Originally penned by Jonathan Foley, March 2021.
As of October 8th, 1922, Italy had as good as fallen under the rule of a fascist dictatorship.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the Italian people had lost faith in their monarchy as well as democracy and power was seized by the opportunistic thinking of Benito ‘Il Duce’ Mussolini.
Under his reign, authority was to go unquestioned, any political opposition was crushed and promises were made to screaming crowds that, under him, the Italian state would soon revive the glory days of the Roman Empire.
While Mussolini considered which foreign lands to plunder and conquer, he first sought to ensure that loyalty and obedience to his rule remained strong back at home.
And there was no better way to harness the support of the people other than by giving them something to celebrate. Football.
A game he wasn’t all that particularly fond of himself, despite adapting his Youth Movement to the ranks at SS Lazio, but that was irrelevant. As a former journalist and editor with the Avanti, he knew how significant a role propaganda could play in shaping public opinion.
“We become strong. I feel, when we have no friends upon whom to lean, or to look to for moral guidance.”
‘Opportunity’ is undoubtedly a key word when one looks back at Mussolini’s tenure.
He had seized upon the unrest and frustrations of the people when he marched them in their thousands towards Rome in 1922; even if he himself allegedly arrived by other more comfortable means.
Initially, while holding the title of Prime Minister, he had grasped the chance to convert the system of governance to suit his own ends by introducing the Acrebo Law.
The political act that, essentially, granted him supreme rule.
Intimidation and brutality on opposing factions was a useful method here and when Italy got to host the 1934 World Cup, this was a means by which he could consolidate his popularity among the masses.
Benito Mussolini’s vision of Italian prowess – physically strong, muscular and attractive – was mitigated by his own propaganda. Akin to that of the physique on the statues of Olympians and heroic Roman figures throughout the country.
After all, he himself was not adverse to the notion of taking his shirt off whenever the cameras showed up.
Whether it be pretending to be helping the workers laying the railway tracks (to help the trains run on time) or trotting about on horseback, Mussolini missed no opportunities to bare the torso and give the onlooking public something to talk about.
In addition to that, the 1934 tournament was a perfect chance to showcase Italy to the world. Its developments, under fascist rule of course, of infrastructure, commerce and general economic recovery. To show that it could not only host and organise a world cup, but that it could also organise the victory of one too.
Looking back through the archives, it seems that even FIFA had backed down from having any real involvement in the running of this particular tournament.
In his biographical notes, then chairman Jules Remit makes no reference to so many important changes made to the competition that year; not even the imposition of the ‘Coppa Del Duce.’ An accolade that would also be hoisted by the eventual champions.
Mussolini had allowed himself to create his own special trophy of that bore the aforementioned title.
It was a bizarre and overtly-large cup (symbolically about seven times bigger than the actual World Cup) and going by the inscription on it, it’s clear which country he felt should go on and win it.
“Silence is the only answer you should give to the fools…”
Having home advantage wasn’t enough. Favourable refereeing now had to be courted by whatever means necessary. With Vittorio Pozzo as manager, Italy adapted a hard-hitting and niggling approach to their game-plan.
It’s widely believed that Pozzo – who had spent time learning the game while living in England – had no qualms about physicality. Being under the pressure that he was from above however, he might well have had to turn a blind eye to some of the nastier aspects of the way his team went about their business on the field.
Overlooking the Italians opening game against the United States where they enjoyed a come 7-1 win, it was the games against Spain that truly began to rouse suspicion. After the initial drawn game, the replay was overshadowed by a series of contentious decisions – all of which favoured Italy – and the host nation progressed to the next round thanks to a debacle of a 2-1 win.
It became common knowledge that Mussolini had taken up the authority to select the referees and officials he wanted for each match and the plan was working. The Italian supporters were in too much elation to be bothered about questionable fair play and sportsmanlike conduct. After all, they had a World Cup semi-final to look forward to.
The night before Italy’s semi-final meeting with Austria, allegations still persist to this day that Benito Mussolini sat down to dinner with Swedish referee Ivan Ecklind. No doubt the plan was to discuss ‘tactics’ for the upcoming match. Whether the referee was bribed or bullied, we might never know for sure. Either way, it seems as though the man who was supposed to be the one in charge of the game, agreed to something.
Despite what the native Italian press had said, the Austrians would have been staunch favourites to win this particular game. Their footballing style was renowned for its class and prestige. They were the second country after Britain to go full-on professional and they had Mattias Sindelar – arguably the world’s best centre-forward – leading the line in attack.
In a 1998 interview with the BBC, Austrian player Josef Bican, openly discussed his tarnished memories of that game. He claimed he and his teammates all knew something was awry with some of the decisions that were going on. Perhaps most vividly, he recalled how he was trying to find a team-mate with a pass only for the referee to intervene and head the ball back to the Italians.
Torrential rain over Milan had caused the pitch to water-log and quagmires appeared on the surface. No one seemed interested in tending the puddles. Any hopes Austria had of applying their passing game to good effect was under threat and with the referee seemingly doing all in his power to stop them, they bowed out in a single goal defeat. A goal which many still believe was both offside and a blatant foul on their goalkeeper.
As Italy prepared for the final in Rome a few days later, it’s possible that Mussolini and the world were starting to see how the realms of fascism could be put into active practice. Unlike religion and historical events of old, there could be no dispute about their impending success.
In essence, there could be no interpretation or lie about Italy’s win because the world would see it for themselves. That’s what Mussolini capitalised upon. Portraying an inarguable ‘truth’ to the world that his national side were the greatest. Even if it was a distorted and artificially crafted truth.
“Fascism … believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace.”
Retrospectively speaking, there seems to be an allure of fascination with packed stadiums when it comes to fascist dictators. We’ll see more of that in our next article when we hone in on Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco. They too seemed to be rapt withal to the image of addressing mass crowds and, after all, what fills a stadium better than anything else?
Football, of course.
On the day of the final, as Italy prepared for their date with destiny against Czechoslovakia, an interesting meeting took place shortly before the kick-off. A meeting which shattered the Czechs’ dreams of causing an upset on the day; before a ball had even been kicked.
Ivan Ecklind, the controversial Swedish referee from the semi-final, was not only selected again to adjudicate this showpiece game, but when he and he alone, was called to the VIP box to meet with Mussolini, the Czechoslovakian players had their suspicions of underhanded coercion confirmed. As author of ‘The Chronicle of Czech Football’. Miloslov Jensik, told:
“If anyone was going to be invited, it would usually be the two captains, possibly [along with] the referee … but when our players learned that it was only the referee, it was the confirmation of their darkest fears because they knew what had happened in the semi-final with Austria.”
The Czechs knew they’d have to face an aggressive team, a hostile home crowd and now a referee who would do all in their combined power to ensure an Italian victory. Throughout the game, the exuberance and recklessness of Italy’s tackling went unpunished and they would eventually win the game 2-1.
As throngs of supporters of the Azure flooded the pitch in celebration, the significance of an Italian victory in (of all places) Rome was not lost on anybody. It wasn’t just the fans, who had already been whipped up in a fever of turbulent nationalism for over a decade, who rejoiced. Inwardly, a feeling of quaint satisfaction also fell on the dim and devilish smile of one man in particular. Benito Mussolini.
Waving at the crowd in his white military attire, Mussolini knew only too well that fascism had become the religion of the lay people and, with Italy being crowned world champions just twelve years after the seizure of power, a true liturgy was born through sport. Even if the means to that success were fiendish and built on ulterior motives.
A sporting event twisted and moulded to suit the political ends of people who would use their power for great and terrible evil.
And just like what happened amid the unstable political climate of 1930’s Europe, the incorporation of fascism to football would not remain purely Italian. Soon after, the ideologies would again unravel. Maybe even on a more lasting and wider-scale than before. This when such ideas, as we’ll see in Part Three, crept into the mindsets of those holding power in Germany and Spain.
To Be Continued …