1938 World Cup: Italy repeats as champions

Mussolini used the 1934 World Cup in Italy as a propaganda platform for his Fascist dictatorship. Two years later, Adolf Hitler did the same with the Berlin Olympics.

The Azzurri make it two in a row by beating Hungary in the final in Paris

Italy's national team poses with the World Cup trophy, held aloft by manager Vittorio Pozzo, after beating Hungary 4-2 in the 1938 World Cup final in Paris. ((AFP/Getty Images))

Mussolini used the 1934 World Cup in Italy as a propaganda platform for his Fascist dictatorship. Two years later, Adolf Hitler did the same with the Berlin Olympics.

Wanting to put an end to the political chicanery, and with Europe on the brink of war, FIFA diplomatically awarded the 1938 competition to France, the homeland of Jules Rimet, the man who originally conceived the idea of the World Cup.


  • Number of participating teams: 15
  • Top scorer: Brazil's Leonidas (7 goals)
  • Number of games: 18
  • Total goals scored: 84
  • Average goals per game: 4.67
  • Highest scoring game: Brazil's 6-5 win over Poland on June 5
  • Total attendance: 483,000
  • Average attendance: 26,833

With several new and modernized stadiums - not to mention that FIFA wanted to avoid the travel nightmares of the 1934 World Cup in Uruguay - France seemed a logical choice.

Once again, however, the decision did not sit well in South America. Argentina applied to stage the tournament and, working under the assumption that the honour of hosting the competition would alternate between South America and Europe, thought it was a lock.

Feeling snubbed, Argentina stayed home, as did Uruguay. Brazil was the lone South American representative.


For the first time the hosts (France) and the defending champions (Italy) qualified automatically. As in 1934, the competition followed a knockout format with replays employed when games finished tied after 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time.

Austria qualified but withdrew (having been annexed by Hitler's Germany) and was replaced by Sweden. Because there were 15, and not 16, teams in the competition, the Swedes received automatic entry into the quarter-finals.

MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT: Brazil's 6-5 victory over Poland in the first round. A wet and muddy field in Strasbourg didn't slow down Leonidas, who had a hat trick for Brazil. Polish forward Ernest Willimowski scored four times in a wildly entertaining match that went to extra time.

MAN OF THE TOURNAMENT: Leonidas. The lithe forward, known as the "Black Diamond" and the "Rubber Man," finished the as the competition's top scorer with seven goals.

SPOTLIGHT: Brazilian coach Ademar Pimenta made one of the most questionable decisions in World Cup history when he did not play Leonidas, his star forward, in the semifinals.

After the first two rounds, Leonidas proved to be the star of the competition with six goals to his credit. And yet, inexplicably, he did not take to the field against the Italians. So confident was Pimenta that his team would beat the reigning world champions that he boastfully announced he was resting Leonidas and saving him for the final.

It proved not only grossly presumptuous, but a calamitous error in judgment. Italy picked apart a helpless Brazil in a 2-1 victory to book its place in the final. Pimenta wised up and put Leonidas back in the lineup for Brazil's third-place game. He scored two goals to lead his country to a 4-2 win over Sweden.

AND ANOTHER THING: The quarter-final between Brazil and Czechoslovakia on June 12 in Bordeaux was more of a rugby match than a soccer game. A physical encounter from the start, the game quickly boiled over.

Early in the contest, Brazilian defender Zeze hacked down Czech forward Oldrich Nejedly and was immediately expelled by the Hungarian referee. Just before the end of the half, Brazil's Machados exchanged punches with Czechoslovakia's Jan Riha and both were tossed.

By the end of the carnage-marred contest, three players were ejected and five were injured, including Nejedly (broken leg) and teammate Frantisek Planicka (broken arm).

The newcomers included the Netherlands, the Dutch East Indies, Cuba and Norway.

Five of the first-round matches from June 4-5 went to extra time and two games required a replay. Switzerland ousted Germany (who had enlisted several Austrian players) at the Parc de Princes in Paris, while Cuba shocked Romania at Toulouse's Chapou stadium in the replays.

Czechoslovakia, France, Brazil and Hungary all advanced, but Italy was lucky to survive against Norway. At the Velodrome stadium in Marseille, Arne Brustad's goal late in regulation appeared to have given the Norwegians the upset victory, but it was disallowed for offside. Silvio Piola scored in extra time to lift the world champions to the victory.

Sweden entered the quarter-final with style by thrashing Cuba 8-0. Hosts France was eliminated at the hands of Italy in Paris, Hungary disposed of Switzerland, while Czechoslovakia and Brazil battled to a draw in an ill-tempered contest before the South Americans won the replay.

Hungary, an emerging soccer power at the time, displayed great skill and panache in destroying Sweden 5-1 in the semifinals. Brazil made eight changes to its starting lineup, including resting star forward Leonidas, and were bossed around by the Italians, who went on to win 2-1 and book a place in the final.


On June 19 at the Colombes stadium in Paris, Vittorio Pozzo's Azzurri took to the field with only Hungary standing in their way to repeating as world champions.

When the Italians scored six minutes into the contest through Gino Colaussi, the rout appeared to be on. Pal Titkos levelled the score two minutes later, but the goal proved to be only a brief respite for the Hungarians.

Giovanni Ferrari and Giuseppe Meazza, Italy's dynamic inside-forward partnership, took hold of the game and set up Piola's goal in the 15th minute. Ten minutes before half, Ferrari and Meazza worked their magic again, this time finding the unmarked Colaussi, who netted his second of the game.   Hungary's captain Gyorgy Sarosi scored in the 70th minute, but Italy put the game away with 10 minutes left in regulation when Amedeo Biavati back-heeled a pass to Piola, who beat goalkeeper Antal Szabo with a powerful left-footed shot: 4-2 to Italy.

The 1938 World Cup, perhaps more than any tournament, clearly demonstrated the powerful nature of soccer.

Spain was being ripped apart by civil war, Hitler and the Nazis were occupying Austria, and a crisis-ridden Europe was teetering on the brink of World War II. And yet, for 15 days in June, the World Cup beamed a powerful light of hope and friendship through the ominous clouds hovering over the continent.

In the end, France was lauded for its brilliant staging of the competition and Italy retained its title, but they would be denied the chance to win a third consecutive crown - the map of Europe was about to change, and the World Cup would go on a 12-year hiatus.


  • Vittorio Pozzo is the only manager to win two World Cups, having guided Italy to the crown in 1934 and 1938.
  • Cuba only qualified because Mexico withdrew from the tournament.
  • Brian Glanville, the dean of soccer journalists, writes in his book, The History of the World Cup, about Sweden's 8-0 win over Cuba in the quarter-finals: "At 5-0 the French journalist Emmanuel Gambardella shut his typewriter. 'Up to five goals,' he announced, 'is journalism. After that, it becomes statistics.' "
  • Italian forward Giuseppe Meazza faced an unusual problem during the semifinals against Brazil. He was set to take a penalty shot when the elastic holding up his shorts snapped. Undaunted, Meazza held up his shorts with his left hand while scoring from the spot to give Italy a 2-0 lead. Meazza's shorts fell down around his waist after he scored.
  • Switzerland's Ernst Loertscher holds the dubious distinction of scoring the first own-goal in World Cup history. Switzerland beat Germany 4-2 in the first round, but one of the German goals was mistakenly scored by Loertscher.