Following Italy’s triumph at home in 1934, the honour of hosting the third World Cup was given to France, in recognition of the role they had played not only in the creation of FIFA but of the tournament itself. Argentina had hoped to take the competition back to South America, but having been snubbed in favour of the French opted not to take part at all, as did fellow Latin heavyweights Uruguay. The Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into a united Germany) led to the withdrawal of Meisl’s side from the competition, though nine of them were selected to represent Germany. Their withdrawal left the competition with only 15 teams and allowed Sweden a bye to the quarter finals.
On the pitch, with England, Scotland, Argentina, Uruguay and Austria absent the favourites remained defending champions Italy. Significant alterations had been made to Vittorio Pozzo’s team with only Giuseppe Meazza, Giovanni Ferrari, Guido Masetti and Eraldo Monzeglio surviving from the squad of four years earlier. Even then only Ferrari and Meazza were starters but there were top class additions in the likes of striker Silvio Piola, left-winger Gino Colaussi and Uruguayan-born centre-half Michele Andreolo.
Italy’s defence of their title almost began in disaster. They took an early lead against Norway in Marseilles when Ferraris pounced on an error by keeper Johansen, but were made to work hard for a narrow victory. Norwegian left-winger Arne Brustad drew the sides level late in the second-half as he beat Monzeglio to thrash the ball past Olivieri and appeared to have won the game in the dying moments only for his goal to be disallowed for offside. In extra-time Italy forced another scrappy goal after Johansen failed to hold Pasinati’s shot and allowed Piola to snatch the game for the holders.
The quarter-finals produced one of the competition’s dream ties as the hosts, France, met the holders, Italy, in Paris. The Italians managed to take the lead within the opening ten minutes, through left-winger Colaussi, though French keeper Laurent Di Lorto had to shoulder some of the blame as he palmed a routine catch into the net before crashing into the post. Within a minute the French were level as Oscar Heisserer, their inside-right, scored after sharp work from Aston, to bring the home team back into the game. The star of the second half was unquestionably Silvio Piola, who turned on an impeccable individual performance and scored the two goals which ensured the Italians would progress.
In the semi-finals the Italians faced Brazil, the tournament’s most spectacular team in the early rounds. Although football had grown hugely in population in Brazil in the 20s and 30s, the Selecao were far from possessing the aura of invincibility which surrounds them today. Victories at the Copa America in 1919 and 1922 had shown promise, but they lagged behind both Argentina and Uruguay when it came to the continent’s best teams.
In 1938 though Brazil announced themselves on the global stage. Their opening match with Poland remains one of the World Cup’s greatest ever games, finishing 4-4 at the end of 90 minutes before Brazil prevailed 6-5 in extra-time. The match was notable not merely for its entertainment value, but as the first time that Leonidas showed his full capabilities on a global stage. The man who became known as the “Black Diamond” scored three goals, two of them in extra-time, to overshadow Poland’s Ernst Willimowski who netted four goals of his own.
|Leonidas talks to fans|
Brazil’s reward for beating Poland was a quarter-final against 1934’s losing finalists Czechoslovakia. While both teams were noted primarily for their exhilarating attacking play, the match proved to be a brutal affair and three players were sent off! The first to go was Brazilian wing-half Zezé Procopio for an unnecessary hack on Nejedlý after just 14 minutes had been played. Despite being reduced to ten men Brazil went into the lead after half an hour through Leonidas, though were was a suspicion of offside. Shortly before the break both sides lost a man as both Machado of Brazil and Jan Řiha of Czechoslovakia were dismissed for fighting. Not long after half-time Czechoslovakia were awarded a penalty as Domingos da Guia, Brazil’s exceptional centre-half inexplicably handled the ball in the box. Nejedlý duly converted to level the game, yet while there were no further goals in the game there was plenty of incident and the Czechs lost their inspirational captain Planicka to a broken arm and Nejedlý to a broken leg.
The replay was scheduled for two days later, but the Czechs were at a serious disadvantage as they were shorn of their two most important players. As it was they took the lead through Vlastimil Kopecký, who had been moved from left-half to inside-left in place of Nejedlý. The Brazilians were able to level after half-time, and yet again it was Leonidas that scored the crucial goal. The Czechs were aggrieved soon after as they believed that a shot by Karel Senecký had crossed the line, the French referee George Capdeville was not of the same mind though and he waved away their appeals. Then came the moment to break Czech hearts as the Brazilians took a decisive lead through a Roberto volley and move into the last four.
If legend is to be believed the Brazilian coach Pimenta committed selection suicide ahead of taking on Italy, by resting both his best forwards, Leonidas and Tim. Supposedly such was the confidence in the Brazilian camp that they felt they didn’t need their stars to beat Italy and reach the final. Given that they had required extra-time and a replay to defeat Poland and Czechoslovakia (and the key role of Leonidas in those victories) it would seem highly dubious to imagine such unwarranted arrogance existing in the Brazilian management. In reality Leonidas had suffered injury in the first game against Czechoslovakia and had simply not recovered sufficiently in the intervening two days to face Italy.
Even with their star player, Brazil might well have struggled against an Italy team with outstanding players in every positions, without him they were overrun. Colaussi gave the Italians the lead shortly after half-time, and the referee Hans Wüthrich from Switzerland awarded them a penalty after Domingos da Guia hacked down Silvio Piola in the box. The man responsible for converting it was Giuseppe Meazza and characteristically he made no mistake. It capped an awful afternoon for Domingos, arguably the finest defender of the pre-WWII era, in which he failed to cope with Piola’s physical dominance. Brazil’s best chances fell to Peracio, but he was no Leonidas, and so when Brazil finally did pull a goal back via Romeu it was too little too late.
In the final Italy met Hungary, another of the Danubian school who dominated the game in the 30s. They had enjoyed a rather smoother route to the final having trounced the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) in their first round tie, before comfortably beating Switzerland 2-0 in the quarter-finals. Hungary’s semi-final was against Sweden who had annihilated Cuba in the quarter-finals after a bye in the first round. The Swedes must have believed that they were in for a similar game against Hungary when Arne Nyberg put them ahead after only 35 seconds. Yet Hungary were a far different proposition from Cuba and rather than crumble after the early goal they came into the game and were increasingly able to impose themselves on it. Indeed the Hungarians dominated the game so much that they led 3-1 at half-time thanks to a brace from Zsengeller and one from Ferenc Sas. In the second-half the Hungarians continued to run riot as Sarosi added a fourth and late on Zsengeller completed his hat-trick.
|Italy (below) v. Hungary, 1938|
Entering the final the Italians as the defending champion were eager to counter any suggestions that they had been “helped” to win their first World Cup. The Hungarians knew though that they were capable of staging an upset if their key players were to perform to their full ability. Defensively they had been outstanding throughout the tournament, with Koranyi and Biro a superb full-back partnership. In attack Gyorgi Sarosi stood with the best centre-forwards of the era and was capable of playing just as well at centre-half if required.
The final started extremely brightly as Colaussi put Italy into the lead after just six minutes after being played in coolly by Meazza. Yet just two minutes later the Hungarians were level as Pal Titkos fired in from a Ferenc Sas centre. Before long the Italians had regained their lead as Piola netted, with Meazza the provider again, and Colaussi added his second before the break to ensure the Italians had breathing space. In the second half Hungarian captain Sarosi pulled one back against the run of play to set up a thrilling end to the match, but the Italians demonstrated their class and Piola scored again from Biavati’s cross with five minutes remaining to make sure. The Italians had been clearly the better side and their second world title was well merited for their excellent efforts. Sadly for them they would not have the chance to defend their title four year later, World War II put paid to that.