Political complications to major sports events are often thought to be a contemporary phenomenon. But the background to the 1998 World Cup is remarkably straightforward compared with the last time the World Cup was held in France 60 years ago.

The world was in a mess in 1938, and not just in football terms. The threat of world war was looming ever more menacingly. Instead of unifying nations in peace, sport was generally being used as an effective vehicle for political propaganda: Mussolini's Italy had staged and exploited the previous World Cup, in 1934, and had enjoyed the added bonus of Italy winning it - just as they were to win the 1936 Olympic Tournament in Berlin, even more flagrantly abused by Hitler. The 1938 World Cup promised to become the next victim.

France was awarded the finals at the 1936 FIFA Congress at the Opera Kroll in Berlin, largely in tribute to Jules Rimet, the French President of FIFA who had inspired the creation of the competition. In fact, Rimet had conspired at the 1934 Congress in Rome for the tournament to be held in 1937, benefiting from the World Fair in Paris that year and saving some of the two million franc budget. But the 1936 Congress opted for 1938, the choice of venue also influenced by the travelling difficulties which had deterred most European teams from playing in the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930.

The final group draw in 1938: FIFA President Jules Rimet is ably assisted by a young friend.
Argentina felt it was entitled to have the 1938 event on the basis of alternation between Europe and South America, and confidently expected this to happen. When the decision went against them, the Argentinians protested loudly, boycotted the tournament, submitted a late entry but finally withdrew it again. The boycott had little popular support, and police had to break up demonstrations by fans outside the Argentinian F.A. offices in Buenos Aires.

Uruguay itself refused to travel to Italy, still piqued by the poor European support for the 1930 finals (although France had been among those who did play in Uruguay), and occupied with the introduction of professional football. Brazil was left as the only representative from South America.

Spain was forced to withdraw because of the bloody Civil War being waged at the time, but the most conspicuous absentees and the most regrettable victims of the Europe of the 1930s were the Austrians. Austria's famous "Wunderteam", which had scored a series of famous victories in the first part of the decade, was now defunct, as Austria had become swallowed up by Hitler's Germany in the "Anschluss". It left the Austrians with no team of their own to play for, even though the team had actually played and won its qualifying match against Latvia, but several Austrian stars were recruited into the German team and four of them featured in the opening 1-1 draw with Switzerland.

John Langenus, the Belgian referee at the 1930 final in Uruguay, watches the game from the goal line.
Austria's withdrawal left a place open, which FIFA generously offered to England. FIFA Secretary Dr. Ivo Schricker sent an impassioned plea to Sir Stanley Rous, then secretary of The F.A. in London and already known for his international orientation, but the motherland of the game persisted in its splendid isolation from the rest of the world football movement and again disdained from taking part in the world event.

Thus the tournament eventually started with only 15 finalists, including the likes of Cuba and the Dutch East Indies and was barely representative of world football.

Italy retained its world title in more convincing style than in its first triumph four years earlier, beating Hungary 4-2 in the final in Paris on 19 June 1938. It was to be the last World Cup match for twelve years.