Vittorio Pozzo and the Italian assertion of power (Part I)

In the first instalment of this two part article, Neil maps out the political backdrop to which the first World Cups were played and recounts Italy’s first World Cup triumph, one inspired by the pioneering tactics of coach Vittorio Pozzo and some dubious refereeing.

From the moment the underlying principles of the FIFA World Cup were established at the 1920 congress in Antwerp, the tournament was destined to be plagued by political posturing and fervent nationalism, both on and off the pitch. In 1930, the inaugural event in Uruguay was so badly organised that it was miracle it ever took place. An unfinished main stadium, poor infrastructure and the refusal of several prominent European teams to take part, resulted in a pared-down tournament that culminated in a political wrestling match between the two dominant South American countries.At the end of a competition filled with violence (on and off the field), refereeing controversies and some truly exciting football, it was left to Argentina and Uruguay to contest the crown in a repeat of the 1928 Olympic final. Extra police were recruited to search the 100,000 fans – many of whom crossed the River Plate crammed into tiny boats – and hundreds of weapons were confiscated. Such was the bitterness and animosity between the two sides that a different ball was used in each half – one made in Argentina and one made in Uruguay – to diffuse a pre-match dispute that could not be settled.

The hosts eventually added to their Olympic title and won the event 4-2, prompting further mud-slinging and allegations of corruption. The following day, the streets of both countries capitals were full – Uruguay declared a national holiday and partied in Montevideo while the Argentines held angry demonstrations in Buenos Aires. Within days, a severing of relations between the countries respective football associations was instigated. And so it was that FIFA’s new baby was delivered, kicking and screaming into the world.

Despite the first edition’s obvious flaws, the tournament did attract plenty of attention from around the world, and many of the non-competing European countries were keen to throw their hats into the ring for the follow-up event. Eager to avoid some of the logistical and structural issues experienced in 1930, FIFA held a series of eight meetings before deciding on a host country. With 34 teams set to take part, a country with enough stadiums to handle the event was needed and initially, there was no obvious choice. In the end, it was left to Benito Mussolini to convince the world’s football hierarchy that a tournament in Italy was the perfect solution.

Once again, the World Cup was being used as collateral in a political showboating contest. For Mussolini, hosting the event not only represented another show of fascist strength on the European stage, but it also acted as a ready-made gift for the voters ahead of the national referendum due to take place in March 1934. With the climate in Europe the way it was, some kind of political backdrop to the event was almost inevitable. Fortunately for Italy, despite being late developers in the game, they boasted one of the most improved teams in international football and as a result, the decision was generally well-received.

Unsurprisingly, the few dissenting voices that were raised came from South America. Firstly from Uruguay, who partly in retaliation for the lack of full European presence four years earlier and partly because of their own internal problems, opted not to attend; and secondly from Argentina, who, fed up with the Italians poaching their ‘Oriundi’ (Players born in Argentina with Italian descent), decided to send a weakened team. The Uruguayan no-show still represents the only time in history that the World Cup holders have not defended their title.

With regards to the Oriundi, as if to prove the Argentinian’s point, Italy Coach Vittorio Pozzo named a squad that included Luis Monti, Raimundo Orsi and Enrique Guaita, all of whom were of Italian extraction and had represented the South American team during the 1930 final against Uruguay. Pozzo’s side were captained by legendary Juventus goal keeper Gianpiero Combi, and ahead of him he enjoyed the presence of many of his Bianconeri teammates including Virginio Rosetta. In total, nine of the 22-man Azzurri squad lined up for the Turin side at club level.

The team also featured the attacking flair of Inter midfielder and renowned playboy Giuseppe Meazza. The chain-smoking youngster was perhaps the first ever soccer celebrity and one of the most controversial players of his era. He was famous for arriving late to matches, often coming straight from his local brothel still hung over from a night of revelry. Despite his love of champagne and prostitutes, he always delivered on the pitch and many years later, after playing for both Milan sides, the San Siro stadium was officially re-named the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in his honour.

It was with this group of players that Pozzo implemented a major tactical change that would spark a dominant period in world football for the Italians. Inspired by the Austrian “Wunderteam” who were led by his respected peer Hugo Meisl, the Italian Coach switched the shape of his team to the now legendary 2-3-2-3 or ‘WW’ formation, sometimes known as the ‘metodo’. This new style of play rejected the standard attacking formations that had been developed by British and South American teams, in favour of a more balanced approach.

Pozzo, who had been involved in the technical development of Italian football for many years, believed that his system would stifle the attacking nature of existing formations, and allow his team to exploit their lack of defensive discipline through quick counter-attacking movements. He favoured strong physical defenders who could easily win possession and quickly deliver the ball to the forwards and wide players, who would then have the space to run at the threadbare defences of the opposition.

In his attempt to develop the perfect system, Pozzo soon realised that certain players would have to play in new positions or be dropped altogether. In 1930, he had already demonstrated a ruthless streak by dropping Captain Adolfo Baloncieri after 10-years of service to the national team. Before the start of the 1934 World Cup, he did not hesitate in demoting team Captain Umberto Caligaris after a 4-2 loss to Hugo Meisl’s Austria in Turin. Once the tournament got underway, he also disposed of Juve defender Virginio Rosetta and replaced him with Eraldo Monzeglio of Bologna, who was five years his junior.

After a relatively incident-free first round in which the Italians demolished the USA 7-1 in Rome, the 1934 World Cup quarter-finals proved to be a different story, particularly for the hosts. Their clash with Spain was marred by inept refereeing and overly-physical play from both teams. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, thanks mainly to Spanish keeper Zamora, who despite being roughly handled by the Italians, put in a breathtaking display between the sticks. The match was so violent that seven Spanish players (including Zamora) and four Italian players were forced to miss the following day’s replay with injuries.

The Italians eventually won the quarter-final by a single Meazza goal but another controversial refereeing display saw Swiss official Rene Mercet suspended by his federation. The Spanish had two goals disallowed and many observers noted the referee’s apparent willingness to overlook fouls committed by the Italian team. Instead of hailing the genius of Pozzo’s methods, all the talk was about the apparent influence that members of the Italian camp wielded over the match officials.

During this period, Pozzo’s own reputation was not helped by the fact that he had to work under the watchful eye of the Italian football President Giorgio Vaccaro, who also happened to be a general in the fascist army. The coach always insisted that his team were not interested in politics and that his relationship was strictly professional, but the introduction of the Roman salute as a pre-game ritual was destined to cause contoversy.

The semi-final once again gave the Italian Coach another chance to pit his wits against his Austrian nemesis. The wet and muddy conditions in Milan prevented the more skilful Austrians from playing their finely-tuned football, and they struggled to handle the physical long-ball approach adopted by the host nation. It was this ability to adapt his tactics to the conditions that helped the Italian boss steer his team to the final. A single first-half goal from Guaita was enough to see off their opponents and set up a final showdown with Czechoslovakia.

The final in Rome took place in front of 55,000 spectators and proved to be a genuine battle of styles. For much of the match, it was the short passing game of the Czechs that had the Italians well and truly pinned to the ropes – with Antonin Puc in particular causing problems for the home team down the left hand side. Predictably, it was the Slavia Prague winger who eventually opened the scoring with just 20 minutes to go- despite having been carried off the pitch in agony earlier in the half following an over-zealous tackle from Attilio Ferraris. The Czech team continued to press and had a couple of great chances to seal the win, first through Sobotka, who dragged his shot wide; and then through Svodoba, who fired his attempt against the woodwork.

Pozzo reacted and made a significant tactical change – switching the positions of Schiavio and Guaita. This simple ploy gave the Italians a way back into the game, and sparked a spell of relentless pressure that eventually led to the equaliser.  After running at the defence, Guaita fed the ball in from the right and, in one skilful movement; Orsi controlled the ball, turned and guided the ball low into the corner, beyond the fingertips of Czech goalkeeper Fran Planicka. With the scores level after 90 minutes, the game entered extra-time and it was the Italians who struck the decisive blow when Schiavio’s lofted shot from 10-yards out sailed over Planicka. For the second time in succession, the Jules Rimet trophy had been lifted by the tournament’s host nation.

Read Part Two of Vittorio Pozzo and the Italian Assertion of power here

Words by Neil Morris: @nmorris01