When Joao Havelange claimed, in 2008, that the 1966 and 1974 World Cups were fixed, his claims were largely laughed out of court. Depending on who you listened to, he was either deliberately misconstruing events or demonstrating little more than the first signs of senility. What was, however, curious about his comments was what he missed out. No mention was made of the 1978 tournament, which many have pointed to as being a tournament of less than sturdy moral fibre (and was, coincidentally, the first held under Havelange’s tutelage) and, even more curiously, none was made of the second World Cup of all, which was held in the Italy of Benito Mussolini in 1934.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that FIFA decided to hold the second World Cup (and the first to be held in Europe) in a fascist, totalitarian state. After all, they held the 1978 World Cup in one and the decision to hold the 1982 tournament in Spain was made while General Franco was still very much alive. Questionable decisions over the hosting of World Cup tournaments are part and parcel of the history of the game. However, when reading back over the history of the 1934 competition, it occasionally starts to feel as if FIFA at the time were in thrall to Mussolini, allowing him to take near personal control of the competition, which is all the more ironic considering that Il Duce himself didn’t have any great interest in the game and was primarily only interested exploiting the tournament for political purposes.

Italy had applied to host the 1930 finals and, when they were instead awarded to Uruguay, withdrew from the entire tournament in a fit of pique. Four years later, Uruguay returned the favour and refused to defend their trophy in Italy. Along with this, the British still weren’t interested and Argentina, runners-up to Uruguay at the 1928 Olympic Games and the 1930 World Cup, sent their amateur team. It’s impossible to quantify exactly, but there is a case for saying that the 1934 World Cup finals were missing three or four of their strongest teams before a ball was even kicked.

In addition to this, the Italians made the absolute maximum that they could from the oriundi, natives of another country with Italian parentage who qualified to play for a country even if they had already represented another nation. Here, Italy’s strong historical and cultural links with Argentina were a definite benefit. There were, broadly speaking, three rules that qualified what 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 prove their family history in their new country for three generations and they weren’t allowed to play against the country that they had formerly represented.

The Italian coach, Vittorio Pozzo, took full advantage of this, fielding three of the Argentinian team that contested the 1930 final against Uruguay. He countered his critics by saying that “if they can die for Italy, they can play for Italy”, referring to Italian conscription laws at the time, although when Italy declared war upon Abyssinia in 1935, several oriundi were caught trying to defect into Switzerland, which, with the benefit of hindsight, somewhat undermined his argument. Of course, all of this was within the rules at the time, but there has also been considerable discussion of whether further coercion was required to get the Italian team over the finishing line in Rome that year.

For the tournament, Mussolini had a second trophy built called the “Coppa Del Duce”, an extraordinary edifice that was six times the size of the actual tournament trophy. Italy started comfortably enough, as the only hosts that have ever had to qualify to play in a tournament in their own country, with a win against Greece, and then opened their tournament with a 7-1 win against the United States of America. In the quarter-finals (the 1934 tournament, the first to feature sixteen nations, was a straight knock-out competition), they came up against Spain and required a replay to progress, but even by the more physical standards of the day, the refereeing of Louis Baert was called into question, with the Swiss newspaper Basler Nationalzeitung saying, of the referee for the replay, Rene Mercet, that “Mercet favored the Italians in a most shameful manner”.

The semi-final saw Italy play Hugo Meisl’s Austrian “Wunderteam”, a team which had beaten Italy two years earlier in the Central European International Cup (a forerunner of the European Championship), and had already beaten a strong Hungary team in the quarter-final. On a waterlogged pitch in Milan, Enrique Guiata, one of the oriundi (and one of those caught trying to flee the country a year later at the outbreak of war) scored the only goal of the match with a goal that was scored after the Austrian goalkeeper was pushed over the goal-line. Again, Italian strong-arm tactics were overlooked by referees, but Italy were in the final against Czechoslovakia.

The Swedish referee for the match, Ivan Eklind, was the same referee as had refereed the semi-final against Austria, and one of his linesmen was Louis Blaert, who had taken control of the first match against Spain. It is widely understood that the refereeing appointments were now being made by Mussolini himself and, the night before the match, Mussolini didn’t hold a reception for the players from both teams or even a morale-boosting meeting with his own players – instead, he held court instead with Eklind.

Rome had been curiously cool towards the World Cup, and even the final itself couldn’t fill the 50,000 capacity
Stadio Nazionale PNF – there were 5,000 empty seats for the match. Again, the refereeing has been described as at best weak, but even with home advantage and refereeing that was at best described as weak (contempory accounts describe a two-footed lunge in the Italian penalty area that was as clear a foul as could be imagined which went unpunished), Italy laboured and, with fourteen minutes to play, Czechoslovakia took the lead with a goal from Antonín Puč. Italy, however, came back five minutes later with a goal from Raimundo Orsi, which forced the game into extra-time, during which a lone goal from Angelo Schiavio won the match for the host nation, and for Mussolini. Mission accomplished.

The question was asked at the time of whether Italy could have won the 1934 World Cup without the assistance of the referees. The answer came four years later, when Pozzo’s team successfully defended their title in France, but even this victory was tainted when, under Mussolini’s instruction, the team took to the pitch for their quarter-final match against the host nation in Paris in all-black, the colour of the fascist ruling party. Still, though, they went on to win the final with a 4-2 win against Hungary. This was the victory that Pozzo’s team deserved. While much evidence of the 1934 tournament suggests that Mussolini pulled sufficient strings to get the team over the finishing line, the 1938 win was fair and square, although the Austrians weren’t there (they had to withdraw after the German Anschlüss) and Spain withdrew because of their civil war.

The retrospectively inevitable Second World War came just over a year later and the next World Cup would not be played for another twelve years, by which time the world would be a different place. FIFA finally tightened its regulations on player eligibility in 1964, stating that players could only represent one country over the course of their career. The oriundi still exist – Mauro Camoranesi won the 2006 World Cup for Italy, having been born in Buenos Aires to an Italian father – but players can no longer effectively be “signed” by international teams, as they frequently were during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, after their team’s shocking performance at the 1966 World Cup, all foreign players were banned from Italian football until 1980, at which point the rules started to be relaxed.

As with Argentina in 1978, though, the question marks raised over the refereeing of the 1934 World Cup raises enough issues for us to be able to question the validity of Italy’s win in 1934. Since then, however, the national team has gone on to win a further three trophies under their own steam, an achievement that only Brazil has bettered or even equalled and, no matter who wins this year’s in tournament, Italy are guaranteed to hold onto their place behind Brazil in the overall league table of World Cup winners. Ultimately, though, the crude intrusion of politics into football blighted much of the game during the 1930s. It is a tradition that continues, albeit in a somewhat subtler fashion, to this day.