While Italy still remains a divided country – rich and poor, corrupt and innocent, North vs. South, import vs. export, and so on, one thing unites all Italians – soccer.
When the national team, known to the world as the Azzurri, play, time stops in the country. There is nothing that can interfere with a game. The cities, the shops, the restaurants, classes, all come to a halt for at least 90 minutes to watch the men perform.
In the early 1920s, no one saw and understood the power of soccer more than Benito Mussolini.
As Mussolini rose in power in Italy, the Azzurri did among teams in the world. “Il Duce” realized how he could exploit the squad as a propaganda tool to benefit himself, and showcase how strong his country was through the power of the team.
The Italian soccer federation formed in 1898 as a governing body of many clubs establishing in the big cities. However, it wouldn’t be another 12 years until they saw a national team of the country’s best players.
The Italian national team began in 1910, just four years before World War I broke out across Europe.
The team, which was nicknamed the Azzurri, due to their blue uniforms was an ode to the Italian Savoy Royal family, whose color was blue. The royals were one of the countries oldest ruling dynasties before they fell apart in 1946. The uniform of the national soccer team, military, and Carabinieri (National Police) all adopted the blue as their color. It represented service to the country and the people.
Now, all major Italian international sports teams like the Olympic squad, rugby team, cycling team, wear blue.
As World War I erupted in the trenches of Europe in 1914, a year later Italy entered the war and many of the national team activates were put on hold. As the First Great War ended, men returned to their towns to rebuild their lives and reconstruct the country.
During this time, a former journalist was crafting propaganda and waging a verbal war with politicians, society and anyone who didn’t agree with him.
The man was Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini took power in 1922 and ran the country with an iron fist until 1943. During his reign, Il Duce created what the modern world knows as fascism and like his Axis nation accomplice, Adolf Hitler, he promoted his propaganda through nationalism.
The former socialist went off to fight in World War I and when he returned, he became a political journalist and in 1919, formed the fascist party that quickly resonated with the lost, disenfranchised and angry citizens of major Italian cities.
Six years after it formed, he became the leader of the country.
As Mussolini took power, the Italian federation was in financial shambles. They didn’t have the funds to help grow the sport among the country but had the players. The ruler looked to change that and saw that once they became the strongest team in Europe and then the world, his people and the globe will see his strength.
In 1926, he helped establish the Serie A by hiring the fascist president of the Italian Olympic Committee, Lando Ferretti. The both are said to have rescued the federation from itself and begin modernizing the game we know today.
By creating a structured league with a point system and relegation zones, the leader was looking to make soccer more than the national sport but the tool he needed to further his endeavors and thoughts.
The former journalist wasn’t a modest man, so everything the national team did while he was president, he could take credit for.
“Fascism was very interested in sport, and did create the infrastructures that helped the game grow – stadiums above all,” author John Foot wrote in his brilliant book, Winning at All Costs: A Scandalous History of Italian Soccer.
In 1934, Italy hosted and won their first World Cup. Four years later, they repeated the victory in France. During the controversial Berlin Olympics in 1936, the team took home a gold medal and upstaged Hitler’s German team. His close European ally was reportedly embarrassed that Mussolini took home the gold on German soil.
“Fascism was good for Italian football, and football was good for fascism,” Foot wrote.
The Azzurri were the first team in history to win two back-to-back World Cups and an Olympic victory. They were the world’s first great team and Mussolini used this as a tool to propagate his cause.
“Even a fascist dictator who controlled a nation’s economy, public services, police and army without hindrance needed football to advance his personal and political cause, a fascinating phenomenon testament to the extraordinary power of the beautiful game,” These Football Times wrote in 2015.
While much of the ceremony and history of the Azzurri can be seen in those first major international victories, they do not come without controversy.
Mussolini looked at members of the Italian national team as another form of soldiers. Like the rest of his people and military, they had to salute him anytime he was around. When the Italian national anthem played inside stadiums in Italy and around the world, the squad had to rise their right arm and have their hand perfectly straight in solidarity with their leader.
Since Il Duce also looked at members of the team as an extension of the national military, he believed that if they were fighting in on the soccer field during a game, they didn’t have to go to war or serve.
As Mussolini waged war with North Africa in 1935, many men did whatever they could to try and become an Azzurro so they did not have to fight.
The Fall of Rome
As the 1930s came to a close, the world went to war again and as Mussolini and the Axis nations looked to play a real life game of chess, the leader still had hopes of winning a third World Cup.
Before what would have been the 1942 World Cup, FIFA cancelled the games between then and 1946 and silenced Mussolini’s favorite propaganda weapon. Many of the players that won the fascist leader World Cups and Olympic gold medals were once thought to be untouchable, however, it proved not to be the case.
Many of the players had to go to war and fight in real battle instead of duking it out on the soccer field. Other players found ways to flee the country so they did not have to serve and save themselves and their families.
“Mussolini didn’t give a sh*t about us,” my grandmother, World War II survivor Cecelia DiPietro told Rabona57. “He was nothing for Italy.”
DiPietro, grew up in the seaside town of Oliveri, Sicily, in the 1930s and through World War II. One of tweleve children born to poor parents, she saw his rule first hand and how little he cared about his people.
As the war raged around her, DiPietro said: “Southern Italians and Sicilians didn’t care about the North and Mussolini because they didn’t care about us.”
She did say there was one common bond all Italians had and that was the Azzurri.
Before World War II broke out, she recalled how everyone in the cities, towns, and villages would gather at the local fields or bars with radios to listen to the games.
“When they played, they played good,” she said. “We forgot about all of our problems. It stops your mind when you have sport.”
The splendor of the national team didn’t last long once the bombs began falling around the continent.
By 1943, the Nazis took over Sicily and Il Duce was fighting to stay in power.
“When I was 10, we had to flee our home and we lived in a cave with 1,000 people in Messina,” she recalled. “We had no water, we had no food, we had nothing.”
She added: “We packed whatever we could and ran to the cave. My father was paralyzed and we had to look after him but the Nazis took over our home and turned it into a hospital for the soldiers as the fighting went on.”
The areas that once saw smiles and celebrations as carefree citizens listened to their country win in international games were met with despair. What were once safe zones and areas to hang out and play pickup soccer became sights of devastation.
“Where the children used to play the Nazis turned into a mine field,” she emotionally recalled. “We were told not to go to the fields but after being in a cave for months, we wanted to play. We were just kids. One day, my brother and his friends were playing soccer in the fields when he stepped on a mine. I saw what happened with my own eyes. It was horrible.”
As her story echoes that of countless others around the island and through southern parts of Italy, she and her family never gave up hope as word spread that the Americans were coming and Il Duce was losing his grip.
By the beginning of August 1943, the Allied invasion of Sicily reached her after beginning a month prior across the island in Palermo. She witnessed Patton’s army as they liberated the island and felt that for the first time, there were people that cared about Sicilians and the rest of the country.
“It was amazing,” she said. “We could begin to rebuild our lives again.”
The invasion of Sicily was a success and as the Nazis were getting stamped out of the country, the citizens frustration with Mussolini hit an all-time high. He was arrested in 1943 by order of the King and his empire had cracked. In April 1945, as he was trying to escape the country, he was publicly executed by an angry mob who tied up his body and the bodies of his family members and hung them in a public square for all the world to see.
Two days after his death, Hitler committed suicide and war in Europe had ended. By September 1945, the World War was over.