It was the 69th minute of a World Cup Final that was deadlocked in a scoreless tie. On the pitch lay forward Antonin Puc. He had been knocked out cold by a brutal tackle from defender Attilio Ferraris. Physical play by the Italians had bordered on violence throughout the game, now it had appeared to knock out one of the Czechoslovaks star offensive players. Trainers were dispatched to revive Puc with smelling salts. He was brought first to his senses and then to his feet. He left the game momentarily, but soon returned to the field. Within a minute he had received a pass from the golden footed Oldrich Nejedly, the tournament’s leading scorer, a deadly shooter and a player who the Italians had closely marked throughout the match. This time though it was Puc who rifled a low shot into the net for the game’s first goal. The goal put Czechoslovakia just 20 minutes from a World Cup title. Suddenly the impossible looked increasingly probable. In just two minutes the Czechoslovaks had gone from despair to exuberance. The only question now was whether they could hold on to their incredible fortune. If so they would pull off an iconic upset, if not they would be forgotten. It turned out to be that simple.
A Blaze Of Glory – Fighting Fascism On A Football Field
Sunday, June 10th was a day of infernal heat in Rome. The thermometer rose to a scorching 104 degrees, turning the Stadio Nazionale del PNF (National Stadium of the National Fascist Party) into a boiling cauldron by the time Italy and Czechoslovakia began the 1934 World Cup Final before a partisan crowd of 55,000 Italians. The politics surrounding the game only added to the fever that was rising from the pitch on that memorable Sunday. For the Italians the game was a must win and not just for the team. The fascist government had made many promises just to get the tournament played in Italy. Foremost among these, was a pledge to cover any losses that might accrue from hosting the tournament. The government had then done everything in its power to make sure the Italian team would emerge victorious. Rumors of intimidation and bribery of officials were rife.
The Fascists had whipped up nationalist sentiment with a propaganda campaign supporting the home team and promoting the World Cup. A victory by the national team would also be one for the state. Because of its importance to the image of Italian fascism, Benito Mussolini along with many other high ranking government officials were on hand for the final. Seated close to them were representatives of Nazi Germany. Less than a week later, Mussolini and Adolf Hitler would meet for the very first time, beginning a relationship that would lead to alliance and eventually war. On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum was Czechoslovakia, a flawed, but functioning democratic state. On the day of the final their government announced its own alliance with the Soviet Union in an effort to gain protection from the growing threat of Fascism and Nazism. Fortunately, the position of the Czechoslovaks was much less vulnerable on a football pitch. The teams were evenly matched, though stylistically they played very different games. The Italians played rough, relying on defense and brute power. The Czechoslovak side was filled with expert passers and skilled shooters who could exploit the slightest openings.
Near Misses – A Title Just Out Of Reach
The first seventy minutes of the game was notable for what did not happen. Neither team could score, though the Czechoslovaks did a fine job of controlling the pace of play early in the match. Only defensive purists would have found the first two-thirds of the game satisfying as defense was ruling the play. That was until Puc’s score changed the rhythm of the match. Suddenly the Italians were in desperation mode. The situation grew increasingly dire over the next few minutes. First, centerfielder Jiri Sobotka had a golden opportunity to score into an open goal. His shot just missed. This was followed soon thereafter by a shot from Frantisek Svoboda that hit the goal post. Two excellent opportunities for an insurmountable 2-0 lead were lost, but the Czechoslovaks could not convert. They would come to regret these near misses.
The Italian team was fading, the home crowd reduced to worried silence, all on the verge of a crushing loss. It was then that left winger Raimondo Orsi – an Italian who had been born in Argentina – came swiftly to the rescue. He took a pass and proceeded to weave his way through the Czechoslovak defense. He first feigned a shot with his left foot and then let loose with a blast from the right. Goalkeeper Frantisek Planicka made a desperate dive to stop the shot, but the ball only touched the tips of his fingers as it went into the net. The game was now tied. Momentum had swung again, this time decisively to the Italians. Time soon expired in regulation with the game tied. This would be the first World Cup Final to go into extra time. The rejuvenated Italians would not take long to strike again. In the 95th minute a clearly hurting Giuseppe Meazza, who would be voted the tournament’s best player, limped along the right wing with the ball. He then crossed to Enrique Guita – another Italian from Argentina – who moved forward and passed to striker Angelo Schiavo who put the winning shot into the left side of the goal. The Italians were going to win their first World Cup. They had pulled off an incredible comeback in the final minutes.
Spectacles of Disbelief – Lost To History
The Italians would receive a gold medal, the World Cup and another specially made trophy, “La Coppa Del Duce”, commissioned by none other than Mussolini for their victory. Befitting the megalomaniacal scale of his ambition it was six times larger than the World Cup trophy. Like everything else associated with Mussolini it seems utterly ridiculous in retrospect, but at the time it served his purpose of making a grandiose spectacle of the Italian victory. As for the Czechoslovaks, they were left in disbelief. With nearly everyone in the stadium against them they had come close to winning an unforgettable victory, instead they would always be little more than a footnote in a sports encyclopedia. They came closer than any other Eastern European nation ever would to winning the World Cup. Sadly they failed, losing not only a match, but also a remarkable place in history.