Today, February 6th, is the 55th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, a seminal event in English football history - in more ways than one. The shockwaves were felt worldwide as the heart was ripped out of a Manchester United team of massive potential, one that had already achieved much, and promised to go on and dominate at home, and possibly abroad. The casualty list is well-known, and especially fondly remembered is Duncan Edwards, a young colossus of immense presence and ability with a glittering future ahead of him. He hung on to life for almost a fortnight after the accident, before succumbing to his injuries on February 19th 1958. The team’s manager, Matt Busby, was also left fighting for his life, and twice received the last rites, but thankfully he pulled through and went on to build another great team.
This is the story that everyone is familiar with. The name of Manchester United is synonymous in the minds of football fans everywhere with Munich, and the disaster which decimated the Busby Babes. The event has such iconic status that it has helped garner the club a worldwide fan base, and certainly in the period preceding the last twenty years of their dominance, United were often regarded as everyone’s second-favourite team, based largely on the legacy of Munich.
It may surprise a lot of people then, to hear that Munich was not the only, nor yet the worst disaster of this nature to strike a major football club. On Wednesday 4th May 1949, the Torino football team were returning home from a friendly match in Lisbon, when their aeroplane crashed into the hill of Superga near Turin, killing all 31 people on board including 18 players. The Torino football team, popularly known as Il Grande Torino, were a legendary outfit. They won the last Italian league title before World War II, and when the competition resumed after the hostilities, they won four consecutive post-war titles too. At the time of the crash, Torino was leading the title race with four games to go. They fielded a youth team in each of those games, and as a mark of respect, their opponents did the same. The youth team, Primavera, won those four games to claim the Scudetto.
The disaster had hit Torino, and indeed Italian football, very hard indeed. Only three of the Champions’ squad were left, each having missed the fatal flight for one reason or another. The national team was also seriously weakened, as the players who died made up the bulk of the Italian squad. The Torino club itself failed to win another national title until 1976, fully 27 years after Superga. The crash was arguably the worst of its kind, in terms of the number of fatalities, the lack of survivors, and the impact on club and national football. Yet there have been other calamities, some much more recent than either Munich or Superga. In 1993, almost the entire national squad of Zambia died in an air crash. Virtually the whole of the Russian ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl perished in similar disaster in 2011. There are at least four more comparable incidents.
Why, then, are we so familiar with the story of Munich, but not – for instance – with the terrible loss suffered by Torino AC in 1949? We may think it’s because Manchester United are an English football club, and maybe there is some parochialism going on here. But the fame and infamy of Munich is a worldwide phenomenon, and the modern Manchester United owes much of its current global fan base to the legend that arose around the Busby Babes. Perhaps it’s because news media had progressed in the nine years between the two events, but as we have seen, much more recent tragedies remain relatively obscure.
The club itself, it must be said, have not been shy about keeping the memory of the disaster very much to the forefront of the public mind, while being curiously reticent and some would say callous in their treatment of some of the bereaved and of the survivors. Many felt that the decision to incorporate a sponsor’s logo into the Munich memorial outside Old Trafford was somewhat tacky. And “tacky” is a term that could easily be applied to the treatment of Munich survivor Jackie Blanchflower, for instance, who was severely injured in the crash, yet was removed from his club house shortly afterwards, with virtually no compensation.
Jeff Connor, in his sensitively-written and excellent book “The Lost Babes”, draws an illuminating contrast between the club welcoming publicity about Munich, while seeming somewhat uncaring about the consequences for the families left bereaved, and living a reduced existence. The bitterness felt by many people close to the Munich victims does not form a part of the legend as perpetuated by Manchester United FC. It has also frequently been claimed in popular culture that the Manchester United club owes a lot of its current standing to the events of 55 years ago - a famous clip from Jimmy McGovern’s “The Street” features a rant delivered by actor Jim Broadbent, his character in the BBC drama voicing just this sentiment.
Torino AC, the club so devastated by the Superga Disaster all those years ago, did not place the same emphasis on the continual commemoration and reminiscing employed by Manchester United and its fans worldwide. Perhaps this is why they struggled for so long to regain any sort of pre-eminence, whereas it was only ten years after Munich that Matt Busby was knighted in the wake of his club’s European Cup triumph. What seems certain is that the mystique surrounding Munich, which seems to suggest that the 1958 disaster stands alone in the pantheon of sporting tragedy, does not hold up to closer examination, and should instead perhaps be marked to the credit of those who have worked so feverishly over the years to promote Man Utd as the world’s premier football club.
It is right and proper that the dead of any disaster should be remembered with respect and reverence, for their achievements in life, and to mourn their loss and the sadness of potential unfulfilled. But that should apply to all such tragedies. If you offer up a thought for the Lost Babes today - I’m right there with you. But come the 4th of May - let’s also light a candle, on the 64th anniversary of that disaster, for the dead of Superga.