World Cup 1934: Did Italy fix a World Cup qualifier to make Benito Mussolini happy by winning the tournament?
Yesterday talkSPORT.com explained, thanks to @Amit Katwala’s brilliant World Cup stories book, about the France World Cup captain-turned Nazi collaborator and today as part of a series leading up to Russia 2018, we look at more shocking and surprising tales. Today it’s the second ever World Cup tournament.
Today, Filis Street in Athens is best known as part of the city’s red light district, but one of its run-down two-storey buildings played a crucial role in a potential World Cup scandal. The story starts a few months before the 1934 World Cup. Giorgio Vaccaro, the head of the Italian FA, was called in to see Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist leader. The country was hosting the tournament, and Vaccaro was ordered to win it. “Of course, Duce,” he is said to have replied. “That would be a wonderful achievement.” The dictator responded: “Admiral, you don’t understand. I said: ‘Italy must win the World Cup.’”
Illustration: Luke James
Under hardline disciplinarian coach Vittorio Pozzo, the Italians pursued that aim – bending the rules in places as they went. They used several oriundi, or South Americans of Italian ancestry. Since they were eligible for military service, Pozzo’s logic was “if they can die for Italy, they can play for Italy” – although when war broke out some of the oriundi were caught trying to sneak across the border to Switzerland.
First, though, Italy had to qualify – the only hosts in World Cup history compelled to do so. While the first World Cup had only 13 entrants, as European teams balked at the lengthy journey to Uruguay, this one had 32 interested teams vying for 16 places in the final tournament. The hosts were rather fortunate (not for the first time in the competition) to be drawn against Greece, who had won just one of their previous 12 official games. The first leg took place in March, in Milan, with the Italians running out comfortable 4-0 winners with two goals in each half.
They just had to make the boat journey to Athens and take care of business to book their place at their own World Cup. Then, the Greeks, who had already sold 20,000 tickets for the return leg, suddenly withdrew from the competition. The Italians were spared an awkward and lengthy trip to Athens a month before the tournament, and were able to focus on preparing for it at home. According to FIFA’s website, the Greek team withdrew because they were ‘discouraged by the heavy loss’, but 60 years later a more sinister picture emerged.
A report from the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) claims the cash-strapped Hellenic Football Federation – the sport’s governing body in Greece – were pressured into withdrawing by the Italians, who were understandably desperate to succeed on home soil with Mussolini watching closely. All the gate receipts would have been kept by the federation hosting the game, so abandoning it would have been a financial blow for the penniless Greeks, especially after the expense of sending a team to Milan for the first leg. It was alleged that the Italian FA compensated them by purchasing a house in Athens, worth $400,000 in today’s money, and gifting it to the Greek FA to use as headquarters. In a statement published in Italian newspaper La Repubblica in 1995, the then-IFFHS president Alfredo Pöge went further, based on testimony from future Greek coach Antonis Migiakis and three other living members of Greece’s 1934 squad. They insist that in addition to the “worthy and elegant home” received by the federation, key figures and players in Greek football were paid for their silence.
More than 80 years on, it’s still unclear exactly why Greece chose to withdraw from the second leg of the qualifier, but Italy’s fascist government under Mussolini would have had both the motive and the monetary muscle to make it happen. Our checks confirm that after listing four addresses in their first six years of FIFA membership, the Greek FA stayed in their next headquarters on Filis Street for at least 20 years. They moved there in 1934.
The 1934 World Cup in brief
The Italians muscled and fought their way to the final. They needed a replay to beat Spain in the quarter finals, and then put in a fine performance in wet conditions to get past the highly fancied Austrian Wunderteam. The final, in Rome, against a Czech side skilled in passing and movement, ended 2-1 to Italy, who were outplayed throughout.
Italy’s players carry manager Vittorio Pozzo following their first world triumph
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