In a brilliant four year period, Vittorio Pozzo led the Italian national team to two FIFA World Cups ™ and an Olympic gold medal, establishing himself as one of the greatest coaching figures in football history. Not only did il Vecchio Maestro ('the old master') build a side largely considered on par with any in the first half of the century, he was also a central figure in establishing many of the traditional characteristics of Italian football - steely pragmatism melded with sophisticated precision.
Known as a tactical wizard, Pozzo was also successful leader of men. Authoritarian but paternalistic and attentive, he demanded that his players pay any price for an Azzurri victory, even if many of his charges were not Italian. The Commissario Tecnico and his 1934 team won as hosts with an entire country (not to mention fascist dictator Benito Mussolini) watching their every move. It was an iron-willed, if fortunate, performance. However, the extraordinary France 38 team was the true culmination of Pozzo's footballing vision.
A vision takes hold
An unrepentant Anglophile, the adventurous young Pozzo discovered football while studying in England. After leading the Italian teams to the 1912 and 1924 Olympics in Stockholm and Paris - the latter time winning a bronze medal - Pozzo was named the first head coach of the Azzurri not to be shackled by the decision-making of a technical committee in 1929.
At the second FIFA World Cup finals in 1934, the hosts looked well on their way after uncomplicated victories over Greece (4-0 in qualifying) and the United States (7-1 in the first round), but a rugged quarter-final battled with Spain could not be decided after 120 minutes of 1-1 football, and a replay was ordered for the following day. Four Italian and seven Spanish players were unfit to play, including Spain's inspirational goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora, and legendary inside-right Giuseppe Meazza, eventually carried the day with the only goal in the relatively deadened rematch.
A high-profile semi-final against fellow tournament favourites Austria in the semi-final was a lacklustre affair. On a muddy pitch, the only thing separating the two was a dubious 10th-minute strike from one of the team's many oriundi (South American-born Italian nationals), Enrico Guaita. Pozzo's playmaking centre-half Luisito Monti - another oriundi, who actually played for Argentina in the 1930 FIFA World Cup final - was in fantastic form pre-empting attacks by the aging Wunderteam, led by Pozzo's friend and rival Hugo Meisl.
In the final, Italy met a dexterous Czech team, who took the lead in the 70th minute and by all rights should have carried away the trophy. Motivated brilliantly as ever by Pozzo, the hosts nevertheless managed to triumph almost through willpower alone as another oriundi, Raimondo Orsi, hit a spectacular, swerving shot to even the contest in the 81st minute. In extra time, a hobbled Meazza, all but left alone to drift in and out of the match, picked out Guaita from the wing. The Roma midfielder slid the ball to Angelo Schiavio, who just managed to poke in the winner five minutes into the extra period.
Amid the grandiloquent jubilations for Italia, riding atop his players shoulders, Pozzo was undoubtedly overjoyed as well as relieved. Despite being given the title Commendatore for greatness in his profession after the event, Pozzo made it clear that he still had much to do to form the team that he wanted.
Playing his football
After claiming a historic Olympic gold medal at the 1936 Olympics, Pozzo and Italy were amongst the shortlist of favourites in 1938, though the team was almost completely different from the side four years earlier. More refined and technical, the side now completely revolved around the inside forwards Meazza (now captain) and Giovanni Ferrari -- the only two players to feature in both finals. Up front with them Pozzo had inserted the deadly tandem of striker Silvio Piola and winger Gino Colaussi, who would go on to score five and four goals respectively in the finals.
Italy's toughest match of the 1938 finals actually came in the first round against a determined Norway side. Piola managed an extra time winner, and Pozzo adjusted the team for the daunting second round match up with France in Paris. As usual, the Maestro made all the right moves and Piola scored a brace to see off the hosts. In the semi-final, Brazil coach Ademar Pimenta famously rested his first choice strikeforce of Leonidas and Tim and paid the price 2-1 to an undeniable Italy.
Lucky four years before in the final, Pozzo's men stole the show from Hungary in France. They opened the scoring in just the sixth minute with a flowing, length-of-the-pitch move that culminated in a Colaussi strike. A Pal Titkos equaliser stemmed the tide, but Italy were mouth-watering. Meazza made goals for Piola and Colaussi before the half was up, as Hungary's more deliberate style and outdated tactics were cruelly exposed by the Azzurri.
Gyorgy Sarosi pulled one back for the Eastern Europeans, but Amedeo Biavati's backheel set up Piola with eight minutes remaining, and Italy's third all-time leading goal scorer thumped his left-footed blast into the net. Unpopular to the French fans and Italian expatriates in attendance, Pozzo and his team celebrated more intimately than four years before. But, the look on Pozzo's face is one of the complete satisfaction.
The demanding coach and his devoted team had played themselves into the record books as the first to successfully defend a FIFA World Cup as well as the first to win it on foreign soil. With war looming on the horizon however, Pozzo and his men never got the chance to defend their FIFA World Cup run as there would not be another finals for 12 years.
Pozzo struggled on against social and political forces as coach of the Azzurri until the summer of 1948 when he retired at the age of 62. In all, he led the national team to 63 wins, 17 draws and 15 losses in his 19 year career. The 63 victories and the total number of 95 matches coached in are both Italian national team records.
He resumed his previous career as a football journalist after retiring, but his standing as a football manager was compromised by what many saw as capitulation with Mussolini's fascist regime. He eventually faded back to his beloved Turin and died four days before Christmas in 1968. A popular figure or not, Pozzo's place in FIFA World Cup history is enshrined with his team.
While in England watching Manchester United's centre-half Charlie Roberts, Pozzo was won over to the idea of a system featuring two backs and a playmaking centre-half. Inspired by Austria's Hugo Meisl, Pozzo developed his own tactics, known as the Metodo. Pozzo's teams typically relied less on the centre-half and more on the inside forwards, Giuseppe Meazza and Giovanni Ferrari, to break down defences, and thus combined the previously used 2-3-5 and W-M formations.
In the 1940s, the centre-half became a stopper, and the revised strategy was called the Sistema ('the system'). The new style was the grandfather of the unyielding defence and quick counterattacks typical of Italian football and it proved ultimately useful in the ever-quickening international game.