Azzurri rally to edge Czechs to gold
Redressing the balance after South America's finest had dominated the inaugural FIFA World Cup™ in Uruguay, European teams had the upper hand at Italy 1934. All eight quarter-finalists, indeed, hailed from the old continent.
The backdrop to the tournament was a complex one. Just as Adolf Hitler was to do at the Berlin Olympics two years later, Italy's dictator Benito Mussolini used the event for propaganda purposes, attempting to extol the virtues of his fascist state. Il Duce's hopes for an Italy-West Germany Final were thwarted by Czechoslovakia, who beat the Germans to set up a showdown against the host nation at Rome's Stadio Nazionale del Partito Nazionale Fascista, since renamed the Stadio Flaminio. FIFA.com recreates the events of 10 June 1934, when Gli Azzurri survived a real scare from the Czechs to lift the Trophy for the first time.
Getting their own back on Italy for refusing to take part in the first FIFA World Cup four years earlier, holders Uruguay decided to stay at home, as did England once again. Brazil sent over a third-string side, although it did feature the talented Leonidas da Silva, while Argentina fielded an amateur squad. In all, 16 teams contested the tournament - 12 of them from Europe - with A Seleção, La Albiceleste, USA and Egypt making up the rest of the field. All the games were knockout matches.
The Italy side featured several naturalised South American players, including the Argentinian duo of Luis Monti and Raimundo Orsi. The former was a redoubtable defender; the latter a skilled forward. Together they would provide the foundations for the hosts' success.
La Nazionale thrashed USA 7-1 in the first round but had to work considerably harder to dispose of Spain in the quarter-finals, drawing 1-1 and then edging through 1-0 in the replay. They repeated that scoreline in a high-quality semi-final against Austria's Wunderteam, which featured the brilliant Matthias Sindelar.
Meanwhile, a well-balanced Czechoslovakia outfit spearheaded by the lethal Oldrich Nejedly made solid progress, overcoming Romania 2-1 in the opening round and Switzerland 3-2 in the last eight, before dashing German hopes with a 3-1 win in the semis. Nejedly ended the tournament as leading scorer with five goals.
The Final took place in stifling heat, with temperatures soaring above 40ºC. Making light of the conditions, Italy started brightly, pushing Czechoslovakia back into their own half but failing to make a first-half breakthrough. The main reason for that was the superb form of goalkeeper Frantisek Planicka, who pulled off excellent stops to deny Giuseppe Meazza and Giovanni Ferrari. Nevertheless, the Czechs should have fallen behind when Angelo Schiavio found himself in front of an empty net only to shoot over.
After pursuing the same high-tempo pressing game at the start of the second half, the hosts began to run out of steam. On the hour mark the advancing Antonin Puc was flattened by Attilio Ferraris' barely-legal challenge, an indication of Italy's growing discomfort. Then, with only 19 minutes remaining, the unthinkable happened. Making a rapid recovery, Puc ran on to Stefan Cambal's pass, shook off Eraldo Monzeglio and beat Giampiero Combi with a cross-shot. The 55,000 crowd greeted the goal with silence.
In the minutes that followed Italy continued to totter. Jiri Sobotka had the chance to kill the game off but shot wide from ten yards out, with Frantisek Svoboda then blasting over when well placed. As grumbles of discontent began to echo around the stadium, Orsi came to Italy's rescue. Breaking down the wing, he sent in a cross that Ladislav Zenisek only half-cleared. Seizing on the loose ball, Orsi fired the equaliser past Planicka to the relief of the home fans.
Falling back into defence in the closing minutes, Karel Petru's men clung on gamely to force extra time. Within five minutes of the restart, however, Italy were in front. Schiavio was the hero of the hour, latching on to Enrique Guaita's cross to steer the ball home and clinch the Trophy.
Making a late tactical switch, Italy coach Vittorio Pozzo pushed Schiavio into the centre-forward position to allow Meazza to drop into a withdrawn role, one in which he felt more comfortable. The change worked to perfection, with the former snaffling Italy's winner. A one-club man, Schiavio ran out for his hometown Bologna for 16 seasons, scoring 247 goals in 337 matches before retiring in 1938.
A bronze-medal winner at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Schiavio was never an undisputed first-choice for his country, though he still managed to rack up 15 goals in 21 appearances between 1925 and 1934. The last of those goals was his winner against Czechoslovakia. He later coached Italy in two different spells: from 1953 to 1956 and from 1957 to 1958.
Along with Mario Pizziolo, Schiavio was one of the last surviving members of that FIFA World Cup-winning team. The duo died within days of each other in April 1990, just a few short weeks before the country staged the tournament for the second time in its history.
What they said
"Our success is a reward for hard work, moral steadfastness, a spirit of self-sacrifice and the unshakeable desire of a group of men," Italy coach Vittorio Pozzo.
"I was exhausted when I scored the winning goal, so I lay down on the grass for a few moments to get my breath back. It was my last match for the national side and football changed completely after that. At that time nobody knew what tactics were. What mattered were your legs and your heart," Italy forward Angelo Schiavio.
"Even though we lost, we returned home as heroes. We travelled back by train and there were thousands of fans applauding us at every station," Czechoslovakia goalkeeper Frantisek Planicka.
What happened next
Having drawn on their pride and motivation to win the day in 1934, Italy would add individual trickery to their arsenal with the emergence of young talents such as Giovanni Ferrari and Silvio Piola, both of whom would shine in France four years later.
Only a few months after being crowned world champions, Italy took on England in a memorable encounter at Highbury. Though the English press had predicted a thumping victory, the home side eventually scraped home 3-2 against a team that played virtually the entire game with ten men after Monti went off injured early on.
Gli Azzurri would not lose another game en route to successfully defending their title at France 1938, underlining their superiority in the meantime by winning the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Berlin 1936.