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Quattro Stelle: 1938 - The Finals

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

Despite growing tensions throughout the world, France was hosting a successful World Cup. Well, not so successful for their National team, who had just been knocked out by defending champions Italy. But with four teams remaining, the tournament proved a positive distraction in the face of political turmoil.

The guys pose with Mussolini in 1938

The Semifinals
On June 16th, in Marseille, Italy would meet Brazil for the first of what has become many storied World Cup meetings since. The referee was Hans Wuthrich of Switzerland, and people expected to see a face-off of the tournament’s top two scorers: Italy’s Piola and Brazil’s Leônidas. However in a very controversial decision, Brazil coach Ademar Pimenta left Leônidas on the bench, opting to save him for the final. Talk about overconfidence.

So the Brazilian answer for Piola was to double-team him. What they didn’t count on was that Piola was not the only scorer on the squad. In the 55th minute, Colaussi scored. Five minutes later, Piola went down in the box and a penalty was awarded to Italy. This led to one of the most humorous moments in World Cup history - as Giuseppe Meazza stepped up to take the penalty, his shorts, which were ripped, fell down. Not to be hampered by such a wardrobe malfunction, he held his shorts up as he stepped up and took the penalty. 2-0 Italy. Who’s laughing now?

Brazil (minus Leonides) vs. Italy

Brazil continued to fight hard, defending ferociously, yet trying to create attacking options. In the 87th minute, Romeo took a scoring opportunity and converted it for a goal for Brazil. But it was too little, too late. Italy would head to their second straight World Cup Finals, winning by a score of 2-1 and leaving Leônidas permanently resting  for a final that never came for him. This win also solidified Vittorio Pozzo as a master at being able to adapt his lineups for each situation, as well as a team who were both flexible and very compatible, too.

The other semifinal saw Hungary, eager to prove themselves on their King Gustav V’s 80th birthday, take on Sweden in Paris. Sweden, having destroyed Cuba in the previous round, got a taste of their own medicine. Despite Arne Nyberg scoring a goal in 35 seconds, the second fastest World Cup goal ever scored, Hungary came back to grab five goals of their own, sending Sweden to the consolation match to the tune of 5-1. Ouch.

The Final: Italy-Hungary Lineups

The Final
Before we get to the final, the third place match was played the same day, June 19th, in Bordeaux. Brazil played Sweden, and this time Leônidas was allowed off the bench. His two goals assured him the Golden Boot award for the tournament, and Brazil scored a total of four to Sweden’s two to take third place before the long boat ride home.

The Final was also played on June 19th, but in Paris, and was played before a crowd of 55,000. The crowd was not a sellout crowd, since many of the French had lost interest in the tournament after their team was knocked out. The Italian team had spent the previous few days in seclusion in St. Germain and came to the pitch rested, united, and confident.

Piola in the Final

Despite the strong Hungarian team, Italy proved poised and stronger, and in the sixth minute, a goal by Colaussi put them ahead 1-0. Hungary quickly equalized, though, when Titkos scored in the eighth minute. A beautiful four player pass sequence by Italy led to a 16th minute goal by Piola, and a 35th minute goal by Colaussi put the reigning champions up 3-1 at the half.

Pozzo fortified the defense for the second half, hoping to sit on this lead. But in the 70th minute, Sarosi scored for Hungary. So Piola, not content to take any chances, took a twelve yard powerful shot that proved unstoppable for the Hungarian keeper, and in the 82nd minute, Italy went up 4-2. The reigning champions would defend their title!

With some countries already at war and unable to participate, it is sad to think that a mere 14 months later, Hitler’s Germany would move into Poland to officially start World War II. This meant that the 1942 and 1946 World Cups would not be held due to the conflicts, making the next World Cup to be held 1950.

The trophy worth protecting

Would Italy have won three or more in a row? We will never know. Pozzo’s squad was so impressive and so was he. He remains the only coach to have won back-to-back Olympic and World Cup winners medals. And despite being robbed of the chance to defend their title with anyone from this team, Italy’s reign expanded from the first four years after 1934 to 12 more years from the 1938 World Cup until 1950. So they have the distinction of being World Champions for 16 years, even if it was uncontested during those 12 years between World Cups.

One last note of interest, Dr. Ottarino Barassi was the Italian Vice President of FIFA at the time, and during the war and Italy’s occupation, he hid the World Cup trophy in a shoebox under his bed to keep it safe. One of the world’s most prized possessions protected in the most humble of circumstances, protected at a time when fear and self-preservation often outweighed rational thought, and with good reason. But being World Champions was something worth risking everything for.

Pozzo and his team celebrate their second consecutive World Cup win
Campioni del Mondo!

This is part six 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.