Interwar Europe was a hotbed of political extremism. Whilst fascism gained traction in Italy, before gripping the nation like a vice from 1925 onwards, then later doing the same in Germany and Spain, Eastern Europe shifted left towards communism. Such political antagonism made for quite the spectacle when Juventus of Italy met Slavia Prague of Czechoslovakia in the semi-final of the Mitropa Cup in 1932.
The Mitropa Cup, otherwise known as the Central European Cup, a precursor to the European Cup and modern-day Champions League, never quite established itself as the glamorous, continental competition we see today. Founded in 1927, the Mitropa was originally conducted between the successor states of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, following its collapse after World War One.
The inaugural competition featured sides from Yugoslavia (BSK Beograd and Hadjuk Split), Hungary (MTK and Ujpest), Austria (Admira Wien and Rapid Wien) and, finally, Czechoslovakia (Slavia Prague). This was largely because the central European states considered themselves to be the forerunners of continental football, having established national professional leagues in each of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria by 1926, something not achieved in the likes of Italy and Spain until the creation of Serie A and La Liga respectively in the late 1920s.
By 1929, however, a decision was made to switch Yugoslavian clubs, who were barred from the competition after King Alexander declared a royal dictatorship earlier that year, with clubs from Italy, paving the way for the extraordinary circumstances Bologna FC, the Rossoblù, found themselves in, being awarded the Mitropa Cup in 1932 without the final being played.
After marching on Rome in 1922, and declaring himself as Il Duce (the leader) of an official fascist state in 1925, Benito Mussolini began to dismantle the Italian constitution through violence and scare tactics, all the while embedding fascist influence within the structures of society. During this period, football had established itself as Italy’s most popular sport, and this ever-growing popularity immediately caught the attention of the fascists. Rather, it was the popularity of ‘calcio’, as it is known to the Italians, that the regime recognised as an opportunity, and set about institutionalising the sport as a fascist game.
Already, on the back of the poor performance of Italian troops during the First World War, the fascist regime had sought to emphasise sport as a new national vigour, largely to unite the nation under a project, preparing the Italian people for the wars to come in order to express the power of the regime abroad. Whilst not necessarily Mussolini’s preferred sport, football became very much intertwined with the fascist commitment to reinvigorating sporting life, and therefore the fascists sought to control the ways in which calcio thrived.
In 1925, Lando Ferretti was placed in charge of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) and subsequently introduced the Carta di Viareggio. The charter not only professionalised the game but led directly to the creation of Serie A and Serie B in 1929-30, bringing teams with historic football connections in the north, such as Milan and Turin, in contact with the south. The charter also limited the number of foreign players allowed to play for each club, foreshadowing the later emphasis fascism would place on racial supremacy.
In accordance with emphasising Italian identity, an identity that had been lacking since the nation’s unification in 1861, football clubs were subjected to fascist overhauls. Genoa, founded by British players in 1893, were renamed Genova, to rid the club of its British origins. Similarly, Milan were rebaptised as Milano. From a more political standpoint, Internazionale were forced to change their name to Ambrosiana, due to the fact their original name denoted the communist Internationale.
The fascists, therefore, assumed complete control over Italian football during a formative period of its history, and its relationship with the sport led to the construction of new stadiums, and, in the case of Bologna, the emergence of new footballing powerhouses.
The emergence of Bologna as a footballing powerhouse mirrored the rise of Leandro Arpinati, and reflected his fledgeling influence within sporting affairs in Fascist Italy. Arpinati, a good friend of Mussolini, who, much like the Italian dictator, had strong connections to socialism prior to his switch to fascism following the First World War, had established Bologna’s second fascist group in 1920, and the city became something of a battleground between fascists and socialists.
As a local fascist leader, Arpinati oversaw such violence as Italy teetered on absolute dictatorship, whilst also establishing himself as a ‘man of sport’, becoming president of Bologna FC and shortly after taking over Ferretti as head of the entire Italian Football Federation, tasked with ensuring the Carta di Viareggio was properly implemented.
In 1925, Arpinati’s influence in football became evident, as calcio was exposed to its first ‘great theft.’ The 1924-25 season witnessed a fascinating title race between Bologna and Genoa, a race that took five separate play-off matches to be decided. The third play-off was held in Milan, resulting in one of the most controversial matches in calcio’s short history.
Over 20,000 supporters were reportedly present, and by half-time, a Genoa side managed by Englishman William Garbutt, considered widely to be a football pioneer, were 2-0 up, the title within touching distance. In the second half, after a save from the Genoa goalkeeper, the referee awarded a corner. Immediately, black-shirted fascists stormed onto the pitch to protest, deeming the ball to have crossed the line. After fifteen minutes of deliberation, the referee changed his mind and awarded a goal.
Bologna later equalised, the game ending 2-2. According to the rules of the federation, however, any pitch invasion would subsequently lead to disqualification. By all means, the title belonged to Genoa. Under pressure from Arpinati, however, the referee’s report failed to designate blame for the invasion to either side, and the federation ordered yet another play-off.
A fourth play-off in Turin resulted in yet another draw, though this time violent clashes between both sets of fans caused national outrage. The federation demanded another play-off to be played in Turin behind closed doors, but city officials refused, and the game was moved to Milan. With the date, time, and location a secret, Genoa were forced to hastily bring their players back from holiday to participate in the fifth and final play-off match.
Bologna’s all-Italian team won the match 2-0 behind closed doors and were awarded the championship. To Genoa, however, who were denied their tenth championship, and therefore denied a star to be sewn onto their badge, the season was dubbed the ‘great theft.’ Genoa have yet to win another Scudetto.
In 1927, Arpinati’s influence manifested itself yet again. After finishing above Bologna and Juventus, FC Torino claimed their first-ever Scudetto, yet a possible bribery scandal halted celebration. Without concrete evidence, the alleged offence, which involved bribing a Juventus player, led to FC Torino being stripped of their title by the Italian Football Federation. Of course, by this point, Arpinati was head of the FIGC, and remained the president of Bologna FC, who just happened to finish the season as runners-up. Ultimately, no winner was assigned to the 1926-27 season, and the vestiges of the scandal are felt in Torino to this day.
Bologna’s rise to the summit of Italian football was met with the construction of a new stadium. Between 1926 and 1933, a series of football stadiums were constructed across Italy, largely in anticipation of hosting the 1934 World Cup. Of the various new stadiums, including the San Siro in Milan, Bologna’s Littoriale (now the Renato Dall’Ara Stadium) is often considered the most telling of fascist innovation and architecture.
The Littoriale, with its semi-amphitheatre and distinct columns, was designed to channel the imperial greatness of ancient Rome, something the fascist party often alluded to. Such a stadium, featuring a towering statue of Mussolini on horseback, represented just how entangled the fascists were in calcio. This was furthered by Bologna’s domestic dominance, claiming six championship titles between the years 1925 and 1941, ensuring that the fascist era coincided with the golden age of football in Bologna. Such dominance led to Bologna’s inclusion in the 1932 Mitropa Cup, a competition that exposed the vast diplomatic and political difficulties that came with continental football.
Diplomatic tensions between Italy and Czechoslovakia, two nations whose national interests were diverging towards different ends of the political spectrum, and indeed different sides of the alliance system dividing Europe, were exacerbated heavily by Juventus’ semi-final tie with Slavia Prague. Elsewhere, Bologna had defeated Sparta Prague 5-3 on aggregate in the first round, before facing the holders of the competition, Swiss side First Vienna, in the semi-final.
Both ties reflected the impervious home advantage of football in the 1920s and 1930s, with Bologna claiming a 5-0 victory over Sparta Prague at the Littoriale, followed by a convincing 2-0 win over First Vienna on home soil. Away from home, Bologna failed to score on both occasions, losing 3-0 to Slavia Prague, and just 1-0 to First Vienna. Despite the absence of goals on their travels, Bologna had done enough to earn themselves a place in the 1932 Mitropa Cup final. A final that was destined to never take place.
After Juventus succumbed to a 4-0 defeat in Prague, the return fixture in Turin seemed an insurmountable task. Two early goals, however, galvanised the home side, and it seemed Slavia Prague were on the ropes. A subsequent onslaught of time-wasting tactics antagonised the waiting Italian crowd, who vented their frustration by throwing stones at the visiting side. After a projectile had struck the Slavia goalkeeper, František Plánička, who would later captain Czechoslovakia at the 1934 World Cup on Italian soil, the Slavia players walked off the pitch, refusing to continue. Incensed, both sets of fans clashed in the stands, and on the pitch, leading to the Slavia players being pinned in their dressing room for hours after the game had ended, cordoned off by both the police force and armed forces.
In response, the Mitropa Cup committee opted to eject both teams from the competition, awarding the trophy to Bologna, much to the aggrievance of the Czech side. Whilst Slavia Prague club officials made it clear the blame for the violence lay with the Italians, the Czechoslovakian and Italian press became embroiled in a war of words that quickly moved away from football. The official daily for the Italian National Olympic Committee, long after football had been dismissed as the topic of conversation, criticised the Czechs for having poor memory, claiming that Italy had taken care of their ‘prisoners and deserters’ by ‘restoring their dignity as soldiers’ after the First World War.
Football’s politicisation reflected its importance within Fascist Italy, assuming its role as the regime’s diplomatic barometer abroad. This relationship between Fascist Italy and football would only strengthen over the coming years, as the 1930s confirmed the Azzurri to be, officially, the greatest football team in the world, having won two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal by 1938.
Bologna, meanwhile, continued their European success throughout the 1930s, winning a second Mitropa Cup in 1934, before beating a heavily-favoured Chelsea side 4-1 in the final of the Paris Expo Tournament in 1937. The club’s affiliation with fascism, and indeed Leandro Arpinati, may have tarnished Bologna’s domestic record, yet their proficiency on the continent, earning the nickname ‘the team that shook the world’, was clear for all to see.