Did Benito Mussolini Threaten the Italian National Team With Death if They Lost the 1938 World Cup?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about baseball and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the soccer/football urban legends featured so far.

SOCCER/FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The Italian national team was threatened by death by Benito Mussolini if they lost the 1938 World Cup.

In one of the most famous quotes in World Cup history, after the Italians defeated Hungary 4-2 to capture their second straight World Cup in 1938, Hungarian goaltender Antal Szabó said, “I may have let in four goals, but at least I saved their lives.”

This is based on a telegram sent to the team by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini…

that read “Vincere o morire!” which, translated literally into English reads “Win or die!”

Now it is possible that Szabó honestly believed that “Win or die!” meant that the Italians had to win or Mussolini would order them killed, but that’s not the truth of the matter.

First of all, the Italians had already WON the Cup in 1934. THAT World Cup, PERHAPS you could POSSIBLY see Mussolini being a bit hardcore about, as that World Cup was played IN Italy, so the pressure was quite high for Italy to win in their own country. But to kill off team members for losing in the Finals after winning the previous World Cup? That doesn’t seem to follow.

Secondly, these players were all loyal supporters of Mussolini (publicly, at least) who wore black armbands and did Fascist salutes before each game. These athletes were pretty much the stars of Mussolini’s propaganda campaign about fascism and national pride. The idea that he would kill them off for coming in second in a match is silly. We’re not talking German Jewish athletes here – these guys were all major parts of Mussolini’s belief system.

Thirdly, and most importantly, while yes, the phrase is LITERALLY translated as “Win or die!” it was actually a common term used in Italy at the time meaning basically “Victory or bust!” A forerunner to a popular term nowadays, “Win or go home.”

Mussolini was not actually threatening their lives in 1938, although it is interesting to wonder if Szabó was just making a sort of joke or if he honestly believed it, and if he DID believe it, did Szabó throw the game? I doubt it, but it’s an interesting thing to wonder about…

The legend itself, though, is…

STATUS: I’m Going With False

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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