World Cup History: 1938


Winners: Italy
Teams: 15
Teams in qualifiers: 37
Notable absentees: Argentina, England, Spain, Uruguay
Surprises: Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Cuba
Golden Boot: Leonidas (Brazil) -- 7
Stats: A total of 84 goals were scored (4.67 per match); Hungary (15) scored the most
Format: Straight knockout, replays for drawn matches
Number of matches: 18

• The hosts and holders automatically qualified for the first time
• Numbered shirts were used for the first time

• Austria qualified but had to withdraw after they were annexed by Germany in March 1938

• Ernst Loertscher of Switzerland became the first player to be officially credited with an own goal, playing against Germany
• Italy captain Giuseppe Meazza's shorts fell down after he scored a penalty in the semifinal. He took the kick with one hand holding them up
• On the eve of the final, the Italian players reportedly received a telegram from Benito Mussolini that simply said: "Win or die." The phrase is skewed by translation and is generally used as a call to arms. Even so, Hungarian goalkeeper Antal Szabo is reported to have said after the match: "I may have let in four goals, but at least I saved their lives."

Just as Mussolini had in Italy in 1934, Hitler used the 1936 Olympics as a weapon of propaganda. So, to avoid any further political chicanery, FIFA chose a "neutral" venue: the federation's birthplace, France. But, as before, there were some high-profile absentees.

Argentina, who had expected to be the host as part of alternation between South America and Europe, refused to travel. Uruguay were still staying away, leaving Brazil as Latin America's sole representative. They would make quite an impact.

As in 1934, and despite the distances some teams had travelled, it was a knockout competition from the start. The first round saw holders Italy get lucky against Norway, when they won in extra-time, having seen a Norwegian goal disallowed for offside. The tie of the round, the tournament and perhaps any World Cup saw Brazil beat Poland 6-5, with Brazil striker Leonidas scoring a hat trick and Wilimowski grabbing four but still ending on the losing side. Elsewhere, the Germans, incorporating many of the 1934 Austrian Wunderteam, lost in a replay to Switzerland.

Hosts France perished at the hands of Italy in the quarterfinals, while Brazil's Leonidas scored two goals in a two-match thriller with the Czechs. The Brazilians were playing wonderful football while Leonidas was shaping up to be the man of the tournament. Credited with the popularisation of the overhead kick, he was a samba-style Brazilian player of the type the world would become familiar.

But then the Brazilian management made one of the craziest decisions in World Cup history when, having played those gruelling two matches with the Czechs, they decided to rest Leonidas and fellow striker Tim to keep them fresh for the final. Such over-confidence was their downfall as the Italians, with 1934 hero Giuseppe Meazza still starring, beat them easily. A late goal from Romeo was Brazil's only consolation.

Leonidas, known as "The Black Diamond," returned for the third-place match with Sweden and, sure enough, he scored a brace as Brazil recorded their highest finish to that point in the championships with Leonidas as top scorer. Without the farcical decision to rest their star man, it could have been so much more.

In the final, the Italians faced Hungary, a surprise package, playing a similar brand of flowing football to that of the Wunderteam. With the Italians having defeated France, home fans were well and truly behind the Magyars and hoped they could spring a surprise. But with centre-forward Silvio Piola in superb form, Italy were even better than they had been four years earlier. Piola and Gino Colaussi scored two each as the Hungarians were swept away by the superior tactical nous of Italian coach Vittorio Pozzo.

Pozzo had moulded two largely different teams and won the championship twice. Though in later years he would be criticised as being the puppet of Mussolini's Fascist Italy, he would eventually be remembered as Italy's greatest ever coach. Sadly, it was to be the last championship for 12 years as war broke out around the world. When football resumed, the map of world football had changed considerably.