The first European Cup could not detach itself from the rarefied political and social climate that enveloped the Old Continent. The despotic regime of Benito Mussolini first put pressure on FIFA to have Italy designated as the venue for the championship, and then used shady methods to help the ‘Azzuri’ (reinforced with four Argentine players and one Brazilian) on their way to the world title, which they achieved, thanks to a victory by 2–1 over Hungary in the defining encounter.
The Italian victory served to the fascist cause that glorified nationalism over other doctrines, such as communism. Local footballers were given life threats, and they were also forced to join the National Fascist Party.
An additional trophy was offered to the Jules Rimet Cup: the ‘Coppa del Duce’, for the winning squad. The referees, according to unquestionable testimonies, including that of several players, were bribed by Mussolini envoys to facilitate local success.
Political pressure did not only reach Italian athletes. Football history books published in South America mention the ‘Nazi’ or ‘Fascist’ greetings made by the German and Italian teams while playing their respective anthems before matches. The truth is that all the teams performed the ‘Roman salute’ – the act of stretching their arms forward – something Adolf Hitler and Mussolini had taken as a distinctive gesture at that time. Different newspapers highlighted that on those days.
For example, before meeting on 27 May in Bologna, the Argentine and Swedish squads greeted the official box with their arms extended in front. The Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación reported: ‘When the Argentine delegation disembarked’, in the port of Naples (where it arrived after crossing the Atlantic and the Mediterranean on the way to the World Cup), ‘it sent a telegram greeting the head of the government, Mr Benito Mussolini’.
That same day, added the Argentine newspaper, the players and leaders ‘went to Forli to lay flowers on the grave of the Duce’s parents’. This case is a sample of the dark atmosphere that dominated Europe in those days, in which, despite everything, 16 teams met to play the second edition of the football World Cup.
Jules Rimet, father of the competition, lamented two notorious absences: Uruguay and England. Several reasons justified the South American absence: charging the Italians ‘tit for tat’ for their inconsiderate desertion in the first contest and being in disagreement with the Mussolini dictatorship. In addition, the Uruguayan footballers, who had recently managed to get professionalism accepted, preferred to stay home to intervene in profitable local matches and not play just for the honour to wear the light-blue jersey.
In one way or another, the Uruguayan squad was the only champion that did not defend their title from 1930 to Russia 2018. England, meanwhile, would continue to turn its back on the global championship until 1950.
On the other hand, Rimet added his grain of sand to Mussolini’s purpose by stating, on 13 May, that ‘the World Cup will be a success, largely because of the contributions of the organizing committee, which displays an activity difficult to match’.
Regarding the competition system, for this second Cup, a direct elimination table was adopted that started from the Round of 16. This determined that eight of the sixteen participating nations were eliminated at the end of their first match. For this Cup, qualifying matches began to be played. The first was played by Sweden and Estonia, on 11 June 1933: the Scandinavian team won 6–2. In this match, the first player substitutions took place in an official match organized by FIFA: Arnold Laasner replaced Friedrich Karm in the losing side.
Although the changes were not allowed in official tournaments, for this first qualifying edition, the Federation accepted that, for each game, the managers of the two teams would agree on the possibility of replacing the goalkeeper in case he was injured, as well as one or two of the ‘on field’ players. Once the Italian tournament began, on 27 May there was another novelty in Austria’s victory over France, 3–2 in Turin, for the Round of 16: the first World Cup overtime was played. The bleu squad opened the scoring at 18th minute through Jean Nicolas, but the Alpine representation equalized the count, thanks to the famous Matthias Sindelar.
The scoreboard was not changed in the second half, so the Dutch referee Johannes van Moorsel put into practice a regulation that had never been used until then in the World Cup: add two halves of
fifteen minutes each. In that extra time, two goals from Toni Schall and Josef Bican cemented the Austrian victory. Georges Verriest took one back but it only served to put definitive figures on a losing debut for the French team. Days later, Italy and Czechoslovakia would play the first overtime in a final.
Excerpted with permission from The Most Incredible World Cup Stories: Anecdotes from the Football World Cups, from Uruguay 1930 to the Present Day’, Luciano Wernicke, Paper Missile.