The bidding for the rights to host the 1938 World Cup came down to France vs Argentina, with the South Americans expected to prosper given that Europe had hosted the tournament in 1934. In the event, the French bid won by a landslide, defeating their opposition by nineteen votes to four, with FIFA pointing to the country’s role in the creation of the organisation and the World Cup, with more than a tip of the cap to Jules Rimet and Henri Delauney, as the justification for France’s victory.
With the hosts announced, talk turned towards the likely winners of the 1938 tournament, with many tipping the most exciting national team of the decade. Though they’d only made it as far as the semi-finals in their debut World Cup four years earlier, Austria still boasted one of the best footballing sides of the 1930s. The beginning of the decade had seen them embark on a 14 game unbeaten streak, including emphatic wins over Germany, Switzerland and Hungary, and they’d gone into the 1934 tournament as favourites. With four years experience under their belts and qualification for 1938 secured with a 2-1 win over Latvia, the side dubbed the ‘Wunderteam’ looked in good shape, despite the untimely death of their inspirational coach Hugo Meisl earlier in the year.
Then, in March 1938, the whole country was turned upside down. The Austrian Nazi Party had slowly been gaining popularity throughout the decade and, behind the scenes in Germany, President of the Reichstag Hermann Göring had drawn up a four year plan that culminated in the annexing of Austria. In a bid to calm the growing discontent in the country, Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg announced a referendum on Austria’s independence, but under growing pressure from Adolf Hitler, was forced to resign as Nazi Germany threatened invasion. On 15th March, Hitler arrived in Vienna to cement the Anschluss, and the country fell to Nazi rule.
Inevitably this led to Austria withdrawing from the 1938 World Cup, though Germany leaped on the opportunity to recruit members of the Wunderteam. On 3rd April a game was scheduled between Austria and Germany to ‘celebrate’ the union of the two countries, with the Germany side including many of Austria’s former stars. Among those representing ‘Old Austria’ was Matias Sindelaar, a known dissident and the Wunderteam’s star player. Ahead of the game, Sindelaar had been warned not to score and, for seventy minutes, the warning was heeded. Then, twenty minutes from time, Sindelaar swiveled in the penalty area and drove a shot into the bottom corner, and then danced with delight as teammate Schasti Sesta made it 2-0. Begrudgingly, Germany invited Sindelaar for trials with the national team, but the 35 year old politely declined. Less than a year later Sindelaar was dead – officially by carbon monoxide poisoning, but theories around suicide and murder have floated around ever since.
With Austria absent from the competition, Sweden received a bye into the quarter-finals as the tournament continued with a knockout format, while Germany met Switzerland in the first round. Having established a rule whereby at least five members of the German first team would be of Austrian extraction, the theory was that Germany would be unbeatable, combining the steel of the motherland with the skill of the wunderteam. Leading up to the World Cup Germany hosted England for a friendly in Berlin, in a game best remembered for the England team performing a Nazi salute ahead of kick-off. The warm-up game was supposed to show the world how dangerous Germany’s football team were now they had recruited the cream of Austria’s crop, but as England ran out 6-3 winners, its became clear that all was not going according to plan. By the time Germany’s game with Switzerland came around, severe ructions were present in the German camp and, after a tightly contested first game, Switzerland came back from two goals down to win the replay 4-2, and send Germany packing in the first round. After the game Germany had the temerity to complain to FIFA that Swiss goalscorer Eugen Walaschek, born in Moscow, did not have the appropriate paperwork to represent Switzerland at the tournament. Given that the Germans had acquired the services of half their squad by invading another country, the objection was dismissed out of hand.
Asia was represented for the first time by Dutch East Indies, though their footballing pedigree was quickly uncovered by a ruthless Hungary and they were hammered 6-0 in the first round. Cuba, Norway, Poland and the Netherlands all made their debuts but were swiftly dispatched by the quarter final stage, and Brazil and Hungary emerged as the most likely side to steal the title from the Italians. Brazil’s ‘Black Diamond’ Leonidas went into the semi-final against Italy having scored five in three, but was unable to penetrate that famous Italian defence, and a Giuseppe Meazza penalty secured a safe passage to the final for Vittorio Pozzo’s side. Hungary’s strikeforce of Gyorgy Sarosi and Gyula Zsengeller had hit nine between them once Sweden had been dispatched 5-1 in the other semi-final, and were given half a chance to beat the trophy holders in Paris. A frantic opening quarter of an hour saw Italy take the lead twice, before Gino Caulaussi added a second ten minutes before half time to put the holders in control. Sarosi brought Hungary back into the game in the second half, but Silvio Piola added his second in the 82nd minute to seal the win for Italy and retain the trophy.
The tournament was overshadowed by the dark spectre of fascism, punctured by anti-fascist protests from home supporters. During their ties with France, the Italian players offered one-armed salutes during the pre-game lineup, and donned black shirts at the behest of Mussolini rather than their usual change kit of all white, in a nod to the MVSN, the Italian militia. With war breaking out across Europe the following year, this was the final World Cup before 1950, and away from the horror of the holocaust and the battlefields, a generation of footballers were lost. Fascism won the battle in France, but it would eventually lose the war.