As the entrants lined up for the 1938 World Cup finals in France, storm clouds were building up the horizon, and the tournament itself wasn’t exempt from such global concerns. Three months prior to the start of it, German tanks had marched into Austria, annexing the country through the Anschlüss agreement. Within a couple of months, the Austrian national football team, which had got to the semi-finals of the previous tournament in Italy and was one of the favourites for this one, was no more. On the 28th of March 1938, just sixteen days after the Anschlüss was signed, FIFA was notified that the Austrian Football Association, the OFB, had been abolished and that Germany would be representing both nations. Sweden, the team that they had been due to play, received a bye to the second round of the tournament.
The decision to award the 1938 World Cup finals to France had caused considerable outrage in itself. It had been announced at FIFA’s 1936 congress, which was held in Berlin, and it had been expected at the time that the finals of the competition would be alternated between Europe and South America. Argentina and Uruguay withdrew from the competition, leaving Brazil and Cuba as the only representatives from the Americas. The decision provoked a riot outside the headquarters of the Argentinian Football Association. The only South American preresentatives, however, would go on to take part in one of the most extraordinary games that the World Cup finals have ever seen, a first round thriller in Strasbourg against Poland.
The match was played at Le Stade de la Meinau in Strasbourg in front of a crowd of 15,000, the majority of whom were reported as being Polish supporters on account of the large number of Polish immigrant workers in the area. The match had been originally scheduled to take place on the south coast in Toulouse, but the Polish Football Association complained that the heat of the south coast would unfairly favour the Brazilian team. The match was moved to a city with more temperate weather, but not because of this complaint – the late withdrawal of the Austrian team led to a number of changes to the tournament schedule. Brazil, however, started the match as clear favourites. This was Poland’s debut in the competition, and their amateur players had only come together a week before the tournament started, in no small part to accommodate the Polish football league season.
The match was played in wet and windy conditions in Strasbourg, and the gap between the two teams was not as great as the pre-match talk of the difference seemed to have been overstated, in no small part because Brazil started six debutants for this match. Brazil took the lead after eighteen minutes through Leonidas, but five minutes later the Polish striker Ernest Wilimoski was fouled by the Brazilian goalkeeper Batsaias, and Scherfke converted the penalty to bring Poland level with their first ever goal in the World Cup finals. Poland stayed level for only two minutes before Romeu gave Brazil the lead again, though, and a third goal just before half-time from Peracio seemed to make the game safe for the South American team.
Two goals in six minutes from Wilimowski, however, brought Poland level at 3-3 with just under an hour of the match played. Brazil retook the lead with a second goal from Peracio with just twenty minutes left to play, but Poland refused to give up the ghost and with two minutes of the match left to play, Wilimowski completed his hat-trick to take match into extra-time. Three minutes into the additional thirty, Leonidas scored his second goal to put Brazil 5-4 in front. Contempary reports record that there was a degreee of controversy surrounding the goal, with Leonidas losing his boot en route to scoring, but the fact that Brazil wore black socks at the time meant that the referee didn’t see this incident and the goal was allowed to stand. Just before the end of the first period of extra-time, Leonidas scored again to complete his hat-trick and surely tie the match up for Brazil at 6-4.
This Polish team, however, were made of stern stuff and they continues to push forward in search of another way back into the match. With three minutes of extra-time left to play, they found one when Wilimowski scored his fourth goal of the match to pull the score back to 6-5 for Brazil. Even then, Wodarz saw a shot from a free-kick flash just wide of the post and then, with virtually the last kick of the match, Nic hit the Brazilian crossbar but Brazil had done enough to save themselves from a replay. Poland, for all of the entertainment that they had brought the tournament in their one hundred and twenty minutes on the pitch in it, were out of the tournament. Brazil did require a replay in the next round before beating Czechoslovakia, and finally went out in the semi-finals, when they were narrowly beaten by the eventual winners, Italy. The German team that had been artificially enhanced by Anschlüss, for the record, went out in the first round after a replay, beaten by Switzerland.
Ernest Wilimowski, Poland’s four goal hero that day, took German citzenship upon the occupation of Poland the follwing year in order to avoid military service. He continued to play football in Germany, and even represented the German national team eight times before the continuing war made even friendly matches impossible. The tragedy of the war, however, did hit Wilimowski his mother, Paulina, was imprisoned in the Auschwitz death camp after she havng a relationship with a Jewish male. She did, however, survive the experience. After the war, Wilimowski was refused permission to return to Poland as a traitor and settled instead in West Germany. His relationship with his home country was never fully repaired (the Polish FA, for example, refused him permission to speak to the Polish players when they were in West Germany for the 1974 World Cup finals. He did get to return to Ruch Chorzów during the 1990s, though, and died in 1997.
The other hat-trick scorer that day, Leonidas, has come to be regarded as one of Brazilian football’s first superstar players. He had already played for the Uruguayan giants Penarol as well as the Brazilian clubs Vasco da Gama and Botafogo before joining Flamengo in 1936, and joined Sao Paolo in 1943, for whom he played until his retirement in 1950. He is credited with the invention of the bicycle kick, the first reported use of which came in April 1932. In spite of a playing career that lasted twenty-one years, however, Leonidas only made nineteen appearances for Brazil – another player whose career was cut short by the outbreak of war. After his retirement, he had a brief spell as a the coach of Sao Paolo before going into radio. He died at the age of ninety, in January 2004.
For Strasbourg, the 1938 World Cup finals were the end of the city’s involvement in the World Cup finals. Having been renovated for the 1984 European Championships, the city had been expected to be one of the host venues for the 1998 World Cup finals, but the city’s council baulked at paying the 200 million Franc cost of renovating the stadium. The decision proved to be a costly one. There were no matches in the 1998 World Cup finals at all played in the north-east of France, and the council’s short-sighted decision left the city’s mayor Catherine Trautmann without a job after the 2001 elections in the city. Racing Club Strasbourg, the city’s football team, has played at La Meinau since 1921, but it is expected to leave for a new stadium in 2013, after which the future of the venue of one of the World Cup’s most remarkable matches is unknown.
In 1954, remarkably, the competition managed to go one goal better when Austria beat Switzerland 7-5 in a quarter-final match in Lausanne. The 1938 match between Brazil and Poland, however, marks two significant events. Firstly, it was one of the last acts of sunshine before the darkness of war descended over Europe. Secondly, it was one of the first signs that Brazil could go on to become something special in the world of international football. Indeed, after a twelve year gap Brazil be the next tournament hosts, a tournament at which the first stirrings of the narrative of the story of Brazilian football would become apparent. Before that story could get under way, however, the world would have to endure six years of unprecedented suffering. With Italy lining up to play their match against France in a black kit and the Germans playing under the Nazi flag, the signs of what was to come were already well and truly on the horizon.