Every great journey, it has been said, begins with a single step. That first step for a FIFA World Cup™ host now takes place in the Opening Match of the tournament, but that was not the case in 1934. On Sunday, 25 March 1934, a truly unique game took place when Italy played a World Cup qualifier – the only hosts in the history of the competition to do so.
Four years earlier, with Europe in the midst of an economic crisis, 13 teams entered the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay by invitation with no qualification process required. However, when it came to organising a tournament in Europe, interest piqued after the success of the inaugural competition, and a preliminary round was needed to reduce the 32 invited teams down to 16 finalists.
Qualifying began in June 1933 and ran up until USA’s final qualifier against Mexico – remarkably just three days before the finals themselves kicked off on 27 May. Two months earlier, the hosts had to secure a place in their home finals, and were drawn to face Greece.
Despite Italy’s friendly defeat to Austria a month previously, and Greece’s win over Bulgaria in February, the Greeks went into the qualifier as huge underdogs. Italy had remained unbeaten in their seven games in 1933, while Greece’s victory over Bulgaria was their first victory since December 1930, a barren run going back over 11 matches.
Italy lined up in front of 20,000 partisan supporters at the San Siro with the feared forward Giuseppe Meazza in Vittorio Pozzo’s starting XI. His heroics for the national side would later see the stadium renamed in his honour, and he would not disappoint the fans that afternoon. A few others in the line-up would go on to write their names into Italian history, with six of the team that began the game against Greece starting 77 days later in the World Cup Final in Rome.
With the Italians dominating proceedings from the start, Greek resistance was finally broken after 40 minutes, with Brazil-born Anfilogino Guarisi opening the scoring. Meazza then delivered a sucker punch just before the interval to leave Apostolos Nikolaidis’s men facing an uphill task at half-time.
Nereo Rocco was replaced by Juventus midfielder Giovanni Ferrari at the interval, which is not particularly noteworthy by modern standards, but substitutions were only written into the laws of the game in the 1950s and Rocco’s withdrawal would have been due to a serious injury.
What makes Rocco’s appearance all the more remarkable is that this 45 minutes constituted his solitary appearance for the Italian national team, which was the minimum requirement in the country for prospective football managers. The then Trieste midfielder would go on to achieve incredible success as AC Milan coach in the 1960s and ‘70s, winning two European Cups and securing fame as one of the first exponents of the catenaccio style that has had a long-lasting impact on the game.
In the second half, the fresh Ferrari increased Italy’s lead before Meazza completed the rout minutes later. Daniil Danelian compounded the visitors’ misery by missing a penalty as Italy cruised to victory.
As with the majority of the other qualifiers, a return leg was scheduled and expected to take place in Athens. However, the Greeks pulled out, discouraged after the Meazza-inspired hammering they had received in Milan.
Two of the goalscorers against the Greeks would go on to form a crucial part of Pozzo’s squad at the finals, with Ferrari scoring against USA in the opening game as well as the equaliser in the hosts’ first quarter-final clash against Spain. Meazza also scored against the USA and grabbed the winner in the replay against La Roja.
It was then decided by FIFA that future World Cup hosts would qualify automatically, starting with France in 1938. The heroes of that Greek victory played another key part in the country’s footballing history; Ferrari featured and Meazza captained Gli Azzurri in their 1938 Final win against Hungary to retain the Jules Rimet trophy.