Host nation: France Games: 18 Goals: 84 (4.67 per match) Dismissals: 4 Venues: 10 Winners: Italy Top scorer: Leonidas (7 goals)
Seldom has a World Cup been so politically charged as 1938, the dark pall of Fascism hanging like Victorian smog over Europe. Nobody used football for political gain as cannily as Benito Mussolini, who had raided other countries for the world’s premier talent and wanted the nation to unite behind calcio. Nazi Germany, meanwhile, competed as a combined team after the Anschluss of Austria. They did so, however, without centre-forward Matthias Sindelar, the star of Austria’s 1930s Wunderteam. Der Papierene (The Paper Man) refused to play for Sepp Herberger’s Germany, citing old age and injury. Within six months, Sindelar was dead at the age of just 35: either murdered, poisoned by a faulty heater or having committed suicide, depending on who you believe.
Brazilian striker Leonidas was the planet’s most skilful player, while 1934 runners-up Czechoslovakia still had legendary keeper Frantisek Planicka and tricky winger Oldrich Nejedly.
Leonidas’ one-movement turn-and-hit in the quarter-final draw with Czechoslovakia (Brazil won the replay) proved a sign of future Samba brilliance. Italy’s levels of over-playing bordered on the Arsenal in the final against Hungary, Silvio Piola eventually scoring.
French anti-fascist demonstrations greeted the saluting Italians at every game and street corner. In the quarter-final against the hosts, the Azzurri had to wear a change strip. Mussolini insisted that they sport Fascist all black (above right), plus the ideology’s fasces coat of arms instead of the federation’s crest. Subtle.
In a straight knockout tournament, three games still level after extra time went to replays. The best of them was a 3-3 draw between Cuba and Romania, with the second tie won 2-1 by the former. But nothing topped Brazil 6-5 Poland in Strasbourg, a seesawing contest in which Ernst Wilimowski scored four and still lost.
With Italy dogged by 1934 corruption, Mussolini was desperate for an above-board Azzurri victory. So, Il Duce sent a telegram saying: “Win or die” to captain Giuseppe Meazza. It worked, as they beat Hungary 4-2 with braces from Piola and outside-left Gino Colaussi.
The Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) became the first representative from Asia, despite not having to qualify because Japan and the USA forfeited. Complete with a haunting, wide-eyed mascot, they lasted only one game, a 6-0 humbling by finalists Hungary. Ouch.