Mussolini and Calcio: Fascism’s Legacy in Italian Football

The stars that adorn the badge of the Italian national team indicate that the Azzurri are one of the most successful national teams in football history with four World Cup wins. However, they also serve as an unwelcome reminder of a dark period in Italian history. Whilst the mondiali wins of 1982 and 2006 can be enjoyed unreservedly, the first two victories in 1934 and 1938 came at a time when Italy was under Fascist control. If this were merely coincidental, it would be an unfortunate footnote, little more. But during this period, Fascism and calcio were deeply interwoven, which casts a long shadow over Italy’s early international success.

Before discussing quite why the Fascists sought such hands-on involvement in football, it is worth considering the state of the nation that Fascism came to rule in the 1920s. Italy at this time was barely 60-years-old, a nation where regional and linguistic differences undermined national unity. In the 1860s, Italian statesman and novelist, Massimo D’Azeglio, stated that “l’Italia è fatta, restano da fare gli italiani” – “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians”. This problem was still to be solved when Benito Mussolini came to power. There were other issues; Italy was in crisis after the First World War, concerned that the Great War had shown the physical weakness of Italian men. Italians had not demonstrated the strength needed to help the Fascist empire grow. Liberal Italy had side-lined physical prowess; an education law of 1909 stated that physical education was “vain” and “useless”, and the rising Fascist party saw the legacy of this in the “individualistic”, “lazy” attitude of Italians.

Fascism came to power with grand aims to improve the Italian nation across a range of areas. It instituted the concept of l’italiano nuovo, the rebooted Italian man who is physically active, strong, and healthy. Mussolini was an embodiment of this vision, with photographs showing him bare-chested on horseback, or displaying his virility with receptive women. At the same time, Fascism’s focus was on the power of the collective over the individual, where each person would be improved for the benefit of society and, in Fascism’s later years, the race. The very name of the ideology evokes the fascio, a Roman symbol of a bundle of rods that through unity becomes stronger than its individual parts.

Fascism was a hegemonic system that sought to control all aspects of Italian life. Even before the ventennio, football had grown significantly in popularity, and was arguably already on its way to becoming the national sport. It would, though, reach new heights under Fascism, with the regime identifying aspects of calcio that complemented the Fascist message – and indeed, many others that it could appropriate, however uneasily.

Some aspects of football tallied perfectly with Fascist discourse. As a team sport, it valorised discipline, togetherness, the importance of working together rather than acting as an individual. Sport in general could physically prepare the young, and could also serve as an outlet to release tensions. Citizens concerned with sport would have less energy to worry about politics.

The word Fascism has today morphed in meaning, and usually denotes a rigid, unyielding organisation or system. But Fascism in Italy was actually remarkably fluid; as it sought to control all aspects of life, it drew on a wide array of areas, many of which ought to have presented problems to its worldview. Football, whilst in some ways being a perfectly example for Fascism, also embodied a number of these issues.

Italy’s first national league was created in 1929 with the aim of promoting national unity. Such a league, though, offered an opportunity to cling to regional identity and compete against other cities and regions. The mentality persists; “Welcome to Italy” banners have sometimes greeted southern Italian teams when playing in the north. Football had also come to Italy from abroad, the Englishmen who brought the game to the peninsular still honoured today in the use of the word mister to mean coach. Looking back through history, the Fascists created a dubious link between the Florentine sport of calcio storico and modern-day football, with journalist Gianni Brera claiming that the English had merely “re-invented the game”. The vocabulary of the game was Italianised; whilst most other European nations use a direct translation of the English term “football”, calcio remains the term of choice in Italian. Genoa’s English roots were covered up with the club name being changed to the Italian Genova, whilst Internazionale were renamed Ambrosiana.

Fascism was a shape-shifting ideology that appropriated strands of culture to suit its needs. It was also an ideology whose broader changes were reflected in Italian institutions of the ventennio, including the national football team. In 1934, Italy hosted the World Cup to international acclaim, and also managed to win the tournament. Integral members of the squad were Raimundo Orsi, Luis Monti and Enrique Guaita, three oriundi, or naturalised Italians, all of whom were born in Argentina. At this time, the possibility of reinvigorating the Italian people through outside influence was discussed. As the 1930s progressed, though, Fascism changed, and so did the national team.

By 1936, Emilio Colombo in la Gazzetta dello Sport was referring to the “blood” of the Italian race, and Italy introduced race laws in 1938. This was the year of Italy’s second World Cup win, but now the idea of multinational integration was a distant memory. In the French World Cup, the Italian national side wore black shirts, gave Fascist salutes, and were booed by the crowd in Paris. Winning consecutive World Cups, Italy had become undoubtedly the world’s greatest team. But they had done so against a darkening political backdrop, and owed a lot of their success to the changes Fascism had implemented in organising the leisure time of young Italians and professionalising the sport.

Whilst football’s nature as a team sport appealed to the regime, it also brought problems in the way it lauded individual figures and created icons. Whilst the successful team works together in disciplined cooperation, the scoring centre-forward often takes the glory. Again demonstrating impressive flexibility, Fascism confronted the issue head on. The coach is the first figure who stands out from the collective, but in Vittorio Pozzo, Italy coach during the two World Cup wins, Fascism found a neat analogy.

Pozzo was a dictatorial presence presiding over the Azzurri, a national team in chaos before his authoritarian arrival drove the team to unprecedented heights. The parallels were clear in Mussolini’s aims for the entire nation. Little did it matter that Pozzo was not a supporter of the regime – it emerged in the 1990s that he had worked with anti-Fascist organisations in the 1930s. Fascism was an ideology skilled at propaganda and presentation, symbolically representing itself to the Italian people.

The case of two centre-forwards of the era also demonstrates the regime’s ability to appropriate key figures into its ideology. Giuseppe Meazza, after whom Milan’s stadium is named, was an early football superstar, with youthful good looks and comparisons with film stars of the day. He was a key striker with many of the traits usually associated with football’s most individualistic position. Silvio Piola, meanwhile, was also a successful forward in Italy and for the Azzurri; he, however, was a humble country boy whose key attribute was physical power. Off the pitch, too, the pair were very different, and allegedly did not get on well. To the Fascists, these polar opposites were both held up as perfect examples of l’italiano nuovo. Fascism sought such control of Italian cultural life, and succeeded in achieving it, that apparent contradictions did not undermine the system.

It is inevitable, then, that such an overbearing political system would seek to control calcio. But how much does this taint the two World Cup wins in the ventennio? In practice, not very much. There appears to be a collective amnesia amongst some Italians when World Cup wins are discussed, the four mondiali lauded without reference to the Fascist legacy. Besides, Fascism’s impact on the sport and on Italian life goes beyond the World Cup wins, and is perhaps best not thought about too profoundly, lest the scars of the past taint the present. Stadia in Florence and Bologna date back to the period, Florence’s Artemio Franchi in particular a symbol of Fascist architecture. Even the national championship itself was introduced during Mussolini’s reign.

Still, it would be unnecessary to develop a neurosis about Fascism’s influence on calcio, or to look awkwardly upon two of the four stars. Fascism nestled itself into all aspects of Italian life, and in its 20 years of power, it left little untouched. Football as a popular sport was never going to remain free from the regime’s cultural clutches, as Fascism sought to use all aspects of culture to control its citizens. It is also clear that football was becoming increasingly popular in Italy without Fascism’s influence, and would surely have continued to grow regardless. Thus, while fascism’s influence on calcio should not be ignored, Italy’s back-to-back World Cup successes in the 1930s should continue to be celebrated as a triumph of Vittorio Pozzo and his talented Azzurri side.

Words by Ross Highfield: @MrRHighfield