World Cup History: If they can die for Italy, they can play for Italy
From tweaking popular tactics to winning World Cups and the Olympic gold and dealing with fascism, Pozzo cemented himself as a flexible but approachable coach in tough times.
This FIFA World Cup History feature is part of our build-up to the 2014 edition, which will chart the most special moments from previous tournaments. Today we have a look at the 1934 and 1938 World Cup.
"If they can die for Italy, they can play for Italy."
Only a manager like Vittorio Pozzo could probably have said that — and only in an era when war continuously loomed. The manager — one of the most radical brains football has seen — picked several Italians of foreign blood (most notably Enrique Guaita, Angelo Schiavio and Raimundo Orsiand) and is still the only man to have led a country to back-to-back World Cups.
And it was no surprise either.
Pozzo was far ahead of his time when he took over coaching duties of the Italian national team. He was a firm believer in setting up football camps away from home to acclimatise his team and set them up in a formation that saw Italy play some surprisingly good attacking football. There wasn't a particular Italian style that had developed by then — but teams would often lineup in a 2-3-5 formation. Pozzo, however, gave it a slight bend. He played an interesting 2-3-2-3 called Modeta — building block to Italy's Sistema — solid in defence and swift on the counter.
Pozzo's football genius was developed by playing in France, Switzerland and England. It was vital that Italy have a coach who was no-nonsense, well-travelled and experienced — and probably this is what made a dressing room full of stars like Giuseppe Meazza and Giovanni Ferrari look up to him. That, and the ability to drop big names from his team for poor performances — he dropped skippers Adolfo Baloncieri (an international of ten years) and Umberto Caligaris later on. He picked relative unknowns and made stars of his strikers — Meazza, Ferrari, Angelo Schiavio and Silvio Piola all excelled under him.
Being held in Italy, the 1934 wasn't without controversy — and probably this is unfair on Pozzo and his team — but most of their heroics that year were credited to favourable decisions from referees influenced by Mussolini's regime. Italy beat the Austrian Wunderteam 1-0 in the semis with some saying a blatant foul wasn't given in the run-up to Guaita's goal. They met Czechoslovakia in the final and Swede Ivan Eklind, who'd refereed the semifinal, was chosen again to officiate the game. Italy would go on to win the game 2-1 (aet) from behind but not without questions raised over the number of fouls they committed and a penalty that wasn't given to their opponents.
But there was no questioning Pozzo's legend after 1938. The Italians were unbeaten since 1934 and had won the Olympic gold in 1936 but this tournament was on foreign soil — France. Mussolini would not be picking the referees and the team would be booed during the fascist salute. In the first match (vs Norway), the team was booed and lowered the salute — Pozzo however, had different ideas. Sensing that the team's morale was dented, he ordered another salute during the national anthems as an act of defiance.
He later said: "Our players don't even dream to make some politics, but the fascist salute is the official flag of the moment, it's a sort of ceremony and they must show allegiance to it. I have my ideas, but I know what my duty is. When we take to the field we are solemn and deafening hisses attend us. And we don't lower the hand until the hisses are stopped. The action of intimidation has not succeeded."
But Pozzo was never bound to Fascism. In a sense, he protected Italian football from it. "Vittorio Pozzo managed to lead the Azzurri by keeping them distant from pressures at a time when the Fascist regime wanted to use them as a propaganda tool. Pozzo never pretended to be an anti-fascist but he was never used by those in power. That discretion was the only way of preventing the Azzurri from becoming Mussolini's team," Italian writer Gianpaolo Ormezzano wrote about him.
Italy would meet Brazil in the semis where Brazil's coach Ademar Pimenta rested his first-choice strike-pairing of Leonidas and Tim. Story goes that Brazil had already booked the only flight from Marseilles to Paris — so sure they were of beating Italy. They also offered Pozzo a ride on the plane to see the match when the Italian suggested that Brazil surrender the plane booking if his team won. Pozzo relayed the arrogance to his team and the rest is history (Brazil refused to give up the plane booking even after the 1-2 loss, and Italy travelled in a train).
Italy cruelly exposed Hungary 4-2 in the final (video below).
From tweaking popular tactics to winning World Cups and the Olympic gold and dealing with fascism, Pozzo cemented himself as a flexible but approachable coach in tough times. As another writer Giorgia Bocca wrote: "He liked the trains to run on time but he never locked himself into a rigid structure."
In all, he led the national team to 63 wins, 17 draws and 15 losses in his 19 year career. The 63 victories and the total number of 95 matches coached in are both Italian national team records. Pozzo died aged 82 on 21 December 1968.
World Cup 1934
Champions: Italy (2-1 after extra time vs Czechoslovakia in final)
Top scorer: Oldřich Nejedlý (five goals)
World Cup 1938
Champions: Italy (4-2 vs Hungary in final)
Top scorer: Leonidas (seven goals)
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