Fascism was spreading through Europe, and the imminence of war was felt in all corners of the continent when France hosted the 1938 World Cup. The Second World War would only start in 1939, but in June the year before, a series of problems threatened the staging of the tournament.
The Spanish Civil War started in 1936 and would only finish in 1939. Consequently, the Spanish did not take part in the 1938 World Cup. Hitler’s Germany had already taken over Austria, reducing the number of competitors from 16 to 15.
The Germans used Austrian players to field a stronger team. Italy and Germany’s participation triggered protests against Mussolini and Hitler’s fascist regimes in an already divided Europe. There were also two important absences, Argentina and Uruguay. From South America, only Brazil took part.
The only two other non-European teams to take part were Cuba and the Dutch East Indies, which would later become independent and be called Indonesia. It was the first and only time that these teams participated in a World Cup.
1938 World Cup Draw
In what was to be the last World Cup in 12 years, only 15 of the 36 qualifying teams made the trip to France. After qualifying, Austria had disappeared as a political entity, so England was offered the nation’s place in the finals. Having rejected eligibility for the qualifiers, England also rejected this invitation.
The draw in the Salon d’Horloge of the Ministère des Affaires étrangères was made by the grandson of the French President of FIFA, Jules Rimet, in Paris, where Sweden received a bye and Germany (who had co-opted several of the Austrian stars), France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Cuba and Brazil were seeded.
1938 World Cup Innovation
The 1938 World Cup also stood out because of the introduction of a new and innovative strategy known as the “Swiss bolt.” This strategy was implemented by Austrian Karl Rappan, who managed Switzerland.
He innovated by fielding a sweeper and was able to beat Germany. The Swiss tradition of putting together sound defensive systems began there and then.
The Black Diamond
The only South American representative, Brazil did pretty well in France. Brazil managed to get through the tournament’s initial stages for the first time in history. A lot of it was due to Leonidas da Silva, who would go down in history as the inventor of the bicycle kick.
The forward, who played for Flamengo at the time, scored seven goals in the competition, earning himself the title of top scorer and mesmerizing the Europeans. However, he was unable to give Brazil their first title at the 1938 World Cup.
Leonidas scored a hat-trick in Brazil’s 6-5 victory over Poland, but Polish player Ernest Wilimowski was the first to socre four goals in one World Cup match. Nevertheless, it was not enough to stop Brazil, who went on to face Czechoslovakia in the quarter-final.
The match between Brazilians and Czechs was practically a battle. Three players were sent off, one had his arm broken (Czech goalkeeper František Plánička), and another broke his leg (forward Oldřich Nejedlý). The 1-1 draw meant they had to replay the match 48 hours later.
Leonidas scored another goal in the replay and helped Brazil win 2-1. As a result, Brazil made it to the semi-final for the first time in history.
Who Is This Brazilian At The 1938 World Cup
Manager Ademar Pimenta decided not to play Leonidas against Italy. According to him, the forward was injured, but the decision remains controversial until this day. Without its leading player, Brazil did not manage to stop Italy from beating them 2-1.
In the third place play-off, the Black Diamond came back and scored twice against Sweden, and the match finished 4-2 in Brazil’s favor. Brazil went home with their best campaign in the World Cup to date and with the tournament’s top scorer.
After winning the World Cup at home, with Benito Mussolini watching, Italy also won the Olympic gold medal in 1936 before taking to the pitch to attempt their second world title.
However, only four players of the 1934 World Cup winning squad, managed by Vittorio Pozzo, made it to the 1938 World Cup tournament. One of their leading players was midfielder Giuseppe Meazza, who would lend his name to Inter Milan’s stadium many years later.
The Azzurra began their campaign by beating Norway thanks to a goal from Silvio Piola in extra time. In front of 59 thousand people in the quarter-final, Italy played hosts France. As a result of an order from Mussolini, Italy’s uniform was black. Another two goals from Piola ensured victory for the Italians.
In the semi-final, the Italians beat Brazil, making the most of the fact that Leonidas da Silva did not play.
In the other semi-final, Hungary beat Sweden 5-1, with a show from Gyula Zsengellér, who scored a hat-trick. However, the Hungarians were no match for the Italians in the 1938 World Cup final. Piola scored twice again, and they won 4-2.
Italy became the first team to win two consecutive World Cup titles. It would take Brazil 28 years to do the same. Since then, no other country has managed such a feat.