Fifteen nations contested the 1938 World Cup, a reduction partly caused by the changing shape of the world map. For Nazi Germany had marched into Vienna in March 1938, extinguishing Austria, a state that had been in a state of turmoil since the ending of the Hapsburg dominion. The Austrian team of the 1930s had been one of the strongest in Europe, thus the Anschluss transformed the footballing prospects of Germany. This annexation had largely become possible because of a change in Italian allegiances; Italy had invaded Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia), a move condemned by Great Britain, which had responded through the League of Nations by imposing sanctions, although, crucially, not on Italian oil imports. Mussolini retaliated by reversing the long-standing Italian policy of friendship with Great Britain the leading naval power in the Mediterranean. Italy’s support of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, tantamount almost to a full scale invasion, further underlined his commitment to Rome-Berlin Axis. The Spanish Civil War precluded the dispatching of a team to compete in the World Cup. In 1934 the Spanish team would probably have knocked out Italy had not the special advantages of home and referee not helped Italy. Hitler already has his greedy eyes on Czechoslovakia, yet the Munich Conference was still some months away.

Uruguay was still smarting from the European virtual no-show in 1930, when the Cup had been held in Montevideo Uruguay’s capital, thus for the second time the 1930 Champions declined to appear. The Argentine felt that the World Cup should alternate between Europe and Latin America, thus their refusal to partake could hardly have come as a surprise to the organisers; nonetheless, there was considerable disquiet in Argentina, with rioting breaking out in Buenos Aires. Only Cuba and Brazil showed up as Western hemisphere representatives, the latter being much fancied.

There was to be no team from Egypt this time, thus the whole of Africa was completely unrepresented.

From East Asia came a team from the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia); in some ways surprising as the industrial system introduced in the seventeenth century was based on the institution of slavery, which was not abolished until the middle of the nineteenth century, with the native populations still possessing very much second class status for decades afterwards.

None of the British Home nations participated, despite the offer of a place. The Soviet Union was now a member of the League of Nations system, nonetheless, mutual suspicion ensured there would be no entry from the geographically largest country on earth.

Thus for the third time in a row, the World Cup was neither representative of the world of football, nor of the world in general.

The fifteen contestants were: France (hosts), Italy, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Brazil, Cuba, Switzerland, Poland, Dutch East Indies, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands and Belgium. There were twelve teams from Europe, two from the Americas and one from Asia.

The knockout system, first tried in 1934, was adhered to. Sweden was given a bye in the first round, the bye ensuring that subsequent rounds would be contested by teams whose number would be a power of two.

The first round witnessed only one completely lopsided result, the 6-0 demolition of the Dutch East Indies by a powerful Hungarian side (Hungary was to continue producing outstanding teams through to the 1960s). The Dutch themselves scarcely doing much better than their colony, losing 3-0 to the still formidable Czechoslovaks, who had reached the final of the previous World Cup. There was justice of sorts when the unfancied Swiss knocked out Germany after a replay. Yet the match which was to hold the eye was the epic clash between debutantes Poland and the gifted Brazilians. At half time the score was a predictable 3-1 to Brazil, with Leonidas the Brazilian “Black Diamond” with a Greek name having scored a hat-trick. Somehow Poland managed to come back, Ernst Willimowski scoring a hat-trick himself. At 4-4 the match went into extra time. Brazil had been the first team to arrive in France, their players displaying dazzling skills with the ball, would they really be going home after only one game? Extra time saw the score change to 5-5, finally Romeo managed to score for Brazil without response. The spectators definitely got their money’s worth. Italy rode her luck when a Norwegian goal was disallowed in a tightly contested match; a sign of the times was the fascist salute given by the Italians at the beginning of the match, which provoked widespread booing.

In the second round Cuba were decisively eliminated by Sweden, the eight-nil score line not being at all flattering to the Scandinavians. The Swiss, who had eliminated the more powerful German team, were unable to replicate this feat, going down by a respectable two-nil to Hungary. For the first time in World Cup history the host nation was defeated, France losing fairly comfortably 1 - 3 to pre-tournament favourites Italy. Brazil forfeited a lot of goodwill when her players turned what was potentially one of the finest matches into a kicking contest, Zeze of Brazil very early on kicking Nejedly, one of the World’s finest strikers at that time; the kicking continued throughout the entire match. The end result was that two Czechs ended up with broken limbs and other players were injured. Incredibly, only three players, two of them Brazilian, had been sent off by the match’s end. This particular match ended up as a draw; however, the consequence was that the replay was a forgone conclusion as Czechoslovakia were missing the World class players Nejedly and Planicka. In all there were fifteen changes for the replay.

For the semi-final against Italy Brazil inexplicably left out Leonidas, their one truly top drawer striker. As night followed day it was inevitable that Leonidas’s replacement Peracio would miss the only two genuine chances that fell to him. Italy were more ruthless, scoring twice; Brazil’s consolation goal coming with just three minutes left on the clock.

Sweden had had a kind draw, given a bye in the first round, their second round opponents Cuba scarcely presented more of a problem. However, their luck had finally run out; it’s true that Sweden scored first, after only 35 seconds, yet the mismatch in playing skill vis-a-vis the Hungarians could not be hidden. The eventual 5-1 score line accurately reflecting the difference in playing strengths between the two sides.

The 1938 World Cup final was between a Mediterranean country and a Central European one, a contest between a physically robust side and a skilful one. The bullying tactics of the Italians set the tone from the outset; Colaussi the Italian winger swept in after only five minutes to put his team one up. Hungary managed to retaliate almost straight away as an unmarked Titkos charged in to equalise. Yet this merely made the Italians tighten their grip, Piola scoring just over a third of the way into the first half, to be followed by Colaussi again with little more than ten minutes to half time.

The game was over as a contest, the Italians presenting a most formidable defensive unit, a reputation that has been maintained ever since. It’s true that fortune gifted the Hungarians a second goal after a defensive mix-up; yet this simply provoked the Italians into scoring the best goal of the match, Piola and Biavati combining some delicious one-twos including a back-heel, which Piola thumped home. The Hungarians had less than ten minutes to make good the two goal deficit, it proved impossible.

© 2006 World Cup Years Ltd.