After taking power in Italy in the 1920s, fascist leader Benito Mussolini embraced sports as a political tool.
That was evident at both the 1934 and 1938 World Cups — both won by Italy.
At the latter tournament, Italy sought to retain its title in France at a time when Europe was on the cusp of war. Spain was not there because of its civil war, while Austria, which had qualified, had to give up its berth in the tournament after being swallowed up by Nazi Germany.
Italy caused controversy in its quarterfinal match against the host nation when the team wore black shirts and gave the fascist right-arm salute before kickoff. It's unclear whether they were ordered to ditch their traditional blue shirts by Mussolini himself. Despite vociferous opposition from French fans, Italy easily defeated the hosts and then beat Brazil in the semifinals to set up a final against Hungary.
Italy successfully — and deservedly — defended its World Cup title in Paris, beating Hungary 4-2 in the final with two goals apiece from Gino Colaussi and Silvio Piola. It would keep the Jules Rimet Trophy for another 12 years as the world descended into war.
The stain of the "blackshirts," named after the paramilitary wing of Mussolini's National Fascist Party, has never gone away.
"Returning the intimidation from the terraces, Italy won the sporting battle on the field," said Simon Martin, author of "Sport Italia" and a sports historian at the University of Buckingham. "The desire to forget saw Mussolini swept under the carpet, and the 1938 blackshirt and Roman salute were consigned to one of the World Cup's and FIFA's least edifying but overtly political moments."
For more, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbJIqjny2Jk
AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup