Il Grande Torino And The Tragedy Of Superga

On May 4th 1949, the great Torino team who ruled Italian football were on the verge of their fifth straight Scudetto. The plane crash that killed the entire squad devastated Italy and robbed the world of one of history's greatest teams...
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“The Torino team is no more… it has disappeared…it is burnt…it has exploded”

The chilling words of Vittorio Pozzo, quivering with emotion, and resonating with anguish through the years, mournfully recalled around the world on that tragic day, sixty-five years ago, that the incomparable Il Grande Torino perished at Superga.

May 4th 1949 was a spitefully grey and wet day in Turin in the northwest tip of Italy. Dark, thick clouds enveloped the hills that surround the town, and by the early afternoon rumbles of thunder rang out menacingly around the hill tops. Yet many of the townspeople below were in a joyous mood as they waited eagerly for their heroes to return home, on the verge of yet another incredible triumph.

Il Grande Torino were the defining team of the 1940s, a club light-years ahead of its time thanks to the vision and direction of club owner Ferruccio Novo. The former industrialist and trader of agricultural equipment purchased Torino in 1939, and quickly set about redefining how a football club could be run. Novo was amongst the first in the world to introduce scouting networks, tasked with spotting new talent and with monitoring reports of dissatisfied players at other clubs. He surrounded himself with experts on football, and applied his business acumen to the running of the club in a way which had never been seen before.

Such was the inventiveness of their play that they are even partly thought to have inspired the magical concept of “Total Football”

Captained by the great Valentino Mazzola, their inspirational leader and the first truly modern midfielder, Torino revolutionised the game under Novo, adopting a fluid 4-2-4 system a clear decade before Brazil would use the formation to conquer the world. Such was the inventiveness of their play that they are even partly thought to have inspired the magical concept of “Total Football” championed by the Dutch in the 1970s. But it wasn’t just Mazzola who made the team so special. Goalkeeper Valerio Bacigalupo is widely credited with being one of the first to come off his line and seek to dominate his area, Eusebio Castigliano was a hugely talented midfielder with an exquisite touch, Romeo Menti possessed lightning pace and flair, Aldo Ballarin was a fiercely combative defender, Guiseppe Grezar was the midfield general who organised his teammates, Mario Rigamonti an unflappable presence at the back, Franco Ossola was the tricky winger adored by the fans and Guglielmo Gabetto was the acrobatic goal-scoring supreme. Il Grande Torino were not just a team, but a club of colossal talent and ability.

On the verge of sealing the 1949 scudetto – which would be their fifth consecutive title in a league disrupted by the Second World War – Torino had travelled to Lisbon for a friendly on May 1st 1949 to celebrate the career of Benfica captain Jose Ferreira, a close friend of Mazzola’s, who was about to retire. The irony is that the journey would not have been made at all had the result of the league game against Internazionale just four days earlier been different. Agreeing only to travel to Portugal on the condition that they did not lose the tie, and therefore vital ground in the race for the title, Torino and Inter drew 0-0. Had Inter found a winner, Il Grande Torino would have lived on.

But fate can be inexplicably cruel, and as the FIAT G-212 plane bringing the squad home from Lisbon approached Turin on that fateful day Italian pilot Pierluigi Meroni – a vastly experienced aviator who had been decorated for his bravery during the war – became disorientated, descending far too quickly as he lost his bearings in the dense clouds. Despite reporting to staff on ground that everything was in place for landing, witnesses on the Superga hillside below reported seeing the craft flying much lower than was normal for an approach to the city’s airport. Deceived in the terrible conditions the plane smashed with terrifying force into a wall at the rear of a basilica that adorned the hillside, spewing wreckage across a huge area and erupting in flames, in bitter defiance of the cold rain that lashed down on the victims.

Pozzo knew the players well, and the grim task of identifying the bodies fell on his shoulders

As the news filtered down to the townspeople below a precession of fans began to make their way up the mountain. Pozzo was one of the first people to arrive at the crash site, and was greeted by scene of such savage destruction that he, and many others, broke down in tears. As the manager who had guided Italy to the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, now working as a football journalist in Turin, Pozzo knew the players well, and the grim task of identifying the bodies fell on his shoulders, though most were so badly charred that they were identifiable only by documents in their pockets or by items of jewellery on their bodies.

In the confusion that followed the accident it was initially, and erroneously, reported that Mazzola had not been on board the aircraft, having missed the trip due to a fever. By nightfall however the terrible, shattering truth was realised. All thirty-one people on board, including eighteen members of the Il Grande Torino squad, along with the trainers, members of staff, accompanying journalists and the plane’s crew, were dead.

The country went into a state of mourning following the accident. At a time when the nation was coming to terms with the evils of its fascist past and the destruction of the Second World War Il Grande Torino had represented far more than a football team to the people of Italy. The disaster united people regardless of their background, political beliefs or footballing loyalties, with the national Communist newspaper L’Unita declaring that “the whole of Italy was alongside the burnt bodies (of the team)”. The funerals of the deceased were held two days later on what was another miserably cold and wet day – How could it have been anything but? Over half a million people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the funeral procession, and following the ceremony over 30,000 people marched up to Superga to pay their respects to the departed.

Torino won the match 4-0 and claimed the 1949 title, but they would never be the same club ever again

Torino were awarded the title, but decided to continue by fielding youth teams for their final four games. As a mark of respect and in a show of solidarity their remaining opponents too fielded youth sides. The first game following the tragedy was against Genoa, and was – as you would expect – a highly emotional affair, beginning in complete silence despite a capacity crowd, until slowly and solemnly the crowd began to chant “Toro Toro” as one. Torino won the match 4-0 and claimed the 1949 title, but they would never be the same club ever again, and would not lift the Serie A title again until 1976.

It’s hard to predict the extremes of greatness that lay in wait for Il Grande Torino without entering into the realm of conjecture, but as virtually all of the players who lost their lives were under thirty years of age it is entirely plausible that, following the invention of the European Cup in 1955, it would have been Torino, rather than Real Madrid, that would go on to dominate European football in the 1950s. Novo himself was reported to have been working on the idea of a premier European club competition for years, and it seems certain that, but for Superga, Torino would have tasted glory on the biggest club stage. In doing so they could have changed the landscape of football across the continent forever. Tragically, we will never know for sure.

The Superga disaster left Italian football in ruins, and deeply scarred the mentality of the nation. Such was the trauma caused by the catastrophe that the national side, under the control of Novo, travelled to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil by boat, a journey that took two weeks and left the squad in such a poor state of fitness that they exited the tournament after just one game. It was 1970 before the azzurri made it past the first round again, and in 1958 they even failed to qualify for the finals. This was not just down to the psychological impact of the disaster however. Torino had made up the bulk of the national side for a number of years, with teams frequently featuring at least eight players drawn from the Torino squad, and on one famous occasion in a friendly against Hungary, all ten outfield players selected played for Il Grande Torino. Such a feat would be inconceivable now, but they really were that special.

Today Il Grande Torino are remembered by fans across Italy and the anniversary of the tragedy will see many once again undertake the pilgrimage to the site of the disaster. Robbed of their lives and denied the chance to fulfil their potential, Superga transformed the Il Grande Torino team into a legend, one which, on today of all days, should be retold to the world.

This first appeared on the cracking Five in Midfield

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