Vittorio Pozzo and the Italian Assertion of  Power (Part II)

In the second and final instalment of Neil’s two-part article, he looks at how Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy – regarded as an expression of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy – managed to overcome a politically charged atmosphere and hostile French public to retain the World Cup in 1938., largely thanks to the tactical brilliance of their ‘Vecchio Maestro’.

Despite increased tensions across Europe, FIFA chose to stage the 1938 tournament in France – much to the annoyance of the South American teams who had been led to believe that the competition would be rotated between the two continents. As a result, both Uruguay and Argentina declined to take part. The start of the civil war prevented Spain from competing, and Austria were forced to withdraw after the country was annexed by Germany.

In the four years since his team had lifted the trophy, Pozzo had refined his ‘metodo’ system and rebuilt his squad to the extent that only Meazza (now captain) and Giovanni Ferrari remained from the triumphant 1934 line-up. For the Italians, it was a chance to show that, as well as having an improved team, they could also mount a legitimate challenge without any whisperings of bribery and corruption.

Just as they did four years before, the Italian players and staff were ordered to begin the first match with a perfectly choreographed fascist salute. But unlike four years earlier, when they played on home soil, the gesture was not met by cheers but instead by a resounding barrage of whistles and jeers from the Marseille crowd. The assassination of the anti-fascist Rosselli brothers on French soil a year before, and Mussolini’s declaration of support for Spain’s General Franco, were incidents still fresh in the minds of the French locals and Italian exiles occupying the stands. The change in atmosphere was startling – a dark mood of violence and intimidation hung in the air like a medal of defiance, before slowly lifting as thoughts returned to the game at hand.

On the pitch, the self-proclaimed ‘fearless’ Italians were taken by surprise when unfancied Norway took them to extra time. The holders got off to the perfect start when Ferrari struck after just two minutes, but a second half strike from Brustad levelled the scores. The Norwegian outside-left scored again just minutes later but was penalised for being offside – much to the dismay of the Scandinavian-friendly crowd. The game was eventually settled four minutes into overtime, when Norwegian keeper Johansen parried Pasinati’s shot into the path of tournament superstar Silvio Piola.

The quarter-final game in Colombes against France saw more political controversy as the teams, who both wore blue, drew lots to see who would wear a change of colours. Italy lost and it was expected that the players would wear their traditional white away kit, but instead they took to the field wearing black shirts with the ‘Fascio Littorio’ symbol on the left breast. The order to wear the shirts was rumoured to have come directly from Mussolini himself. Unsurprisingly, the combination of black shirts and the repeat of the Roman salute did not go down well on the outskirts of the French capital, and the atmosphere once again turned hostile.

After their first round scare, the team started to play more like champions. Pozzo made three changes for the clash with France but it was Piola who once again played a starring role with two well-taken strikes in a 3-1 victory. The 58,000 spectators at Stades Colombes were silenced as the Italians marched triumphantly into the semi-finals at the expense of the host nation.

For the next match, the Italians headed south to Marseilles to take on another of South Americas emerging nations and the continents only representatives, Brazil. After two first round exits in the previous editions of the tournament, the Brazilians were keen to prove that Argentina and Uruguay were not the only teams from across the Atlantic that could compete at the highest level. After a thrilling game against Poland that finished 6-5 after extra -time, and a violent clash against Czechoslovakia that left many players injured and was eventually settled by a replay; the Brazilians booked themselves a semi-final date against the reigning world champions.

The first talking point of the match occurred before kick-off when the teams were announced. It was revealed that Brazil Coach Adhemar Pimenta had left out tournament top scorer Leonadis, who was carrying a knock; and 23-year-old forward Tim, who had impressed in the game against the Czechs. The press later accused Pimenta of being ‘arrogant’ by resting Leonadis in preparation for the final – a fact that he strongly denied. However, it later emerged that the Brazilians had already booked plane tickets to Paris in anticipation of making it to the final.

Boosted by the news of these absences, an unchanged Italian side started the match brightly and immediately put the Brazilians on the back foot. Pozzo’s methods were now proving to be more effective than ever and his team were playing with an air of invincibility. Pimenta’s side did slowly grow into the game and enjoyed some good spells of midfield possession but they were stifled by the Italian backline in the final third.

In the second half, it was the Italians who once again took control, putting Brazil keeper Walter under some early pressure with swift attacking play. The pressure eventually told when Colaussi converted Biavati’s cross after 51 minutes. As the game wore on, the match fitness and physical superiority of the Italians began to show and their opponents started to lose their composure. Just after the hour mark, Domingo’s rash challenge on Piola led to a penalty which Meazza coolly converted to give Pozzo’a men a two-goal cushion. Late in the game, the tackles got harder and tempers began to flare but the Italians held on for the win, despite a late consolation goal for the Brazilians.

The final against Hungary was not only a match of genuine quality but also an important milestone in the technical history of the game. Pozzo’s methods had delivered a World Cup, an Olympic gold and two International Cups already, and were now being practised at domestic level in Italy. Their opponents were also making waves under the technical guidance of influential coaches Alfred Schaffer and Károly Dietz. Both teams had adopted a new approach to the game and were now going head-to-head in a world final. A football revolution was underway, and this game was perhaps its defining moment.

The Hungarians had the predominantly-French crowd on their side, but the Italians were now experts at playing to a soundtrack of hostility. They struck first when Colaussi expertly buried Biavati’s cross with a first-time volley before Titkos drew Hungary level less than two minutes later. Captain Meazza then worked his magic to set up a goal for Piola before engineering another for Colaussi to put the holders 3-1 up at the break. The Hungarians were not going down without a fight however, and eventually pulled one back through Sarosi with just twenty minutes to go. The crowd were thrilled and the tempo of the game did not let up as the graceful challengers searched for an equaliser. But the more they pushed forward, the more they became vulnerable to the Italian counter-attack and after several near-misses; they eventually paid the price on 82 minutes when Piola grabbed his second.

Italy had won back-to-back world titles and Vittorio Pozzo or ‘Il Vecchio Maestro’ as he became known, had established himself as a pioneer in the technical development of world football. The outbreak of the Second World War perhaps prevented the coach from achieving even greater glory, and by the time the conflict was over, he struggled to put together a competitive team. He eventually resigned after spending a total of twenty years in charge of the national team and his record has yet to be surpassed. He spent his later years working as a journalist for ‘La Stampa’ newspaper in Turin.

During the years that followed, Italian football continued to embrace new tactical developments. Rather than sticking to Pozzo’s methods, Italian teams, such as Torino and Triestina, took inspiration from his system and many others including the ‘WM’ formation used by Herbert Chapman at Arsenal, and the ‘bolt’ system employed by Switzerland Coach Karl Rappan at the 1938 World Cup tournament.

Vittorio Pozzo laid the foundations and established Italy as a world leader in the technical development of football, but despite his great influence and incredible success, he remains something of a forgotten man outside of his home country.

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

Words by Neil Morris: @nmorris01