France were chosen as the hosts of the 1938 World Cup, largely as a thanks to Jules Rimet, the Parisian who had set up the tournament in the first place. All of this caused much consternation in Argentina. The Argentines had expected to host the tournament, on the basis that the tournament would be rotated between Europe and South America. Such was their outrage when the competition was awarded to the French that they threw a hissy fit and refused to enter. Uruguay, ever close allies of the Argentine cause, followed suit. The 1938 World Cup is notable for the first sighting of what is now a staple of every World Cup: the Brazilian superstar. Leonidas was his name and, although his team would fall at the semi-final stage, he scored eight goals. There were again a couple of surprise entries. The Dutch East Indies made their first and only appearance, as did Cuba.
First Round: The holders Italy continued their apparent tradition of making a mountain out of a molehill, by labouring to beat Norway 2-1. Elsewhere, the Dutch East Indies were thrashed 6-0 by Hungary, and Cuba nearly provided a surprise before being held 3-3 by Romania. Romantics didn’t have to wait too long, though. The Cubans won the replay 2-1. Elsewhere, Germany were surprised by four goals to two by the Swiss after a replay and, in possibly the most extraordinary match the World Cup has ever seen, Brazil beat Poland 6-5, with Leonidas and the Polish striker Willimowski scoring four each. You can understand Wllimowski’s disappointment at this.
Quarter-Finals: With only 15 teams having entered, Sweden had been given a bye to the quarter-finals. They took full advantage of their extra few days training, through running up eight without reply against Cuba. The French became the first host nation to not win the competition, after their loss against the holders (and favourites) Italy. The hosts wouldn’t win it again until 1966. Leonidas scored another two, as Brazil beat the Czechs 2-1 after a replay. Leonidas can be seen below.
Semi-Finals: Italy against Brazil. The favourites against the tournament’s form team. So what do Brazil do? They drop Leonidas in preparation for the final. Six goals in three games, and the biggest match they’d ever played. It’s still a decision that is much talked about in Brazil. In an act of supreme poetic justice, Italy edged through 2-1. In the other semi-final, Sweden, having dished out a walloping to Cuba in the previous round, found themselves on the receiving end instead, battered 5-1 by the rapidly improving Hungarians.
The Final – Italy 4–2 Hungary
It gives you some idea of where priorities lay in the 1930s that the Stade de Colombes in Paris (probably more famous now as the stadium used in “Escape To Victory) wasn’t even at capacity for the final of the 1938 World Cup. It was a battle of ideologies. The Hungarians, a prototype of the famous team of the 1950s, were known for their all-out attacking style. Italy, then as now, preferred to play it cautiously. The match got off to an extraordinary start, with two goals in the first eight minutes – an early goal for Italy through Colaussi was cancelled out through the (almost) humorously-named Titkos. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Italy were too strong for a relatively inexperienced Hungarian team. Piola edged the Italians back in front and, twenty minutes into the second half, Colaussi extended the lead to 3-1. Just when it seemed as if it was all over for the Hungarians, they seized a lifeline when Sarosi pulled one back with twenty minutes to play. It wasn’t enough, though – a late shot from Piola tied it up to take the Jules Rimet trophy back to Italy again.