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Quattro Stelle: 1938 - Qualifications


This is the fourth post in a weekly series highlighting Italy’s four World Cup wins from qualifications to the finals. Read the third post here.



With the wounds of World War I still healing and the storms of World War II brewing, the 1938 World Cup was a welcome distraction from reality. However, the reality was that many would not participate in this World Cup, and it would be shrouded in the dark clouds on the horizon.

FIFA, led by the inventor of the World Cup and namesake of the trophy, FIFA President Jules Rimet, was wary of the political climate of the 1934 World Cup, also known as Mussolini’s Fascist Propaganda Machine, and Hitler’s copycat Propaganda Machine, the 1936 Berlin Olympics. And while South America naturally assumed that FIFA would alternate the World Cups between Europe and the Americas, most of the current 57 FIFA nations were located in Europe, so FIFA leaned toward a European bid. With bids from Argentina, Germany, and France, the first round of voting in August of 1936 produced a clear choice: France. This selection drew boycotts from Argentina and Uruguay, two of the better teams in the world at the time.

Austrian Matthias "The Paper Man" Sindelar refused to play for Germany 

One of the stories that eclipsed the beauty of the World Cup was a series of events that led to Austria, the Wunderteam of 1934 and before, not playing in this tournament. The first event was the death of the beloved and legendary coach Hugo Meisl in January or 1937 at the age of 55. No one would be able to replace the brilliant tactician. Secondly was the Anschluss, or annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany. Just before the Nazi invasion, the two countries faced each other on a football pitch, where Austria beat Germany, 2-0. So it was only natural that some of the Austrian players be naturalized and “drafted” to play for Germany in the upcoming World Cup.

One such player was Austrian star Matthias Sindelar, also known as “The Paper Man” for his slight build. However, Sindelar did not want to wear the German jersey, and argued age, injuries, everything he could to get out of it. He did not play in the 1938 tournament, but he did not live to see another, either. In January of 1939, he was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. To this day, it is unclear if his death was accidental, self-inflicted, or inflicted by another. However it is an example of the sadness and political environment that plagued this tournament.

The Dutch East Indies (now known as Indonesia) qualified without playing a single match

Qualifications
For the first time, both the host nation and the titleholders qualified automatically, so France and Italy held the first two spots out of the 16 available. Spain declined to participate on account of the civil war they were experiencing, so that left 14 spots for the other initial 34 teams who applied to participate in the tournament.

Nations were divided according to geographical relationship into 12 groups. The first nine groups were all European teams, with 23 teams vying for 11 spots. Groups 10 and 11 went to the Americas and included a total of nine teams for two places. Group 12 was Asia, with two teams vying for one spot.

The two Asian nations were Japan and the Dutch East Indies (known today as Indonesia.) Japan eventually had to bow out on account of their war with China, so FIFA offered for the U.S. to play Dutch East Indies for the spot, but they declined. Thus, the Dutch East Indies qualified without playing a single match.

Mexico declined to play, so were thus replaced by Cuba, and Brazil was South America’s sole representative in the tournament. Qualifying and participating for the first time were Poland and Norway. England was repeatedly invited to participate, despite not being members of FIFA, but they declined. In 1934, they had played against Italy in a tough match known as the “Battle of Highbury,” winning the world champions 3-2, so I suppose they felt like they were too good for this little tournament.

After qualifying, Austria dropped out just before the tournament on account that they no longer existed as a sovereign nation. Oddly, Latvia, whom they beat in qualifying, was not invited to participate, leaving an odd number of 15 teams for the tournament.

The odd numbered 15 teams who qualified for this World Cup

And then there were 16….uh….15…
The table was set for the feast that should have been the diversion of all evils. The 15 nations that would participate were from Europe: France (hosts), Italy (titleholders), Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Sweden and  Switzerland. From the Americas, it was Cuba and Brazil, and from Asia, Dutch East Indies.

With the cruel knockout round again in effect, seven teams were seeded so as not to face each other in the 1st round: France, Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Cuba, Brazil. In the draw, another team was given a bye for the first round, which ended up being Sweden.

This World Cup saw FIFA tightening up some of the rules, including one requiring each team to present a 22 man roster on the eve of the tournament. Another rule put into effect was that in the final, at the end of regulation and extra time, if there was not a winner, the two teams would be named co-champions. I for one am glad that this one would not be required. Who likes to be a co-champion?

Gli Azzurri, circa 1938
Coach Vittorio Pozzo had only four returning players from the 1934 World Cup, but a team that was even stronger than that champion one. Meazza and Ferrari were the two most notable veterans, playing even better than before. Additionally, the squad included defenders Alfredi Foni and Pietro Rava, as well as the fantastic goalscorers Silvio Piola and Gino Colaussi. Pozzo’s team had won the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics, and they were the heavy favorites to win this tournament.

With the tournament not being on home soil, they did not have Benito Mussolini at every match, etc., but his presence was still felt in ominous ways, such as a telegram he sent them on the eve of their first match that read “Win or die.” In the climate of the world at that time, this message represented the pressures felt by so many players in a tournament that was anything but lighthearted.







This is part four of a 12 week series I originally wrote for the now defunct Italy World Cup Blog five years ago. The series will now appear here weekly as a tribute to the Azzurri teams of the past.