Mussolini, Fascism and the World Cup

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini saw the 1934 World Cup as a chance to spread fascist propaganda. He categorically succeeded.

In 1934, football was emerging as an international sport around which national identities could be moulded and manipulated; it had become the sport to represent nations on the world stage.

No sooner had Italy been given the rights to host the tournament, fascist leader Benito Mussolini began to assert his power with every aspect of its organisation. He was determined to gain political advantage and demonstrate his regime’s achievements and creative potential, not only to Italians but the rest of the world.

Il Duce saw football, and more importantly the World Cup, as an opportunity to promote his nation and gain international prestige.

Mussolini’s azzurri

Professor John Foot, who has written on the history of Italian football and is a reader in Modern Italian History at University College London, believes Mussolini knew exactly what political impact a successful tournament could have.

“Mussolini was acutely aware of the powers of propaganda in shaping public opinion. He recognised that as the sport of the masses, he could use football to gain the support of a nation,” said Foot. “Mussolini had a desire to propagate his images of the ‘new Italian’ as courageous, physically attractive, vigorous and sporting.”

A regular spectator at Rome’s Nazionale stadium during the tournament, the dictator made the 1934 World Cup his Berlin Olympics. He used the platform of football and the spectacle of the World Cup to showcase Italy and trumpet his Fascist regime to the world.

The Italian team were ‘Mussolini’s azzurri’. Indeed such was the desire of the leader to showcase his country’s strengths, he even had an additional trophy commissioned – the Coppa Del Duce, whose dimensions dwarfed the FIFA trophy. FIFA President at the time Jules Rimet was quoted as saying, “FIFA are not organising this tournament, he [Mussolini] is.”

Mussolini taking control

Though the tournament was a huge success for the regime, it wasn’t without its fair share of controversy.

“In the majority of countries the World Cup was called a sporting fiasco, because besides the desire to win, all other sporting considerations were thrown out of the window. Italy naturally wanted to win, but they allowed it to be seen all too clearly,” explained Foot.

Not content with home advantage, Mussolini decided which referees would officiate at each match, something that would prove decisive in his quest for victory.

In the quarter-final replay against Spain, the behaviour of the referee immediately aroused suspicion of corruption. A series of contentious decisions in Italy’s favour ensured the hosts progressed, eventually. Mussolini’s intervention was working to perfection.

Italy’s opponents in the semi-finals however, threatened to upset il Duce’s plans. The pre-tournament favourites Austria were renowned for their stylish play and prodigious talent.

However, the Austrian’s were up against more than a quagmire of a pitch and a determined Italian team. They were also up against the referee chosen by…. il Duce.

“Mussolini appointed a young Swedish official for the game, and allegations were rife that [Ivan] Eklind had been bribed ahead of the game. Indeed, it is heavily thought that the pair had dinner together the night before the match to ‘talk tactics’,” Foot said.

One report even stated that the referee was seen intercepting a pass by an Austrian player and heading the ball back to the Italians.

Despite that, things weren’t easy for the Italians and they relied on a contentious goal that many believed was offside. Nevertheless, Italy and Mussolini were through to the final.

The final

The national stadium of the fascist party in Rome was set to be the scene of Mussolini and his nation’s greatest propaganda triumph.

On June 10, the whole of Italy stood still when ‘Mussolini’s azzurri’ and Czechoslovakia clashed in the final. Cheered on by the whole of his nation the only thing now standing in Mussolini’s way was a talented, but relatively inexperienced, Czechoslovakian side.

Amazingly the fascist leader again insisted that Eklind, who officiated the semi-final so contentiously and clearly in Italy’s favour, would referee the game.

“The Czech team knew from the start they would have the Italian team, the crowd and more importantly the referee against them,” explained Foot.

During the final, the Italian coach Vittorio Pozzo used a militaristic approach to spur on his team, describing his players as soldiers and the matches as battles.

Throughout the game Italy’s aggressive style of play went unpunished. The scores were level at 1-1 after the regulation ninety minutes and so the match went into extra-time. Angelo Schiavio was to be the Italian hero as he scored the goal that won the first World Cup in his country’s history.

“The victory in Rome, more than anything else, cemented the popularity of Mussolini,” added Foot.

Such successes were uniting the Italian public behind the regime and symbolised the rise of the Fascist Italian nation. The national glory was related to Mussolini’s role, ‘The Duce’s congratulations for the great success of the Italian players’, was one headline after the tournament.

The closing ceremony of the tournament possessed other features that mixed fascist themes with the appearance of international approval, with the fascist anthem ‘Giovinezza’ playing loudly throughout the stadium.

For the Italian people to celebrate the victory was to celebrate fascism. The 1934 World Cup will be remembered for, perhaps unfortunately, propaganda for a fascist state and a fascist regime. Mussolini realised before anyone that: to manipulate football is to manipulate the masses.

The more sceptical wondered if Italy would have won anywhere else in the world. Four years later, they would get their answer.

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