World Cup 2022: Vittorio Pozzo’s legacy and a record that might finally be under threat

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Italy celebrates winning the 1938 World Cup
Pozzo holds up the Jules Rimet trophy after Italy’s 1938 World Cup victory

When Didier Deschamps leads his France side to face England in their World Cup quarter-final on Saturday, he will be hoping to take another big step towards becoming only the second manager to retain the trophy.

Only two nations have managed to win men’s rugby World Cups, Italy in 1934 and 1938 and Brazil in 1958 and 1962, but with the Selecao job changing hands between successes, former Azzurri coach Vittorio Pozzo stands alone .

Nicknamed Il Vecchio Maestro (the Old Master) in coaching circles, Pozzo was considered a visionary of the time and is credited as one of the minds behind the Metodo formation, the earliest example of the 4-3-3 we recognized today.

Still, far from being honored as the only manager to win the Men’s World Cup twice, Pozzo remains relatively little known. And there is a reason for that.

“It is deliberate that few people know who he is,” says historian Dr Alex Alexandrou, the chairman and co-founder of the Football and War network.

“If you think about Italy after 1945, and how Fifa and the Italian Football Federation project and promote themselves, the one thing they didn’t want to do was give credit to Pozzo and what happened during the 1930s, because there is a significant link with the far right and fascism.”

Although Pozzo first took charge of the national team for the 1912 Olympics – before fascists came to power in Italy – and was never a member of the National Fascist Party, his story is inextricably linked with the far right movement that culminated in Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship.

The four stars that proudly adorn Italy’s national team shirt to symbolize their quartet of World Cup victories acknowledge the victories of 1934 and 1938, but there is still some unease surrounding them.

“There is this slight kind of smell, if you like, of the war, and Pozzo is not as famous or delighted as he might be because he won his trophies under a fascist regime,” explains Italian football expert John Foot in the new book How to win the World Cup.

“He wasn’t forced to do it; he took part in it. The players gave the fascist salute and there was a lot of rhetoric around them, so it’s a problem in terms of Italy. Do those World Cups even count?”

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Sports historian Prof Jean Williams adds: “Many people describe Pozzo as capitulating to the regime – he goes along with it rather than standing up against it.

“Unless you were going to leave the country, it was very difficult to avoid, in the same way that many young men would have become part of the Hitler Youth. [in Nazi Germany] because it was essentially their version of the boy scouts.”

Dr Alexandrou agrees: “I don’t think Pozzo had much time for politics per se or even for the fascists, but he loved his football and he had to survive in that regime. He did what he felt he had to do to do the work he wanted to do, which was to drive.”

Vittorio Pozzo
Pozzo, pictured in October 1938. In the women’s game, Jill Ellis matched his feat of two consecutive World Cup victories with the USA (in 2015 and 2019).

Mussolini’s fascist government quickly recognized the value of a strong association with football after taking power in 1922 and its involvement in Italy’s national game deepened as the country became a dictatorship.

Money was poured into the sport in search of the best possible chance of success on the international stage, with Serie A reorganized in 1929 to create stronger competition and help develop players who could compete at the top level.

Militia General Giorgio Vaccaro has been appointed as the head of the Italian Football Federation. But when it came to the national team, Pozzo was the poster boy.

Italy hosted the World Cup in 1934. The country’s rulers saw it as crucial that they win, thus reaffirming fascism’s strong nationalist values ​​and conveying the image of a modern and assertive nation to the rest of the world.

Although a combination of Pozzo’s tactical approach and a partisan home crowd would help Italy’s chances of glory, there were also rumors of foul play – with Mussolini said to have met with tournament referees the night before key games.

Although no corruption was ever proven, opponents complained of officials’ leniency towards the Azzurri’s physicality. Swiss referee Rene Mercet was even suspended by his own football association after allegations he made several controversial decisions as Italy pushed past Spain in a heated quarter-final.

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Despite the accusations, there was no doubt that Pozzo’s tactical prowess had an impact. The Italians have conceded just three times in five games – particularly impressive given the relatively free-flowing scoring of the time. The coach’s preference to play with four defenders and a holding midfielder gave them a stronger foothold in the face of the popular 2-3-5 formation.

“We’re starting to see the beginnings of the catenaccio defense where the center is a kind of stopper,” explains Williams.

“Under Pozzo, instead of a midfielder being the one who spread the ball around, the midfield became more important, with a holding midfielder and an attacking midfielder, or inside right and left, as it was called at the time.”

In another sense, Pozzo can be seen as an ancestor of the modern international manager in his insistence on full control over team selection. Previously, many national teams were selected by appointed committees, but Pozzo said the best chance of success was for the coach to take responsibility – something Sir Alf Ramsey also did when he became England manager in 1963.

This meant that Pozzo appealed to the origin, a term used to describe foreign-born people of Italian descent, to bolster his side’s ranks. Within that diaspora he included Luis Monti, who played for Argentina in the 1930 World Cup final, and Raimundo Orsi, another former Argentina player who would score for Italy in the 1934 final, a 2-1 win over Czechoslovakia -Slovakia called up.

This was not universally popular with the fascist regime, but the prospect of forming a stronger national side tipped the debate in Pozzo’s favour. His new-look team was well organised, treated matches like battles and would stop at nothing to win. Training camps are imbued with strong nationalist messages and the team is treated almost as if they are soldiers, with drills such as marches through the bush commonplace.

Pozzo continued to develop his approach over the next four years, leading Italy to victory at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and becoming the first manager to win a World Cup away from home in France in 1938 win.

Pozzo celebrated in a 1934 cartoon
Pozzo and Italy’s first World Cup victory is celebrated in a 1934 cartoon

Facing a vocal anti-Italian crowd in their tournament opener against Norway in Marseille, Pozzo and his players gave a fascist salute as an act of defiance and refused to lower their arms until the jeers were dead. When they lowered their salute, the noise began again, with Pozzo giving the order to raise their arms again.

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As Italy progressed through the tournament, a quarter-final clash with hosts France only fueled the political tension and an instant clash saw the Azzurri, who changed from their usual blue shirts, opt to play in all black rather than their second color, white , on orders from above.

By this time, Italy carried a little more creativity to match their influence, with Giuseppe Meazza growing in influence at the center of Pozzo’s carefully assembled midfield. The captain was instrumental as the holders dispatched France 3-1; he then scored the winner from the penalty kick against Brazil in the semi-final; and in the final he set up Luigi Colaussi and Silvio Piola as the forwards scored twice each in a 4-2 win over Hungary.

The significance of a second consecutive World Cup victory was not lost on the fascist government at home, with a myth emerging that Mussolini sent a telegram to the team on the eve of the final saying “win or die”. This is a detail that has never been confirmed.

But that would be the end of Pozzo’s World Cup story. The outbreak of the Second World War meant that the tournament did not return until 1950, by which time he had been relieved of his duties and banned from Italian football due to his association with the now overthrown fascist government.

Pozzo went on to become a respected journalist covering the Italian national team for the daily newspaper La Stampa, but he would never return to the dugout. He died in December 1968, aged 82.

“Pozzo was obviously a very good leader and very good at mobilizing and motivating his teams,” continues Foot in How to Win the World Cup.

“He saw football as war and used national rhetoric around international tournaments. It was as if war had been transported to the pitch.”

Chris Evans is the author of How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers

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