Unforgettable World Cup Moments: Mussolini’s “Win or die” telegram to Italy’s 1938 team

With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar due to get underway in November, we're taking a look back through the history of the World Cup at the good, the bad and the amazing moments that remain in our memories to this very day and will live on forever.

If you’ve taken a few history lessons in the past, there is a fair old chance that you’ve heard of Mussolini. He was an immensely important figure in Italy back in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, although he was obviously not very popular among the masses. To give you a bit of background information on the man, Mussolini was the Prime Minister of Italy from 1922 to 1943. He ran the country as a dictatorship during those times, and many regard him as the founder of Italian fascism. 

As you may also recall, Mussolini was at the head of Italy during World War II, where many of his political ideologies aligned with those of Adolf Hitler. So to say that the man was somewhat forceful and terrifying would probably be an understatement. But what does all of this have to do with the supposed telegram issued to the Italian players during the 1938 World Cup? Don’t worry, we are about to get to it.

italy team 1938

However, to understand how this legendary tale came into existence, you have to understand who the man was behind it. And now that you do have an overview of Mussolini, his political ideas, and his approach to power in general, it’s time to discuss the famous telegram. Believe us – this is a story that you won’t want to skip past.

The breakdown of this legendary tale

The year was 1938, and political tensions in Europe were pretty much at breaking point. Mussolini was causing misery and suffering for many Italians at the time, and he held a position as one of the most fearsome dictators in the world. However, there was one glimmer of light emerging through the darkness for Italians. And that light we are talking about was the 1938 World Cup. Now, football was absolutely enormous at the time for Italians, and the World Cup is something that created national pride – despite the regime of Mussolini.

Then again, football still is enormous for Italians! Anyway, this was actually only the third World Cup event ever, as the competition was established in 1930. And as you may or may not know, Italy managed to win the 1934 World Cup. So they were the returning champions, and they were also favoured to capture another World Cup in 1938. The tournament itself was played as a straight-up knockout event, and it was played in France. Italy was actually the top seed in the tournament, and it would seem that Mussolini felt more than just a desire for his nation to capture another title.

According to legend, prior to the final in which Italy would play Hungary, Mussolini sent a telegram to the team. We can imagine that the players were nervous already about playing in a World Cup final. But if those nerves weren’t quite extreme enough, they no doubt were after a telegram was delivered that read – ‘win or die’. Of course, this isn’t something that you would take lightly from one of the world’s most feared dictators. 

Yet while this is the official tale, what parts are true and what parts are fiction?

Facts behind the story

italy vs france 1938

It’s always tough to distinguish between facts and fiction in tales that date back over 80 years ago. However, there are substantial sources that maintain that this event did in fact occur. Not only that, but individual accounts have also confirmed several interesting details. Let us discuss them right now.

A telegram from Mussolini was delivered

Let’s get the most important detail of the story out of the way, to begin with. As you can see, the tale that Mussolini did send a telegram to the team is indeed a fact. The telegram was served up and read to the players before they went out to play against Hungary in the 1938 World Cup final. However, it’s unclear as to where they actually received the telegram. We don’t know for sure whether the telegram was delivered at the hotel, during training, or whether it was delivered in the locker room just before the game.

But regardless of the timing and location of the delivery, we can confirm that this famous telegram was sent by the Italian dictator. So the overall legend of this tale is true, but that’s one important factor.

The telegram did read ‘win or die’

We’ve established that the telegram was sent by Mussolini at this point, but as stated, this is just one part of the story. And the other part of the story is arguably more important than the first. Did the telegram in fact have the words ‘win or die’ written on it? We’ve looked at all kinds of sources to get the most accurate answer here, and our research efforts have kept delivering the same answer – yes! The telegram did in fact contain the message of ‘win or die’, so the players were fully aware of what Mussolini thought about the outcome of the game prior to it being played.

One thing is certain, we would not have liked to be in the shoes of those guys before they walked out onto the pitch for that final.

To confirm once again, Mussolini was responsible for the fascist regime in Italy during those days. He was pretty much the image of fascism, yet to gather any kind of support for fascism in Italy, he had to have a medium of propaganda and subsequent support. As it happens, the Italian national team served as a major part of his propaganda campaign. So the players were very familiar with Mussolini at the time, and they even made gestures supporting fascism during games and interviews. 

The players even wore black armbands as a symbol of their support for Mussolini and his fascist regime. Of course, this sounds absolutely outrageous in this day and age, but that’s precisely how it worked for Italy in 1938.

Myths surrounding the story

As much as this story is truthful, there are subtle things to pay attention to really grasp what happened back in 1938. For that reason, we’ve also looked into what parts of this story have been emphasized for dramatic effect, and which parts of snowballed into rather epic myths. These are discussed below:

The meaning of ‘win or die’

When you look at the meaning of ‘win or die’ in English, there is a very distinct conclusion as to what the options are. You either win the upcoming game and deliver national pride for Italy, or you face death should you fail. This gave birth to the legend of the ‘win or die’ telegram in the first place, but there’s a problem here. The whole threat to the Italian national team has been broadly exaggerated because of translation, and the context has led to speculation.

In Italian, the term that this translation comes from is ‘Vincere o Morire’. And yes, the literal translation is ‘win or die’. But here’s where context enters the picture – this was actually a very common term used in Italy at the time. For Italians, the meaning did not have the same context as it does when translated into English. Instead, it’s more of a ‘win or bust’ description. So perhaps the modern-day equivalent in English would be ‘go big or go home’. 

Mussolini’s actual intentions for the telegram

Following closely on the translation of the telegram and subsequent context, there is something else to address. Once again, if you read it as it is in the English language, it looks like Mussolini was threatening death to the players if they failed to win the final. However, experts highly doubt whether this was his intention with the telegram at all. Using the popular phrase of ‘win or bust’ at the time, many believe that Mussolini was simply using the telegram to inspire his players and motivate them to grab victory. 

To be perfectly honest, we also agree with the expert’s opinions on this. If you factor in that the players were immensely important for Mussolini and his propaganda at the time, where would the sense be for him to kill them should they lose? The math just doesn’t add up, which puts an interesting conclusion on this tale.

Is the story of the telegram true or false?

world cup 1938 final FIFA

Because of the things we have discussed above, there isn’t actually a correct answer to the question. On the one hand, the answer would be yes, as Mussolini did send a telegram to the players with these words on it. But on the other hand, the idea that Mussolini threatened the team with death should they lose has been radically exaggerated. Then again – this is the basis of all legendary tales to some extent.

So if we were to reach a conclusion for this story, it certainly did happen, but the intended impact of the telegram wasn’t to make the players fear for their lives. It was actually to spur them on to win the 1938 World Cup, which they did.