For all its difficulties, the first World Cup had whetted the world’s appetite for a global tournament. Unsurprisingly, interest in a follow-up event was increased and it wasn’t just fans of the beautiful game who saw its potential. The second World Cup may have taken place 88 years ago, but it gave football its first brush with a now depressingly familiar concept: Sports washing.
Walk with the Devil
When FIFA confirmed a second World Cup was to be held in Europe, Italian fascist Benito Mussolini spotted an opportunity. In October of 1932 after lengthy deliberation and notably no committee vote, FIFA announced Italy had beaten out Sweden to host the 1934 World Cup. Mussolini was determined to use tournament to showcase the dynamism of his fascist Italy and assigned a then astronomical 3.5m Lire budget to hosting the World Cup.
The Italian World Cup was an enormous expansion on the 1930 tournament; it featured eight host cities stretching from Turin to Naples to Trieste with Rome hosting the final. The group phase was abandoned for a straight knockout format featuring 16 teams. With increased interest in the tournament, Jules Rimet didn’t need to persuade anyone to make up the numbers. The first ever qualifying tournament was held with a total of 12 qualifying groups spanning four continents. Sadly, one team who refused to enter were holders Uruguay, who rejected the chance to to defend their title in Europe after multiple European nations had refused to travel four years earlier. The tournament began in May with eight simultaneous knockout matches, Italy playing at the subtly named Stadium of the National Fascist Party.
Festival of Football
Italy, under the management of Vittorio Pozzo, were unquestionably a fine team. In front of the solid and physical defence stood an attack that included Juventus winger Raimundo Orsi and Juventus left wing dynamo Giovanni Ferrari. The star turn, however, was Inter Milan legend Guiseppe Meazza, who combined dazzling technical skill with a creative eye and prolific goal-scoring record. In their opening match, Italy underlined their favorites status with a 7-1 hammering of the USA with Schiavo claiming a hattrick and Orsi a brace.
The other heavyweight contender was Austria. Nicknamed the ‘Wunderteam’, Austria had a playmaking genius in Matthias Sindelar while captain Josef Smistik patrolled midfield. Sindelar was the creative magician of the side, but Austria had a truly spectacular front line in silky passer Johann Horvath, left wing Anton Schall and 20-year old striker Josef Bican. Austria opened with a tough encounter against France, who sported several survivors of the 1930 tournament. Jean Nicolas had given France the lead before Sindelar brought Austria level just before halftime. A tense encounter went to extra time, but finally Austria’s pressure paid off with Schall giving them the breakthrough before Biscan added a late third to put the tie to bed.
Czechoslovakia were a dark horse contender. Goalkeeper Frantisek Planicka was a highly decorate captain who had already amassed 49 caps when the tournament opened. Antonin Puc was a prolific striker who set a national scoring record. He formed a deadly scoring partnership alongside Oldrich Nejedly. The Czech’s opened up with a 2-1 comeback win over Romania with Puc and Nejdedly grabbing the goals.
Spain too had a fine team with the prolific Isidro Langara in attack and defender Jacinto Quincoces the linchpin. His FC Madrid clubmate Ricardo Zamora captained the side in goal. Spain got off to a lightning start in their opener against Brazil, racing into a 3-0 lead in the opening 29 minutes with Langara getting the third. Brazil tried to muster a second half comeback, but a Leonidas goal was too little too late and Spain advanced 3-1. Germany were another contender featuring sweeper and deadly freekick expert Paul Janes and a dangerous frontline of Otto Siffling and Fritz Szepan. The Germans opened their campaign with an impressive 5-2 win over Belgium with Edmund Conen grabbing a 21st-minute hattrick in the second half.
Skill and Skulduggery
The best match of the first round pitted Hungary against the only African participant in Egypt. Hungary took an early 2-0 lead, but Egypt winger Abdelrahman Fawzi scored twice in nine minutes to bring his side level. Fawzi then dribbled his way through Hungary’s defence to give Egypt the lead when referee Rinaldo Barlassina oddly ruled the goal out for offside. After their reprieve, Hungary’s star forward Jeno Vincze scored to regain the lead and Hungary won a thriller 4-2.
The refereeing of the ’34 World Cup has long been the subject of rumor and claims of tampering with Mussolini often accused of influencing officials. Whether or not he did remains unproven, but Italy did benefit from some generous decisions. No game summed that up more than Italy’s feisty quarterfinal clash with Spain.
Spain took the lead after 30 mins, but Ferrari brought Italy level just before halftime. As the game wore on, tackles flew with goalkeeper Zamora one of seven Spain players injured. Meanwhile, Italy’s Mario Pizziolo had his leg broken. The game ended in a draw that required a replay the next day, which unsurprisingly saw two much changed lineups try again. With Zamora and Langara were among Spain’s injured absentees this time, as Meazza got the early goal and Italy were through.
Austria faced a tricky quarterfinal against Hungary, but Horvath gave them an early lead and seemed to have the game in the bag when Karl Zischek put them 2-0 up early in the second half. A brawl erupted and Hungary were awarded a penalty only for Imre Markos to be shown a red card, as Austria saw out a bitter 2-1 win. The Czechs continued their run with an entertaining 3-2 win over Switzerland in Turin. A quickfire second half brace from Karl Hohmann saw Germany through against Sweden.
Clash of Styles in Milan
The stage was set for a classic showdown: Austria’s artists against the Italians artisans. Austria were without injured captain Horvath and the buildup was dominated by disagreements over the choice of referee with Swede Ivan Eklind the eventual choice. Heavy rain made for a sodden pitch, but after just five minutes, Austria had a penalty claim turned down when Luis Monti hacked down Sindelar.
Italy took the lead in the 19th minute in controversial fashion, as an Orsi cross was caught by Austria goalkeeper Peter Platzer, only for Schiavo and Meazza to run into him. The ball spilled and Enrique Guaita poked home the loose ball. The Austrians protested, but Eklind stood by his decision to give the goal. Austria hit the post through Bican but survived. The second half was dominated by Italy’s stout backline and Austria couldn’t find a way through, as Italy were through to the final.
Conspiracy theories raged, as Eklind was given the job officiating the final and rumors circulated that Mussolini had dined with Eklind the night before the Austria game. Nothing has ever been proven, but there’s little doubt Italy got the benefit of some generous decisions.
The other semifinal proved more straight forward, but showed Italy would have a tough task in the final. Czechoslovakia got ahead early against Germany through Nejedly. Germany equalized, but it was Nejedly’s day claiming two more in the second half to secure a 3-1 win. It took the Sparta Prague forward to eight goals for the tournament and won him the golden boot.
In June, Italy and Czechoslovakia stepped out in Rome to play the second World Cup Final. Italy were the favorites, but the style in which the Czechs had played meant a close final was in prospect. The game was tight with Monti engaging in a fierce duel with Czechoslovak midfielder Stefan Cambal battling for supremacy in the center of the pitch. The Czechs pushed forward more, but Italy looked the more assured team.
The deadlock finally broke in the 71st minute when Puc took a Czech corner. His cross was repelled, but went straight back to him as Puc hit a thunderous strike to score from a tight angle. Italy were on the ropes and Jiri Sobotka missed a great chance to put the game away. Frantisek Svoboda then hit the post, a moment the Czechs would come to rue.
It was time for Italy’s stars to stand up and Orsi delivered. He made a trademark darting run through the Czech defence, dummied with his left foot, and then smashed home with right to equalize with just nine minutes to play. Extra time would be required.
Italy were the more athletic team and after an even 90 minutes, that was always likely to be decisive. They suffered a major blow with Meazza pulling up injured, but with little other choice, he carried on and the Czechs made the error of leaving him unmarked. In the 95th minute, Meazza picked up the ball on the wing and crossed for Guaita to blast home the winner to crown Italy as champions.
1934 would be the World Cup’s first, but sadly not last brush with political interference. It is easy to see the parallels with Argentina in 1978 where a brutal dictator meddled in the tournament and his players ultimately delivered the trophy. How much skullduggery went on remains open to question, however, there is no denying Pozzo’s Italy were a brilliant football team. It set the precedent for tough Italian defending, while in attack Meazza became his nation’s first true superstar player. For all the political intrigue, 1934 still built successfully on the blueprint of 1930 and underlined the world’s desire for global football.