An Eastern European nation has never won the World Cup. It is generally agreed that the best team to come out of the region was a Hungarian squad which went undefeated over four years and 49 games until they were upset in the 1954 World Cup Final by West Germany. The Hungarians led in that match by two goals, only to surrender the final three goals and lose the match. This was the most famous instance of an Eastern European team almost winning a World Cup, but it was not the first, nor would it be the last. It is hard to believe that Czechoslovakia, a vanished nation known more for its star crossed history, made it to the World Cup Final twice. This defies the historical image of the country as a failed state, marked more by tragedy, than success. A nation that was dissolved prior to the Second World War by Germany, then following the war came under the dominance of the Soviet Union and a tightly controlled communist system for over forty years.
Nevertheless, it was Czechoslovakia in 1934 that came closer than the Hungarians would to winning a World Cup. The small nation that would cease to exist just five years later nearly defeated Italy. The Italian team had all the advantages of playing at home and was fueled by national pride stoked by a fascist dictatorship. The final is hardly remembered today and if it is, much more for the role of the Mussolini-led government’s support of the home side on its way to winning the nation’s first World Cup. What has been lost to history is a fabulous run by a world class Czechoslovak team that came within nine minutes of the ultimate victory.
Forgotten Stars – Prague’s Finest Footballers
The names Frantisek Planicka, Antonin Puc and Oldrich Nejedly are unknown to all, but the most die-hard Czechoslovak footballing enthusiasts. The nation these world class players once represented no longer exists, but in no way does that lessen their achievements. Planicka, Puc and Nejedly led that small and troubled nation to the forefront of international football during the 1930’s. The first two men came from the Slavia Prague club, while Nejedly played for Slavia’s fiercest rival, AC Spartak Prague. These two clubs supplied 18 of the 22 players on the 1934 national team. 7 of the 11 starters on the team played for Slavia. The city of Prague was a hotbed of top football talent.
Planicka, the team’s captain, was one of the top goalkeepers in the world despite being only 5’8” tall. He was nicknamed “The Cat Of Prague” for his acrobatic feats and quick reflexes. Planicka was the ultimate national team player, appearing in 73 internationals for Czechoslovakia during his career, a record that would not be topped for several decades. On the offensive side, Puc was a prolific scorer, known for his sharpshooting skills from difficult angles. A threat to score any time he touched the ball, Puc would have a starring role in the World Cup final against Italy. Nejedly was another force to be reckoned with. He grew up in difficult circumstances, on the edge of poverty after his father was killed during World War I. Though frail in stature as a youth, Nejedly relied on excellent ball control skills and physical fitness to get the most out of his talent. In the 1934 World Cup his goal scoring would propel the Czechoslovaks in two close matches during the early rounds.
Coming From Behind – The Path To Fate
The Czechoslovak team arrived in Italy as underdogs. They were good, but not outstanding, relying on what was then called the Danubian style of football with short passing and skillful ball control. These tactics were based more on finesse and intelligent play than strength or power. The tournament favorites were hosts Italy, along with Austria. The Czechoslovaks first two games were come from behind victories. While playing Romania in the northeastern Italian port city of Trieste they surrendered a goal just eleven minutes into the game. It was not until the fifty minute mark that a goal by Puc levelled the match. Nejedly produced the game winner seventeen minutes later, the first of five goals he would score in the tournament. He would end up the top scorer of this World Cup.
On the last day of May in Turin the Czechoslovaks faced another tough match, this time versus Switzerland. Once again they fell behind early before scoring two goals to take the lead. In the 78th minute the Swiss leveled the match for a second time. With eight minutes remaining, Nejedly came through with his second game winning goal in a row. The victory secured a semifinal meeting with Germany, a nation falling under the iron grip of Nazism and that saw Czechoslovakia as a mortal enemy. The match was played in Rome with Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in attendance. Mussolini and his cronies had promoted this World Cup as a showcase of Italian fascist superiority, in an athletic, moral, and ideological sense. A championship for the home side would be a useful piece of propaganda. Though the Germans were fellow fascists, the Italian government wanted the Czechoslovaks to win. The feeling was that they would be a much opponent for Italy to defeat in the final. The Italian referee for the match Rinaldo Barlassina made many controversial calls that all seemed to go in favor of the Czechoslovaks. This was also the first match in which they did not trail. Nejedly was unstoppable as he scored a hat trick of goals. For the third game in a row he produced the game winner, which came in the 71st minute. The Czechoslovaks were through to the final where they would face the Italians who had worn down Austria with their physical style.
The Ultimate Goal – Finality
The Czechoslovaks had played two of the three matches held at the Stadio Nazionale del PNF (National Stadium of the National Fascist Party) in Rome during the tournament. A small crowd of 15,000 had turned out for the previous match against Germany, but for the final there was sure to be raucous support from Italian fans. What they would witness was one of the closest World Cup Final matches, a tense contest that would be settled by the narrowest of margins. The difference between triumph and despair would be incredibly close.