In 1934, when Europe was still recuperating from the economic and political aftermath of the First World War, Italy hosted the second edition of the Jules Rimet Trophy.
The competition took place between May 27 and June 10th in eight Italian cities – Bologna, Florence, Naples, Milan, Rome, Genoa, Trieste and Turin.
This was the only time in the history of the competition that the hosts did not secure automatic qualification, and had to earn their sport in the last 16.
The Azzuri were one of the 16 teams who made it through to the final round.
The hosting of the World Cup by Italy came at a time when Fascism and the wave of nationalistic sentiment was gripping Europe.
It would be five years until the break of the Second World War. The seeds of the War however, were sown long before on the football fields across Italy.
Italy at the time was ruled by the Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, who was close allies with Adolf Hitler of Germany, and General Franco of Spain.
All three leaders were to play a crucial role in the Spanish Civil War which would take place a couple of years later.
The 1934 World Cup was the catalyst that the nationalistic leaders needed to proclaim their dominance across the world.
The selection of Italy as the host nation was seen by many nations as being politically influenced. Rumours of intimidation and illegal bribing and corruption charges were spreading.
FIFA itself was undergoing massive scrutiny for malpractices of their own. The winners of the First World Cup, Uruguay, alongside England refused to participate in the competition.
The South American heavyweights felt insulted when the European countries had declined to travel to Montevideo for the initial edition of the Jules Rimet trophy.
As far as England and the other Home Nations (Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) were concerned, they cited “a busy tournament schedule at home” as an excuse for not travelling to Italy.
Some might argue that the snubbing of the World Cup by England and the Home Nations had their own nationalistic overtones which were in direct conflict with the Fascist spirit propagated by Mussolini’s Italy.
The United Kingdom and the other home nations considered the Annual Home Nations Championship as the real world championship over the nascent World Cup.
The UK would exclusively control the laws of the game till 1958.
Charles Edward Sutcliffe, who had founded the Referees Association in 1908, himself said,
Home Nations was a far more representative World Championship than what is taking place in Rome
Countries which did participate in the tournament in Italy, became overwhelmingly skeptical regarding the hosts.
The backing out of important footballing nations like England and Uruguay did not do Italy and Mussolini any favors.
Mussolini did not take the snubbing of these nations in a friendly way either.
In a highly politically charged contest, Fascist newspapers referred to the English excuse as a “splendid isolation”.
However, there was a silver lining amidst all the controversy for Italy and Mussolini.
With two footballing powerhouses out of the tournament, the Cup was Italy’s to win. Musolini’s long term goal – an Italian World Cup Victory did not appear too far sighted now.
The hosting of the World Cup held special significance for Mussolini and his party.
His Fascist party often played second fiddle to his German and Spanish counterparts. Mussolini saw football as a tool to unite the masses of his country, and to announce his nation on the grandest of stages.
Anything less than a victory for the Italians would be a bitter disappointment for Mussolini.
Mussolini valued the importance his subjects gave to football. In a reign marked by political turmoil, and widespread decadence, football was the only thing which remained constant.
Mussolini gave rise to a sturdy defensive ridden style of play, and established the country’s first domestic league – the Serie A.
Stadiums were constructed at Rome, and Turin, and clubs like Milan and Napoli became the symbol of the defensive brand of Italian football, which we have become so acquainted with today.
Such was the desperation of Mussolini to win the trophy that he even bribed the referees and match officials both before and during the competition.
In the match against favourites Austria in the semi-final, Italy won courtesy of a solitary goal by Enrique Guiata.
It was believed by the media at the time that the Italian dictator had dinner with the Swedish referee, Ivan Eklind, before the game, who would – coincidentally – also referee the final.
In a politically charged and divided Europe, the World Cup was Mussolini’s chance to prove his might across the continent, and assert his dominance over the Allied forces.
Mussolini even designed his own trophy, the Coppa Del Duce which was six times the size of the Jules Rimet Trophy and was to be awarded to his victorious Italian team. The stage was set.
It was a “win or die” situation for the Italian Team, literally. Players like Giuseppe Meazza, Silvio Piola and Gino Colaussi were put under enormous pressure to perform.
This internal pressure lasted through the 1938 and 1942 World Cups as well, during the period Mussolini was in power.
Italy met Czechoslovakia in the final of the 1934 World Cup at the Stadio Nazionale del PNF (National Stadium of the National Fascist Party) winning 2-1 in extra time.
The victory was not a mere victory for the players. It was a triumphant moment for II Duce, who fulfilled his desire to assert his dominance over Europe.
The victory reverberated across the continent; Mussolini had succeeded in his aim to show Europe that his country would fight till they die – the very motto which led them to an unlikely World Cup triumph.