of fascism in Europe and a firm middle-finger to all right thinking observers and commentators.
The first semi-final saw Hungary turn it on again and power past the relaxed Swedes 5-1 into their first final where they would be the favorites. Italy met Brazil for the first but not the last time in the World Cup and became the beneficiaries of a glaring tactical error. They rested start striker and 7-goal top scorer (although not the King of Sparta) Leônidas for the match, saving him for the final to which the Italian’s said a grateful “Grazie Mille!” and won 2-1.
The final was played in Paris and the Italians went out with typical efficiency and led 3-1 at half time. The Hungarians, behind for the first time in the Tournament chased the game bravely and brought it back to 3-2 before Italy sealed the victory with a 4th eight minutes from time. As a result, they became the first team to retain the trophy and also the first to win on foreign soil. Controversy was never going to be far away and it emerged that the Italians had been sent an ‘encouraging’ telegram from our old mate, Il Duce, before the match which simply read Vincere o Morire! – literally Win or Die. The Hungarian Keeper Antal Szabo later reflected that he might have lost a match but he helped some men live but students of Italian and Fascism point out that Vincere o Morire is never taken literally – it was a typical fascist encouragement like win or bust but with obvious vainglorious rhetoric attached, not that the gifted Hungarians were to know. If you look at the footage, the fix doesn’t appear to be in; just an equally skilful team is moving the ball about incredibly well for a pre-war team.
Sometimes, as we’ll find out again, the best team loses.
Guy Bailey is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.