When Didier Deschamps leads his France side to face England in the quarter-finals of the World Cup on Saturday, he will hope to take a big step forward to become the second manager to retain the trophy.
Only two nations have managed to win back-to-back men’s World Cups, Italy in 1934 and 1938 and Brazil in 1958 and 1962, but with Selecao changing hands between successes, former Azzurri coach Vittorio Pozzo is only.
Nicknamed Il Vecchio Maestro (the Old Master) in coaching circles, Pozzo was considered a visionary at the time and is credited as one of the minds behind the Metodo formation, the first example of the 4-3-3 that we recognize today.
Yet far from being revered as the only manager to win the Men’s World Cup twice, Pozzo remains relatively unknown. And there’s a reason for that.
“It is deliberate that few people know who he is,” says historian Dr Alex Alexandrou, chairman and co-founder of the Football and War Network.
“If you think about post-1945 Italy, 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 to what happened in the 1930s, because there is an important link with the extreme right and fascism.”
Although Pozzo first took charge of the national team for the 1912 Olympics – before the Fascists came to power in Italy – and was never a member of the National Fascist Party, his story is inextricably linked to the far-right movement that culminated in the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.
The four stars proudly sporting the Italian national team jersey to symbolize their quartet of World Cup victories acknowledge the victories of 1934 and 1938, but there is still unease around them.
“There’s this kind of faint smell, if you will, after the war, and Pozzo isn’t as famous or elated as he could 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 didn’t have to do that, he participated in that. The players gave the fascist salute and there was a lot of rhetoric around them, so it’s a problem for Italy. Is that that these World Cups matter?”
Sports historian Professor Jean Williams adds: “Many people describe Pozzo as capitulating to the regime – he accepts it rather than resisting 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 been in the Hitler Youth. [in Nazi Germany] because it was basically their version of Boy Scouts.”
Dr Alexandrou agrees: “I don’t think Pozzo had much time for politics per se or even the fascists, but he loved his football and he had to survive under that regime. He did what he did. he thought he had to do to do the job he wanted to do, which was to manage.”
Mussolini’s fascist government had quickly recognized the value of a strong association with football after taking power in 1922 and its involvement in the Italian national game deepened as the country became a dictatorship.
Money was poured into the sport in search of the best chance of success on the international stage, with Serie A reorganized in 1929 to create stronger competition and help develop players capable of competing at the highest level.
Militia general Giorgio Vaccaro has been installed as 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 leaders considered it crucial that they win, thus reaffirming the strong nationalist values of fascism and conveying the image of a modern and affirmed in 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 – Mussolini is said to have met the tournament referees the day before matches keys.
Although no corruption has ever been proven, opponents have complained about the officials’ leniency towards the Azzurri’s physique. Swiss referee Rene Mercet has even been suspended by his own football association following allegations he made several controversial decisions as Italy ousted Spain in a heated replay of the quarter-finals.
Despite the accusations, there’s no doubt that Pozzo’s tactical ingenuity had an impact. The Italians only conceded three times in five matches – particularly impressive given the relatively free-goal nature of the era. The coach’s preference to play with four defenders and a starting midfielder has given them a stronger footing against the popular 2-3-5 formation.
“We’re starting to see the beginnings of the catenaccio defense where the centre-half is kind of a stopper,” Williams says.
“Under Pozzo, instead of a centre-half being the one who distributed the ball, midfield became more important, with a holding midfielder and an attacking midfielder, or inside right and left, as they are called. was calling at the time.”
Pozzo can in another sense be seen as an ancestor of the modern international manager in his insistence on having complete control over team selection. Previously, many national teams were chosen 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 coach in 1963.
This meant that Pozzo could call on the orundi, a term used to describe foreign-born people of Italian descent, to bolster his team’s ranks. Within this diaspora he called Luis Monti, who had played in the 1930 World Cup final for Argentina, and Raimundo Orsi, another former Argentine player who would score for Italy in the 1934 final , a 2-1 win over Czechoslovakia.
It was not universally popular among the fascist regime, but the prospect of building a stronger national team swung the debate in Pozzo’s favor. His new-look team was well organized, treated matches like battles and stopped at nothing to win. Boot camps were punctuated with strong nationalist messages and the team was treated almost as if they were soldiers, with drills such as marches through the woods 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 on foreign soil in France in 1938.
Facing a vocal anti-Italian crowd in their tournament opener against Norway in Marseille, Pozzo and his players held a fascist salute in defiance and refused to back down until the boos go out. Lowering their salute, the noise began again, Pozzo barking the order to raise his arms once more.
As Italy progressed through the tournament, a quarter-final encounter with hosts France only heightened the political tension and a clash of kits saw the Azzurri, changed from their usual blue shirts, choose to play in all black rather than their second color, white. , by order from above.
Now Italy had a bit more creativity to go with their influence, with Giuseppe Meazza growing in influence in the center of Pozzo’s carefully constructed midfield. The captain was instrumental as the holders dispatched France 3-1; he then scored the winner from the penalty spot against Brazil in the semi-finals; and in the final he fielded Luigi Colaussi and Silvio Piola as the forwards scored twice each in a 4-2 win over Hungary.
The importance of a second consecutive World Cup victory has not escaped the fascist government at home, with an emerging myth 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 World War II meant that the tournament did not return until 1950, when he was relieved of his duties and banned from Italian football due to his association with the now overthrown fascist government.
Pozzo became a well-respected journalist covering the Italian national team for the daily La Stampa, but he would never return to the dugout. He died in December 1968, at the age of 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 a war and used national rhetoric around international tournaments. It was as if the war had been taken to the pitch.”
Chris Evans is the author of How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers