“I may have let in four goals, but at least I saved their lives.”
Europe went through considerable political change during the 20th century. From monarchy to democracy, to the rule of church and despotism, it seemed like every political ideology was tested in the particular continent.
Fascism, Nazism and similar ideologies basically share an explicit socialist collectivist core. This targeted subjugating individuals as part of the ‘mass’. The government ensured that every individual dances to their tune but the person could not object to it as he/she sees that everyone else was doing it too. Hence the citizens were subjugated into being a choreographed mass. Each human being was just a tiny screw in the huge machinery, collectively toiling for the government.
Football was the sport of the masses, and three fasicst leaders- Mussolini, Hitler and Franco- knew very well how much they could benefit from propaganda through the sport- they could show the world exactly what their nation was made of. Through manipulation, coercion and corruption, the three exploited the popular appeal of football.
Slow to industrialise, Italy was a latecomer to football. The nation won the First World War but remained highly disgruntled with the ‘sub-par’ treatment given to her by her Allies. Inadequate governments coupled with the threat of communism, fueled the rapid rise to power of Mussolini and the fascist regime.
Having established his dictatorship, Benito Mussolini now focused his interest into marshaling the nation behind the administration. Sport was something that belonged to the masses as it didn’t just involve the people who were playing in the centre, but also the ones watching from the sidelines and rooting for their favorite, the people who were just as much part of the game as the ones actually fighting to get the win. The supporters are often referred to as the 12th man in the game, and Mussolini was quick to understand this.
Il Duce didn’t take interest in the game nor was enthusiastic about it, but he understood that football could prove to be something he could boast about on the world stage. He recognized that as the sport of the masses, he could use football to persuade the masses and tilt and modify their opinion. The government needed popular support. Mussolini and his fascist party established the Italian League, Serie A. He knew that by doing so, he could instill a sense of nationalism and partisanship as the league would eventually help in making players good enough to compete with the best. The 1926 Viareggio Charter turned football into a fascist game. Led by the head of Bolognese Fascism, Leandro Arpinati, the Federation began revolutionising the game.
Professional footballers at the time claimed that they were brainwashed into thinking a certain way, a more desired way if you like. They could not hold their own personal political ideologies or inclinations- the Mussolini way was the right way.
The second World Cup was hosted by Italy. Italy had applied to host the inaugural edition of the competition in 1930 but the privilege was instead given to Uruguay. Hurting Mussolini’s ego, he withdrew his nation from the tournament. Defending champions Uruguay returned the favour when the 1934 finals were being hosted by Italy. Argentina too, had sent a weakened squad because they were afraid of Italians pilfering members of their team who had Italian heritage- this had already happened to the likes of Luisito Monti, Raimundo Orsi and Enrico Guaita who were poached because of the policy known as ‘oriundi’.
MORE READING: Football & Fascism: When Germany were the inferior team
There were basically three rules that qualified who was effectively a foreign national to play as an oriundo – they had to be playing in the national league of their new country, they had to be able to determine their family history in their new country for three generations and they couldn’t play against the country that they had initially represented. The likes of Guaita and Orsi, among others, were instrumental in Italy’s success in the tournament and hence this policy drew wide criticism. However, the Azzuri coach Vincent Pozzo countered it by saying ‘“if they can die for Italy, they can play for Italy”, referring to Italian conscription laws at the time. It is interesting to note that the oriundi still exists – Mauro Camoranesi won the 2006 World Cup for Italy, and in fact was born in Buenos Aires to an Italian father. However, players can no longer effectively be “signed” by international teams, as they frequently were during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and the rules pertaining to such an event are now relaxed. This is mainly due to Italy’s shocking performance at the 1966 World Cup as henceforth, all foreign players were banned from Italian football until 1980, after which these rules which point the rules started becoming lenient.
Hosting the 1934 World Cup was Mussolini’s big chance- he had the perfect opportunity to show off his nation’s mettle through the organization of the event as well as Italy’s performance on the field. He did exactly that. While Italy’s performance off the pitch- the organization of the competition- was something that he could control in advance and therefore was assured that it would be classy, the Azzuri’s on-field results were not in his hand. But Mussolini made sure he had the ultimate say, in his nation’s results as well. Referees were bribed, corruption was rampant and very evident.
Italy won their first match. USA was beaten 7-1, a scoreline that surprised everyone. The quarter final was played between Spain and the Italy and a resilient Spain made the corrupted referees’ jobs very difficult and forced the hosts to a replay. Il Duce of course ensured that Italy win this match with the help of his pawn, Rene Mercet- the referee officiating the match- to progress further.
The Italians faced favourites Austria, who were known as the Wunderteam, in the semi final and won 1-0. It is believed, and rightly too, that Mussolini himself had dinner with the Swedish referee, Ivan Eklind, who would officiate the following match, the day before. Why? To discuss ‘tactics’ of course.
Ever heard of Josef Bican? He is by far, one of the most criminally underrated players in the history of the game. A goal-scorer of almost superhuman enormity, the centre-forward was a highly prolific player and could run 100 metres in an impressive 10.6 seconds. (officially, he has scored 805 goals in 530 matches. If we include matches not recognised by FIFA Bican’s total rises to an estimated 1468 goal in 918 games). Bican maintained till his death in 2001, that he was certain that the referee Eklind had been bribed. The Austrian-Czech had good reason to say so too. After all, his ball sent to the right wing was headed to an Italian player by the referee who had intercepted it by mistake! The solitary goal of the match was scored by Enrique Guiata (which many people claimed was offside), one of the Oriundi, and its build-up saw the Austrian Goalkeeper being pushed blatantly.
The same Swedish referee (Ivan Eklind), who officiated the semi-final, was asked to look over the final. He was even invited to the Fascist VIP box before the match began. Italy won the final against Czechoslovakia 2-1. Czechoslovakia initially held the lead through Antonio Puc’s goal, but the equalizer was scored by Raimundo Orsi (another oriundi) five minutes before the final whistle. Angelo Schiavio put the hosts ahead in extra time and it turned out to be the winner as Italy lifted the World Cup. However, more than the win, it was Mussolini’s propaganda which triumphed in the final. The picture of the stadium during the final is spoken by many historians, with a lot of awe and admiration.
Italians won the cup on home terrain and Mussolini got what he wanted- to show off his country on the world fold. Not only that, in more materialistic terms, Il Duce got to show off the second trophy the winners were going to lift – the “Coppa Del Duce”, an extraordinary edifice that was six times the size of the actual tournament trophy. The self absorbed Italian dictator had triumphed in his ambitions.
The next World Cup, being hosted by France, was also won by the Azzuri. By 1938, the Second World War was looming in Europe and was anticipated any second. The World Cup was an ideal place for improving Mussolini’s standing in the world, for the Allies to take him as seriously as Adolf Hitler and also for the Fuhrer to take him as seriously because we see that Mussolini’s image was not particularly commanding in front of Hitler (Later, it would be seen that Germany comes to the aid of Italy almost every time and everywhere in the Second World War). He could do just that by retaining the World Cup. Mussolini had a point to prove.
After beating Norway, France (where Italy again drew criticism from everywhere as under Mussolini’s instruction, the team took to the pitch in an all-black kit [uniform?], the colour of the fascist ruling party) and then Brazil, Italy faced Hungary in the final and Il Duce made sure that his players knew that winning the cup was a matter of life and death (Note: This is not a figurative sentence). A telegram was sent to the players before the final which read “Vincere o morire!” which, translated literally into English reads “Win or die!” Even if the term has been lost in translation and is not as literal as he intended it to be, when a person known for purging people who did not believe in his ideologies is in question, one could assume that his telegram would have been taken very seriously by the Italians. Italy beat Hungary 4-2 to win the match, and the Hungarian goalkeeper Antal Szabó famoulsy said, “I may have let in four goals, but at least I saved their lives.”
Italy might have even won the 1942 World Cup, their third on the trot, had it taken place. But the Second World War made FIFA cancel the competition. Il Duce was killed by partisans along with his mistress, Clara Petacci, and some close associates in April 1945.
By politicizing the game, Fascism enhanced the regime’s international prestige and inculcated nationalist values. Football was effectively used to formulate the nationalistic identity in Italy. Italian fascism was triumphant in not only making the most of the prospect football provided to shape public opinion, but also infiltrate daily life and reinforce conformity.
Football and Fascism: The National Game under Mussolini by Simon Martin