Tie carefully knotted and trousers belted securely over an expansive midriff, it is difficult to assess the Duce’s dribbling in one of the few photos of him with a ball at his feet. Strangely for Italy’s number one sportsman, photos of Mussolini the footballer are almost non-existent. Given that calcio was a perfect metaphor for Fascism’s idealized society, the Duce’s dislike of the game is unexpected. With a weekly calendar of matches drawing enormous crowds for two-thirds of the year, football was a Fascist marketing dream and its stadiums tailor-made for the diffusion of propaganda and the cultivation of strong myths and nationalism.
In their 1930s golden era Italy played 63 matches, winning 45, drawing 12 and losing only six. They hosted and won the World Cup in 1934 before retaining it in France in 1938, with a team of university students winning the Olympic football tournament in Berlin, in 1936. At club level Bologna twice won the Central European Cup, before claiming the 1937 Paris Exhibition tournament, where they crushed Chelsea and, apparently, ‘shook the world’.
The basis for this success was laid in 1926, when the Fascist Party reorganised, nationalised and politicised the game that had been lurching from one crisis to another since 1900. With results regularly disputed, players and officials threatened by crowds, fan violence on the rise and the FIGC almost bankrupt, a referees strike forced the regime to take control of the nation’s paralysed passion. The Viareggio Charter (Carta di Viareggio) revolutionized calcio by imposing a Fascist hierarchy upon the Milan based Football Federation (FIGC) that was now led by the former head of Bolognese Fascism, Leandro Arpinati. Establishing a new statute, the most notable change was the formation of a national league, in 1929 – Serie A. Intensifying competition and raising standards, the improvement was almost immediate, with the emergence of teams like Juventus and Bologna dominating European competition. What the regime failed to appreciate, however, was how national competition would actually strengthen city-based, local identities built around their clubs. But if football was to unite Italy, there could be no place for such divisive rivalries, as the Florentine Fascist daily, Il Bargello, explained in 1929:
Every football match between squads of nearby cities or from the same province has the seeds of an incident waiting to happen… Fascism and sport cannot tolerate this… In sport one can be an adversary but one must not be an enemy. We already have enough of this at the border.
1930s Italian football demanded the characteristics that the regime wanted to build among Italians and display to the rest of the world, most notably the ability to battle and resist. The approach and image of Italy’s coach or commissario unico, Vittorio Pozzo, reinforced Fascism’s aggressive militarism and the leadership principle upon which Mussolini’s rule was based. As Pozzo explained: ‘The norms that govern the game impose the principle of authority, without which order cannot exist.’ An autocratic leader, his selection of a group of players that was stronger than the sum of its individual parts reflected Fascism’s organic society in which talented individuals would selflessly dedicate themselves to the team.
Blending survivors from the previous two triumphs with a number of debutantes, the victorious 1938 squad was living proof of Fascism’s Futurist inspired theory of racial regeneration through conflict, permanent change and the consistent introduction of new blood. Although Fascism was not driven by the desire to biologically purify the race, the exact nature of this new blood became an increasingly awkward issue. With five first-generation Italians from South America in the victorious 1934 squad, these oriundi raised questions about the meaning and implications of joint nationality. When, in 1935, World Cup winner Enrico Guaita and two other AS Roma rimpatriati were stopped trying to leave the country with their considerable earnings, it wasn’t so much their defection but their evasion of military service that offended, with a clear demonstration of patriotism considered more important than any biological ‘purity’.
While footballers weren’t necessarily expected to die for the nation, the will to confront death was the ultimate commitment for all Italians. On the way to Budapest in 1936, for a fixture against Hungary that Italy had never beaten away from home, Pozzo’s team stopped off at the Redipuglia war cemetery on the Austrian border. Among the thousands of Italian war dead, speeches outlining the sacrifices of their forefathers and the responsibilities of the current generation to defend the nation’s honour were said to have focussed the team. A 5-0 destruction of the Magyars duly followed.
International competition and victories were naturally important, both domestically and abroad. If hosting the 1934 World Cup provided the opportunity to show the world how Fascist hard work and creativity had transformed Italy, its athletic elite would leave no doubt about the rejuvenation of the race, and its stadiums would demonstrate a genetic artistic and engineering genius. ‘An event as colossal as this’, Lo Sport Fascista declared, ‘could only have been organized by Benito Mussolini’s Italy.’
With the chance to be the perfect host and send visiting teams and their supporters home with positive experiences, Italy enticed fans with subsidised travel to and within the country, while special stamps, match tickets, posters and cigarette packets, all featuring easily identifiable Fascist symbols, made it one of the first international sporting events to be seriously marketed, or propagandized. The second World Cup tournament and the first to be held in Europe, countries battled it out not just for the Jules Rimet trophy and the honour of being world champions, but also for the Coppa del Duce (The Duce Cup). A gaudy, huge bronze sculpture of footballers in action in front of the symbol of the regime – the fasces – it completed Fascism’s high-jacking of FIFA’s tournament.
Mussolini’s presence at matches, accompanied by his sons and various members of the hierarchy, only added to the excitement of Italy’s progress towards the final, which was far from inevitable. Following the 1-1 quarter-final draw with Spain, Pozzo compared the dressing rooms to an infirmary, with only 11 of the original 22 players fit for the replay the following day. The final against Czechoslovakia was contested in the Fascist Party stadium in front of 50,000 spectators, including approximately 2,000 Czechoslovaks. As the teams entered the stadium, the crowd waved handkerchiefs to the cries of ‘Duce, Duce’, while the Militia band played a selection of Fascist hymns, which created the atmosphere of a political rally more than a sporting contest.
There is no evidence to support the conspiracy theories that Italy’s victory was fixed. Home advantage has always had a heavy presence in the World Cup with Brazil, in 1950, the only host nation to reach and lose the final. The physically and tactically strong Italian side was also urged on by the fervent atmosphere and the Duce’s presence, naturally. A goal in extra time from Angelo Schiavio secured the title, after which the Italian players paid homage to the Fascist leadership in the stand. For their efforts, they were rewarded with the World Cup, the Coppa del Duce, a signed photograph of Mussolini and the Fascist medaglia d’oro (gold medal), one of the highest honours available. With the press reporting the triumph in the language of national struggle and football patriotism, the FIGC head General Vaccaro declared it an expression of the national will and the merits of collective organization and discipline, an indication of just what could be achieved if all Italians worked together.
Crowds outside of Italy, however, were less enthralled by Fascism’s political football. With Italian teams seen as representing the regime, playing abroad became an increasingly risky business as European political tensions rose. Coming soon after the collapse of Léon Blum’s Popular Front government, towards which Mussolini had registered his disapproval by withdrawing Italian cyclists from the 1936 Tour de France and its footballers from an international match in 1937, defending the nation’s honour at the 1938 World Cup in France was a tense affair.
Arriving in Marseille, squad member Ugo Locatelli recalled 3,000 or more French and Italian anti-Fascists being controlled by baton-wielding mounted police, which contrasted with Italian accounts of a courteous reception by dignitaries. Encountering protests throughout the tournament, Italy were unpopular favourites. Drawn against Norway in the opening match, the Italian national team, nicknamed the azzurri (the blues) also took on an estimated 10,000 anti-Fascists and political exiles in the terraces. With all Italian teams compelled to give the Fascist Roman salute prior to kick-off, Pozzo recalled:
"As Commander, I knew exactly what was my, our duty… I enter the field with the squad militarily organised… as predicted, we were greeted by a solemn and deafening barrage of whistles and insults…We had just put down our hands when the violent demonstration started again. Straight away: “Team, be ready. Salute.” And we raised our hands again, to confirm we had no fear… Having won the battle of intimidation, we played."
Italy scraped a 2-1 victory and a place in the quarter-final against the hosts. The team were required to change shirts due to a colour clash, and the regime, apparently enraged by the reception in Marseille, ordered them to play in all-black rather than its traditional change of white. The only occasion when the infamous maglia nera (black shirt) was worn, it was a clear two-fingered salute to the protesters. Thereafter, Italy's traditional blue shirts eased into the final, where they gave one of the great displays in World Cup history to defeat Hungary 4-2 and retain the title. Celebrating the triumph, Lo Sport Fascista cast a greedy eye towards a third victory in 1942, but the golden generation was denied by war.
This article is an extract from Simon Martin’s Sport Italia.