“They win everything, these blessed Italians.”
So said French president Albert Lebrun in 1938 and, at that stage, he was just about right. Gli Azzurri had become the first European team to lift the FIFA World Cup™ four years earlier, and had spent the time since confounding the critics who accredited that victory to home advantage.
Olympic gold had followed in 1936 and, when France hosted the World Cup in 1938, Vittorio Pozzo and his formidable side cemented their status as the team of the 1930s. The shadow of war did, of course, loom ominously over this edition, with Spain’s ongoing civil conflict precluding their involvement and Austria's annexation by Germany reducing the number of finalists from 16 to 15.
Wider hostilities would break out within months, ensuring that this would be the last World Cup for fully 12 years. The Trophy remained in Italy throughout that period, with Dr Ottorino Barassi – an official in the Italian Football Federation – keeping it in a shoe box under his bed during the Second World War to ensure its safety.
No-one could question that the prize had been well earned. Pozzo and his team, by virtue of their association with Mussolini and Italy’s fascist government of the time, faced hostility from the terraces throughout and yet steadfastly prevailed against the sternest of opposition. In beating France 3-1 in the quarter-finals, for example, they became the first team to inflict defeat on a World Cup host - and better was to follow.
Brazil’s dazzling and seemingly unstoppable team were swept aside in the last four, leaving only Hungary between Gli Azzurri and a second successive world title. Alfred Schaffer's Magyars were no pushovers. In fact, they emerged as France 1938’s top-scoring team, netting 15 times in just four matches, with star strikers Gyorgy Sarosi and Gyula Zsengeller bagging five apiece.
But Italy had stars of their own, among them Giuseppe Meazza and Giovanni Ferrari, both survivors of that 1934 triumph on home soil. The pair dominated the Final to the extent that France's L'Auto newspaper described them as “artisans de la victoire". Yet while the above image captures Ferrari, a creative attacking midfielder, going for goal against Hungary, it was two of Italy’s new guard who ultimately found the net.
Braces from Gino Colaussi and Silvio Piola secured a 4-2 victory, retaining the Trophy and fortifying Italy’s reputation as that decade’s dominant football force.
Did you know?
The official match programme from that historic 1938 Final features among the fascinating exhibits at the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich.