For something that is essentially an expendable pastime, football can wield an extraordinary amount of influence. The temporary truce between supporters of fierce rivals Zamalek and Al Ahly helped to overthrow Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring, for example, while the 1969 war between El Salvador and Honduras was sparked by riots before a World Cup qualifier between the two countries.
Few have understood the power of football more than Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy between 1922 and 1943. Post-First World War Italy was an uncertain place; the economy, relatively slow to industrialise, was hit hard by the four-year conflict, and the transition towards a unified nation from the country’s previous existence as a patchwork of independent city-states still felt incomplete.
Mussolini’s grand ambitions to make Italy a great power by restoring the grandeur associated with Ancient Rome and creating an empire that exhibited strength and significance on the world stage thus relied upon the construction of internal unity, and the dictator soon realised that football was the ideal vehicle to secure popular support for his nationalistic movement.
When Mussolini assumed control of the country by overthrowing King Victor Emmanuel III in the early 1920s, football was a sport growing in popularity. The organisation of the game remained extremely rudimentary, however: two separate leagues existed – one reserved for Italians and one that also permitted the participation of foreigners – and each was divided into regional groups. Acutely aware of the game’s potential, il Duce oversaw a series of reforms that attempted to coordinate the hitherto disjointed administration and cement football’s position as the nation’s undisputed primary activity of leisure.
In 1926, the fascist president of the Italian Olympic Committee, Lando Ferretti, was put in charge of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) and tasked with remodelling the game at all levels, with considerable input handed down from on high. A document named the Carta di Viareggio was released, stipulating that footballers were to be recognised as ‘non-amateurs’ – in turn paving the way for professionalism – and clubs were limited to including just two foreigners in their squads. Serie A was established in its current nationwide format, while impressive fascist-style stadia were built and clubs such as Genoa, Milan and Inter were forced to Italianise their names.
Mussolini’s primary concern was the national team, though, and these domestic reforms were largely made with the overriding aim of serving this end: by creative a structure conducive to the development of Italian players, il Duce hoped that the Azzurri would be sufficiently stocked to challenge for titles at the Olympic Games and nascent World Cup tournament in the knowledge that any success on the global stage would lead to the projection of an image of Italy as tough, important and powerful. There would be internal benefits to international triumph, too: if Italians united behind their tricolour flag in the name of football, they were also likely to do so elsewhere, and Mussolini knew that sporting achievement would likely arouse a new-found patriotic spirit, engendering a more general collectivist and nationalistic mentality among the country’s citizens.
In a similar manner to the recent Qatari bid, Italy’s application to host the 1934 World Cup was driven largely by politics. Mussolini was seduced by the sense of pride and prestige that staging the second edition of the competition would bring, with Italy’s fascist government keen to utilise football’s soft power for their regime’s own betterment. As John Foot asserts in Calcio, for example, the country’s new stadiums demonstrated the “industrial might of fascist-run Italy” and served as evidence of the rapid economic progress that had occurred under Mussolini’s rule; once again, football was identified as the optimum instrument to showcase Italy’s rising wealth and innovation to the world.
Like many dictators, Mussolini was fanatical about micromanagement, an obsession that does not naturally fit with sport, which invariably and inherently contains elements of chance. Indeed, while extensive plans can be drawn up and conditions manipulated to afford the greatest chance of triumph, on-field events remain unpredictable, a fact that induced an acute sense of vulnerability within il Duce.
Italy was certainly a talented team with gifted players, like Giuseppe Meazza, Luis Monti and Raimundo Orsi, but Mussolini wanted to control the variables as much as possible. It was strongly alleged that Ivan Eklind, the referee appointed to take charge of the hosts’ semi-final with Austria, was invited to an exclusive dinner by Mussolini on the eve of the game and, when a controversial winner saw Italy progress, the Austrians justifiably cried foul play. There had been much dispute in the quarter-final with Spain, too, when Italy’s aggressive play saw three Spaniards taken off injured, while the tight 2-1 win over Czechoslovakia in the final was hardly the type of performance to emphatically silence the denunciators.
To an extent, Mussolini was unmoved by the criticism, as evidenced by the closing ceremony’s provocatively nationalistic display of Italian-ness and the presence of the Coppa del Duce, an additional trophy awarded to the victorious Italian players that was over six times the size of the relatively modest Jules Rimet prize. However, as time went on, Mussolini became frustrated with the perception that Italy were only world champions because of corruption and bribery and, although such a sentiment was partially eliminated by victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – a triumph that allowed him to upstage his uneasy ally Adolf Hitler – Mussolini was aware that retaining the cup in 1938 was a matter of utmost importance.
The Italians’ arrival in France for the competition, however, was not the ideal preparation; Mussolini’s support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War had angered many of the locals, who staged anti-fascist protests outside stadiums and in city centres. Il Duce’s response was typically confrontational, ordering the team to wear all-black strips – which were also emblazoned with the Fascio Littorio symbol – when their colours clashed with the hosts’, with team manager Vittorio Pozzo also insisting that his players defiantly continue to give their customary pre-game fascist salute in the face of heavy booing from the French public. Emphatically swatting outside doubts about the authenticity of their achievements four years previously, Italy took their second consecutive world title with impressive wins over Norway, France, Brazil and Hungary.
A key part of the nation’s success was the presence in the team of oriundi, the Italian word given to immigrants of native origin. At first glance, it perhaps appears antithetical that Argentina-born players such as Monti, Orsi and Enrique Guaita were so integral to a side that aimed to promote pure Italianism, but their presence in fact fitted neatly with the fascist ideal of an expansive, colonial Italy that naturally included a thriving diaspora. There were some reports, nevertheless, that foreign-born players were discriminated against by Mussolini, employed out of necessity to ensure Italian victory then denied, for example, the special commemorative medals given to natives in 1934.
On the pitch, the team played in the most characteristically fascist way possible. Pozzo was an authoritative coach who stressed the importance of effort, sacrifice and unity, even forcing players to room together if they did not get on. In Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson writes that, although Pozzo’s own politics were unclear, “he made full use of the prevailing [fascist] militarism to dominate and motivate his side”; Brian Glanville, the legendary football writer, meanwhile, noted that Italy were not as technical as the Hungarian and Austrian sides of the time but compensated through their “greater forcefulness and physical conditioning”.
Tactically, Italy were a well-drilled outfit who focused on combativeness and reactivity. Defensive solidity was valued above all else. La Gazzetta Dello Sport’s Mario Zappa described Italy’s biggest strength in 1938 as their “capacity to attack with the fewest amount of men possible”.
Flair players like Meazza, Silvio Piola and Gino Colaussi were included in line-ups but forced to abandon their natural creative tendencies for the good of the collective, with Pozzo’s pragmatism seen in the fact that he was one of the first advocates of man-marking: for an Italian player to willingly shadow a rival for the duration of a game demonstrated discipline and sacrifice, two attributes highly valued by Pozzo and, indeed, Mussolini and his fascist government.
It is difficult to definitively say whether or not Italy would have been as successful on the field had Mussolini not come to power in 1926. After all, il Duce did not create the nation’s love for football, which had been growing long before King Emmanuel III’s overthrow, although a more professional league setup certainly helped footballers to improve. The likelihood is that those with sufficient talent to become Azzurri regulars would have emerged with or without him.
What cannot be denied, though, is the political importance of football to Mussolini. The victories in 1934, 1936 and 1938 went some way towards uniting the Italian people behind a single, national cause, and it was astute of Mussolini to recognise that public support was most attainable through success in the sport.
Even a fascist dictator who controlled a nation’s economy, public services, police and army without hindrance needed football to advance his personal and political cause, a fascinating phenomenon testament to the extraordinary power of the beautiful game.
By Greg Lea. Follow @GregLeaFootball