Few sporting events in history were as politically charged as the 1938 World Cup. With fascism on the rise in Europe, the World Cup was not immune from the tensions of the outside world as the footballing world tried to focus its attention on France for the third running of the World Cup.
It’s impossible to separate the 1938 World Cup from the political climate of the day. Benito Mussolini was still ingratiating himself with defending champions Italy; every game Italy played at the tournament was met with anti-fascist protest. Mussolini changed Italy’s away strip to a fascist all-black kit.
Meanwhile, Spain were forced to withdraw from the tournament due to the Spanish Civil War. Worst of all, just three months before the tournament kicked off, Nazi Germany had annexed Austria. Both Germany and Austria had qualified for the tournament, but Austria were now withdrawn and a combined team announced.
There was resistance to the move in the Austria camp, most notably from star player Matthias Sindelar. Sindelar was bitterly opposed to the Nazis and appalled by the anti-semitic new rules banning Austrian Jews from playing. In an act of defiance in a game between Austria and Germany that was supposed to show the coming together of the two teams in a fixed 1-1 draw, Sindelar scored when he was expected to miss and gave Austria the win. Sindelar quickly announced his retirement aged 35, citing injury and did not be join the German team. Tragically, he died in January 1939 from Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
Festival in France
France had been announced as hosts in 1936, but outraged at the tournament staying in Europe, both 1930 finalists Uruguay and Argentina opted out. Yet again there was a limited qualification tournament, but the high number of withdrawals meant most teams had a routine path and in some cases a walkover. However, the Dutch East Indies became the first Asian nation to appear at the finals.
For all the political intrigue surrounding them, most still saw Italy as favorites. The legendary Giuseppe Meazza was now captain and Italy had a new hero in Silvio Piola while Vittorio Pozzo was still the manager, having lead the team to the 1934 title. The tournament was again a straight knockout competition, with Austria’s withdrawal giving Sweden a free pass to the quarterfinals. The tournament kicked off in June with games taking place across seven French cities.
Italy were given a tough time by Norway with Arne Brustad grabbing a late goal to send the game into extra time. It was Piola who came to Italy’s rescue with the winner from a rebound to send the Azzurri through. Hungary smashed Dutch East Indies 6-0 with Gyorgy Sarosi as the star of the show. 1934 runners-up Czechoslovakia were forced to extra time, but the old magic was there in extra time with Oldrich Nejedly again on-hand to secure a 3-0 win.
The hosts set up a blockbuster quarterfinal with Italy, taking just 35 seconds to open their account in an impressive 3-1 win over Belgium with Jean Nicholas scoring twice. Meanwhile, Cuba making their only ever World Cup appearance caused a surprise with a 3-3 draw against Romania, winning the replay 2-1. Germany were expected to breeze past Switzerland, but the Swiss played a tight defensive game to frustrate the Germans into a 1-1 draw with former Austria striker Hans Pesser shown a red card. In the replay, Switzerland’s Paul Abey was injured in the opening minutes, giving Germany a man advantage which they quickly exploited to go 2-0 up inside 22 minutes. Switzerland pulled a goal back just before halftime and Abey was able to come back on to play the second half. Swiss striker Alfred Bickel equalized after 64 minutes. Striker Trello Abegglen wrote himself into Swiss footballing folklore with two goals in four minutes to send Switzerland into the last eight.
From Brilliance to Thuggery
The match of the first round and indeed the whole tournament took place in Strasbourg where Poland faced Brazil. The Brazilians were the sole South American representative at the tournament and their star man turned on the style in Strasbourg. Striker Leonidas had played at the ’34 World Cup, scoring once while gaining worldwide fame for inventing the bicycle kick. In ’38, it took just 18 minutes to open his account as Brazil swept into a 3-1 halftime lead. The Poles stormed back after the break and Ernest Wilimoski hit two quick fire goals to draw Poland level on 59 minutes. Brazil retook the lead, but in the dying minutes, Wilimowski completed his hattrick to send the match into extra time at 4-4. In extra time, Leonidas hit back with two goals in the first period to give Brazil a cushion. There was still time for Poland to threaten a comeback and Wilimowski grabbed his fourth goal of the game, but Brazil held on for a sensational 6-5 win.
The quarterfinal pitted Brazil against Czechoslovakia in the infamous ‘Battle of Bordeaux’. Some laxed refereeing saw both sides kick lumps out of each other with Brazil right-half Zeze Procopio seeing red after just 14 minutes. Amid the mayhem, Leonidas put the ten men ahead. As tackles flew in, Brazil’s Machado and Czech forward Jan Riha were both dismissed. Nejedly dispatched a penalty to bring the scores level, but he left the game with a broken leg. Goalkeeper Frantisek Planicka was forced to play on with a broken arm, meanwhile three Brazilians, including Leonidas, left the pitch injured to complete possibly the dirtiest game in World Cup history. Two days later came a more subdued replay with the Brazilians coming from a goal down to win 2-1 with Leonidas recovering to grab his seventh goal of the tournament.
The highly-anticipated clash between hosts and holders saw the Italians wear their infamous black strip, but the game proved a far more timid affair. After exchanging goals in the opening ten minutes, France tried to impose their possession game, but Italy had their measure on the counter attack with Piola scoring twice in a 3-1 win. Elsewhere, Hungary underlined their credentials by beating Switzerland 2-0 with Sarosi again the star turn. Cuba couldn’t conjure up another shock and were hammered 8-0 by Sweden with strikers Gustav Wetterstrom and Harry Andersson both claiming hattricks.
Epic Rivalry Begins
The semifinals saw Italy face Brazil in Marseille and Hungary take on Sweden in Paris. Having got a walkover in the first round and thrashing Cuba, Sweden made a lightning start in Paris, taking the lead after just 35 seconds. Hungary kept their composure and equalized 18 minutes later. Their superior quality told as they quickly took the lead. A fine brace from Gyula Zsengeller had them cruising in the second half as they ran out as 5-1 winners.
The other semi was a true clash of the titans with Italy against Brazil. Following their epic quarterfinal, Brazil manager Adhemar Pimenta made an extraordinary decision to rest Leonidas amongst a clutch of players to save them for the final. It was a fatal mistake, as Italy started the better with Brazil goalkeeper Walter constantly rescuing his team. The resistance of Brazil lasted until the 51st minute when Gino Colaussi broke the deadlock. Eight minutes later, a clumsy challenge from Domingos de Guia handed Italy a penalty and Meazza did not miss. Brazil fought back with a late goal to give them hope, but Italy held firm and were off to another final. It was the start of one of the World Cup’s greatest rivalries that played out again in 1970, ’82 and ’94 with Italy drawing first blood. Leonidas returned to the team for the third-placed playoff netting twice to see Brazil to a 4-2 win, third place and golden boot. Pimenta later claimed Leonidas wasn’t fit enough to play the semifinal.
Last Tango in Paris
Italy headed to Paris final as favorites having navigated a tricky route to the final. Hungary had rarely looked in trouble, but had benefited from an easier draw. Italy got the better start and Colaussi reaped the rewards with a close range finish for 1-0 after six minutes. Hungary quickly equalized through Pal Titkos. However, Italy’s quality was already telling and another attack saw the stretched Hungarian defence leave Piola unmarked in the center of the goal for a 2-1 lead. Italy looked to have the game in the bag after 35 minutes when Colaussi rifled in a third. Hungary came out fighting as Italy sat on their lead, however, Sarosi produced a fine strike to bring the score back to 3-2 with twenty minutes to play. As Hungary pressed, Italy looked to hit on the counter and another well-worked move saw Piola steal a yard on his marker to stroke home the decisive goal in the 82nd minute for Italy to became the first team to retain the Jules Rimet Trophy.
The political climate of the 1930’s dominated the ’38 World Cup. Only two years on from hosting the final, Paris was forced to witness the Wehrmacht parading triumphantly through the city. From a purely footballing prospective, Italy were a fine team away from their homeland and the machinations of Mussolini underlined their quality. Leonidas was brilliant and became the first of many Brazilian World Cup icons with Sarosi and Meazza also lighting up the tournament. Sporting events of the mid ’30s were too often hijacked by despots. When the world finally began to rebuild, it begged the question in regards to the role of international sports tournaments.
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