The 2026 World Cup Soccer has a magnificent history. In the long run-up to the final round in North America, we will also look back: like now on 1934. The 1934 World Cup was the second time that the global tournament had been staged, and the first time in Europe: in Italy. 36 teams applied to enter the tournament which meant that, for the first time, qualifying matches had to be played to whistle the field down to 16.
Also see: FIFA World Cup 1930
At the 1934 World Cup the defending champions, Uruguay, refused to participate, in retaliation for several European countries boycotting the event when they staged it four years earlier. And the four British nations – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – wanted nothing to do with the tournament, even though England and Scotland had been offered direct entry to the tournament.
Egypt became the first African nation to qualify for the finals. The World Cup of that year, though, apparently was as much a political as a sporting event. Moreover, like the Berlin Olympics two years later, the World Cup Soccer was used by a fascist dictatorship to showcase its power and policies. Benito Mussolini had seized power in Italy in 1922, and a football fan himself, he recognised the potential boost to the legitimacy and prestige of his government from hosting – and winning! – the tournament.
To that end, no turn was left unturned to make sure it happened. It began with the voting process for hosting rights. Sweden were the strong favourites to stage the event but then rumours emerged of illegal payments and intimidation by members of the Mussolini government against members of the voting committee. And when the Italian state offered to cover any losses in full, this European country was promptly awarded the tournament.
Having secured hosting rights the regime took full advantage with a blizzard of publicity, covering everything from posters to postage stamps, and with Italian streets and shops flooded with images of footballers and the fascist salute. Mussolini was even shown queuing for tickets for the opening game, and radio commentators were told to tell listeners about the full stadiums, even though grounds for some of the group games were only half-full. In contrast, by the way, to the packed stadiums later at the 2026 World Cup; see also information about the 2026 World Cup broadcast rights.
Italy progressed through the group stages easily, but then met Spain in a quarter-final noted for its brutality. Italian midfielder Mario Pizziolo suffered a broken leg, and a number of other players were badly injured. The match ended in a draw, and needed a replay, but so depleted were Spain after the first game, they had to change more than half their players.
Italy won the replay by a single goal. But the match was marred by a number of contentious refereeing decisions in their favour, including ruling out what appeared to be two perfectly good goals for Spain. The hosts then beat Austria 1-0 to reach the World Cup final. There was, however, more controversy in the other semi-final between Czechoslovakia and Germany, not least in the appointment of an Italian referee to take charge of the match. He was apparently under instruction to favour the Czechs as they potentially were easier finalists for Italy than the German side. Czechoslovakia won 3-1.
In the final in Rome, played before Mussolini and his entire government, the Czechs initially failed to read the script and took the lead early in the second half. They held on until the 81st minute when Italy equalised, and the match went to extra time. However, five minutes in, Italy scored again, and the victory was theirs. At the end, the triumph was celebrated as much by the man handing over the trophy as the players themselves.
This special tournament under special circumstances does, however, not alter the fact that Italy would also play, more than once, a fantastic role later in the World Cup Football history. To begin with in 1938, four years later already, followed in more recent history by new world titles in 1982 and 2006. More on that later!