The bane of fascism had descended upon Europe and Italy’s Benito Mussolini saw a great opportunity in holding the second edition of the football World Cup in 1934 to promote his regime.
An amount of 3.5 million lire was earmarked by his government for the sporting spectacle and no stone was left unturned to ensure a home victory.
Coach Vittorio Pozzo was sent to England to study tactics, as players were bought from outside to achieve the dictator’s goal.
A host of Argentines — Raimundo Orsi, Enrico Guatia, Luisito Monti and Atilio De Maria — of Italian descent were lured to play for the host with promises of rich rewards and they formed the backbone of this Italian side led by legendary goalkeeper Giampiero Combi.
Such was Mussolini's desire to showcase his country’s strengths that he even had an additional trophy commissioned — the Coppa Del Duce — which dwarfed the real one.
Italy met the other tournament favourite, Czechoslovakia, led by another outstanding goalkeeper Franticek Planicka, in the final and, as Mussolini presided over the Stadium of the National Fascist Party in Rome, pressure was on the host to deliver.
Sending his message loud and clear, the dictator sent a personal note to the team to “win or die”, and another to coach Pozzo that read “May God help you if you do not win”.
Swedish referee Ivan Eklind, too, was invited to dinner, and rampant allegations of corruption came to the fore after the game.
Eklind was blamed for cheating the Czechs of a legitimate penalty and also on being too lenient on the foul-happy home players.
Nevertheless, the match, pitting the elegant Czechs and the tactical Italians, reached epic proportions.
With no goals separating the teams even half-way through the second half, and the Italian public and — more importantly — the ruler getting increasingly agitated, the Czechs finally surged ahead 25 minutes from time, courtesy their nimble-footed forward, Antonin Puc.
The goal, or perhaps the fear of Mussolini, galvanised the Italians and Orsi equalised from a brilliant individual effort.
After receiving the ball, Orsi turned quickly inside the box, dodged a defender and scored with an outstanding shot, but failed to repeat his feat the following day as he was asked to relive the moment in front of the Press.
The physically strong Italians took charge from there on and five minutes into extra time Angelo Schiavio scored the winner.