​When Italy's players stepped off their train in Marseilles, France, their early optimism and excitement was immediately dampened. They were greeted by a group of around 3,000 anti-fascist activists, all intent on reaching Vittorio Pozzo and his squad.

Baton-wielding police were required to break up the baying crowd of Italian exiles and French communists. Eventually, they did, but Italy's welcome was indicative of the political tension that surrounded the 1938 tournament.

The atmosphere had been stoked by inflammatory speeches made by Benito Mussolini, Italy's fascist leader, on European politics. There was a feeling, throughout the World Cup, of something brooding. A year later, war broke out.

It is not surprising, then, that Pozzo's successful Italian side are often viewed as little more than a tool of fascist propaganda, an embodiment of the regime under the stern eye of which they played the game.

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They are, inevitably, entwined in the history of the time, but to view them as such would be reductive. Italy were, without question, an excellent team, not simply, as the Italian press of the time put it, "a platoon of gladiators. Ten combatants. One heart".

It was easy for the regime to take advantage of the nation's footballing success, and so they did. But Pozzo was insistent that his team were focused simply on the game. "Our players did not even dream of making it something political," he said. "They represented their country and naturally and worthily wore the colours and insignia."

However, his assertion did little to convince the ardent protesters who were present at Italy's opening game. There were 10,000 demonstrators in attendance at the Stade Velodrome as the Azzurri edged past Norway 2-1, and when the Italian players raised their hands in the fascist salute during the national anthem, they made their distaste clear.

"The critical moment was when our players raised their hands to give the fascist salute," said Pozzo, reflecting on the day. "I entered the stadium with our players, lined-up military style, and stood on the right. At the salute we predictably met with a solemn and deafening barrage of whistles, insults and remarks. 

The German referee and Norwegian players looked at us worriedly. At a certain point the hullabaloo began to die down and then ceased. We had just put our hands down and the violent demonstration started again. Straight away: 'Team be ready. Salute.' And we raised our hands again, to confirm we had no fear. Having won the battle of intimidation, we played."

Duce Benito Mussolini (C, in white) pose

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On the pitch, however, when politics had made way for football, Italy were imperious. There was an underlying cynicism and aggression, certainly, but this was a side which Pozzo himself believed was his best ever. They had won the World Cup four years earlier, in 1934, but this time it was more convincing.

Italy's game was based around defensive stability, around athleticism and combativeness. Brian Glanville wrote that their success was largely as a result of a "greater forcefulness and the excellent physical condition of players".

They were undoubtedly technically gifted, too: Silvio Piola and Gino Colaussi were supremely talented forwards who scored five and four goals respectively in France, while Giuseppe Meazza starred as an inside forward. This was a side of enviable quality, made even more ruthless by a healthy blend of efficiency and pragmatism.

Pozzo's innovative W-W system - or the sistema, as he called it - proved irrepressible. Perhaps Italy's most difficult test, though, came in the first round. They were taken to extra-time by an unfancied yet admirably resolute Norway outfit. Piola was on hand to score from a rebounded shot to secure their progression, but it was a scare that few had expected.

In the quarter-final, the political tension reached its peak. It was Italy vs. France, and memories of the assassination of the anti-fascist Rosselli brothers on French soil a year earlier remained fresh. 

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Both played in blue and so one team was required to wear a changed strip. They drew lots, Italy lost and played, for the first and only time in the country's history, in black. It was symbolic; it appeared, certainly to most of those in attendance, that this was a clash between something like good and evil.

But Italy were simply too good. They won 3-1, with two more goals from Piola and some questionable goalkeeping from France's Laurent Di Lorto. The hosts were dumped out by a hated enemy; the 58,000 spectators at Stades Colombes were silenced.

It was not the end of the hostility for Italy, though. Against Brazil in the semi-final and Hungary in the final, they were met with further contempt. It was a testament to their mental strength, undoubtedly helped by the methods of Pozzo, that they were seemingly untroubled by these repeatedly negative receptions.

Brazil had threatening spells against an Italy side that were beginning to exude an air of invincibility, but never looked like winning. Superior fitness levels and unerring efficacy saw Pozzo's side into the final with a 2-1 victory, and there they met Hungary.


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The work of influential coaches Alfred Schaffer and Károly Dietz had created a Hungarian side of genuine quality, of guile, creativity and technical sufficiency. Italy, though, were too strong. Emphatically, they were 3-1 up by half-time, Piola and Colaussi again making the difference. It finished 4-2: Pozzo's team were World Champions again and unquestionably ahead of the competition.

Though the achievements of the side have been shrouded somewhat under the cloud of fascism, few could doubt the brilliance of Pozzo's team. The World Cup of 1938 was the zenith, the year in which a side that had been carefully constructed over the best part of a decade played its most impressive football.

There have been few World Cups won so convincingly; it often seemed that Italy were so superior that they strolled almost nonchalantly to success. But can Pozzo's side truly be considered one of the greatest teams in the tournament's history?

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That, largely, comes down to subjectivity and, of course, factors beyond results. The Italy side of 1938 lacked the romanticism, the exoticism, the futebol d'arte of the great Brazilian team of 1970. Nor could they claim to represent aestheticism, like Spain in 2010 or Brazil again in 1958.

Italy, perhaps understandably, did not capture the imagination as other nations have since. The political storm did not help matters, and the association with Mussolini and fascism hardly endeared them to onlookers. 

However their tactical mastery, their dominance of strong opposition and the culmination of a decade of success should not be dismissed or forgotten.