1938 France

Italy in France rode their bubble
To win the cup with a minimum trouble
Though Brazil had a shout
They left Leonidas out
As the Azurri completed their double.

The clouds of war were looming in Europe as the World Cup moved to France in 1938. Defending champions Italy, were the team to beat and, once again, Vittorio Pozzo, was manager.

What was going on in the World in 1938?

  • Oil is discovered in Saudi Arabia
  • Laszlo Biro patents the ball point pen in Britain
  • Wrong way Corrigan takes off from New York for California but lands in Ireland instead
  • Neville Chamberlain returned from the Munich summit to Croydon airport, declaring "peace in our time"
  • Adolf Hitler is named Time magazine's 'man of the year'

Famous people born in 1938 include:

  • Tennis great, Rod Laver
  • Rudolph Nureyev, Oliver Read, Evel Knievel and Jon Voight from the world of entertainment
  • Kofi Annan and Alberto Fujimori from the political world

Back to the World Cup – the format

FIFA planned for a sensible number of teams again, 16, in a straight knockout event. However, political events conspired against them as Germany annexed Austria via Anschluss. This meant we ended up with 15 teams in a knockout tournament and hence the only ever bye was awarded in World Cup history, as Sweden having been drawn against Austria, had no opponent.

The supersized Germany put in its worst performance in World Cup history, being eliminated in the first round, leading to the conclusion that when it comes to German football, less is more; their 3 World Cup tournament wins have all come as the slimmed down West Germany, and bulking up to a Germany-Austria combination clearly does not work at all.

Spain's participation was not contemplated due to the civil war.


The Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today), Poland, Norway and Cuba were all first time participants. Cuba got past Romania after a replay before getting hammered in the quarter-final by a fresh Sweden. The Dutch East Indies crashed 6-0 to Hungary, in what is statistically the shortest and least successful foray into the World Cup of any country.

Norway meanwhile had a tough draw against defending champions Italy, but gave them a real scare, taking the match into extra time before losing 2-1. And Poland played out a real humdinger with Brazil. 3-1 down at half down, Poland fought back to level the match at 4-4 at 90 minutes before losing 6-5 after extra time, Why aren't more World Cup matches like this?

Here is a clip of the only appearance in the World Cup of the Dutch East Indies

LowlightThe Battle of Bordeaux

The Battle of Bordeaux refers to the Brazil v Czechoslovakia quarter-final, which finished 1-1 after extra time and had to be replayed a couple of days later. The match featured a series of brutal fouls by both sides, due to the lax officiating of Hungarian referee Paul von Hertzka.

Brazilians Machado and Zezé Procópio as well as Czechoslovak Jan Říha were sent off. It was the first time that three players were sent off in a World Cup match, a record that was not exceeded until the 2006 World Cup match between Portugal and Netherlands.

Captain František Plánička and Oldřich Nejedlý from Czechoslovakia suffered a broken right arm and right leg respectively in the mayhem. Their teammate Josef Košťálek was injured in the stomach. Nejedlý had abandoned the game before the end of 90 minutes due to his injury, but Plánička stayed at the Czechoslovak goal in pain through the rest of the second half and the extra 30 minutes. Three other Brazilians, including Leônidas and Perácio, also left the field with injuries.

In the replay, both teams having to field several reserves, but Brazil had greater strength in depth and won the replay 2-1 to move on the semi-finals.

Who should have won but didn't?

This was Italy's tournament all the way, aside from the scare against Norway in the first round. The match up against Brazil in the semi-final potentially should have been a close encounter, but Brazil were fatigued from the scrap against the Czechs and chose to rest a couple of key players, saving them for the final(!). This included the hare-brained decision to leave out Leonidas, the best player in the tournament and its top scorer. Italy did not look back and went on to become the first country to win a World Cup away from home.

Italy in France rode their bubble
To win the cup with a minimum trouble
Though Brazil had a shout
They left Leonidas out
As the Azurri completed their double.

Highlights of the final

Heroes and Villains

Hero: Vittorio Pozzo

This was the first away win in the World Cup, and Italy's success was masterminded again by Vittorio Pozzo, just as it had been in 1934. He remains the only coach to have won two World Cups.

Pozzo was an educated man thoroughly immersed in football, a combination of factors not generally found together. He managed to be immune to the political overtones of the 1930s and indeed the pervading moral climate, in which he could treat players like recalcitrant schoolboys, worked in his favour. He seems in some ways an early version of Sir Alex Ferguson. "If I let them make mistakes, I would lose my authority" he once said.

After helping to found the famous Torino club, he studied English before being sent to England by his family. Arguably this was the key turning point in the development of Italian football. Pozzo moved to the North of England in the pre-WWI years, and was especially impressed with the play of Manchester United and the distribution skills of their centre half, Charlie Roberts in particular. This had a great influence on the choice of the type of players he wanted in his Italian teams. He dropped talented players because he wanted "despatchers" not "carriers".

The 1938 side was constructed with even more care than the 1934 one. it was a side with better balance and control, and had all the hallmarks of Pozzo about it. It is unthinkable that Italy could have won back to back World Cups with anyone except Vittorio Pozzo at the helm.

Villain: Benito Mussolini

Even though the World Cup was in France, it was still impossible to ignore the influence of Benito Mussolini. He sent a message to the Italian dressing room before the final against Hungary, which simply stated "Victory or death". Was this a threat that, if they lost, the team had better not consider returning to Italy? it is all a bit unclear, but whatever the exact intent, it was not a message couched in terms that would encourage a team and allow them to play in a relaxed manner.

Fortunately for the Italian players, they won 4-2 and avoided an awkward meeting with Il Duce. To compound the mystery, Hungarian goalkeeper, Szabo, said after the game "I was never so proud in my life as after the final. We saved the life of eleven human beings."

Quick Facts:

  • Teams: 15
  • When: 04 June 1938 to 19 June 1938
  • Final: 19 June 1938
  • Matches: 18
  • Goals Scored: 84 (average 4.7 per match)
  • Attendance: 375,700 (average 20,872)

Verdict: Good, Bad or Ugly?

More bad than good. The right team won, but the format, the political atmosphere and some of the on-pitch brutality detracted from whatever merit there was in the football. Italy proved to be the most professional team in preparation, coaching and execution, a term I am sure Mussolini would have chosen himself.

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