There is a hill called Superga located in the east of the city of Turin in Northwestern Italy. Perched on the top of the hill is the Basilica of Superga, a 300 year old church. In the back of the basilica there is a memorial plaque, which remains adorned with flowers all throughout the year. Flowers that are brought by people from Turin and rest of the country making the pilgrimage to the site of Italy’s greatest footballing tragedy. The site where the team, considered by many to be the best ever in Italian football, was wiped out in its entirety. The marble plaque pays homage to them with the inscribed lines (translated):
Torino Football Club
In memory of its comrades
the glory of Italian sport
and those who died with them
in a tragic air disaster
4 May 1949
This is the story of the legendary – yet ill-fated – Il Grande Torino, a team that dominated Italian football throughout the 40’s like no other team had done before or since.
The club was founded as Associazione Calcio Torino (AC Torino) in 1906 by a separatist faction who broke away from the nearby Juventus FC. The club tasted sporadic success in its fledgling years and won its first Scudetto in 1927/28. The maiden Coppa Italia title followed in 1936 but the Torino continued to play second fiddle to the likes of Juventus, Internazionale and Bologna, the leading lights of that period.
All that would change though in 1939 when the club was acquired by Ferruccio Novo, a former Torino player. Novo, who had amassed his wealth by trading agricultural equipment, was a visionary light-years ahead of his time. He set about revamping the entire management structure at the club. He promoted the role of the scouts in the game, a novel concept in those days. On the pitch, he modeled his team to play a progressive style of football inspired by Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal team. Torino’s inventive brand of football would continue to influence the great footballing styles of the future era. Soon, Novo’s passion and hard work would start bearing fruit. In 1943, Torino won their second Scudetto before World War II put the competition on hold for the next two seasons.
Post World War II, Torino embarked on a glorious streak of success by lifting four consecutive Scudetti from 1945-1946 onwards till 1948-1949. Couple with the title won before the war, the record of winning five top division titles at a stretch is yet to be bettered in Italian football.
The outstanding Torino team was captained by the prodigiously gifted Valentino Mazzola, a player considered by many to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, footballer Italy has ever produced. Mazzola was ably supported by a glittering support cast consisting of the likes of Valerio Bacigalupo in goal, Aldo Ballarin and Mario Rigamonti at the back, Eusebio Castigliano, Ezio Loik and Giuseppe Grezar in the midfield, Franco Ossola down the wings, and Guglielmo Gabetto leading the line.
Torino Torino Torino
Torino Torino Torino
These young men were more than just mere footballers. To a country recovering from the ravages inflicted by the tyranny of fascism and brutality of the war, they represented a symbol for hope and new beginning. Their achievements transcended the realm of club football. Most of them were regulars in the national team. In one particular international friendly against Hungary, Italy fielded a team made up entirely of Torino players barring one. Such was the brilliance of this special bunch of players. It seemed they were destined for a sustained spell of dominance in domestic and international front. But with the world at their feet, faith decreed that their time at the top, and in this world indeed, was to be cut short.
With their fifth consecutive Scudetto all but wrapped up, Torino traveled to Lisbon to compete in a friendly arranged in the honour of Francisco Ferreira, a close friend of Mazzola, on 1st May, 1949. On their return flight on the 4th, the FIAT G-212 plane ran into bad weather near Turin and crashed into the walls of the Basilica of Superga blowing up in a fiery explosion instantaneously. Even though officially no reason for the crash was ever established, from eye-witness accounts it is gathered that the pilot Pierluigi Meroni – a decorated war hero – had flown dangerously low due to dense clouds affecting visibility at a higher altitude. All 31 on board, including 18 players and the rest non-playing staff and journalists accompanying the team, died at the site with many of the bodies charred beyond recognition. The greatest team Italian football has ever seen had met an infernal end.
Only two members of Il Grande Torino were fortunate enough to be missing from that flight. Sauro Tomà was recovering from a knee injury suffered earlier in the season but would probably still have if it had not been for the fact that his wife was expecting the couple’s first child. On hearing about the crash, an emotionally distraught Toma rushed to the site but was prevented by a club official to see with his own eyes the grotesquely burnt bodies of his fellow teammates. For Luigi Giuliano, an youth team player who had featured regularly in first team that season, a delay in obtaining passport meant his withdrawal from the touring party.
Equally fortuitous was the case of László Kubala, a Hungarian refugee. Kubala, who used to play for another Italian club called Pro Patria at the time, had specially agreed to represent Torino in the friendly but pulled out in the last minute to attend to his ailing son, thereby saving himself from the jaws of death.
It is a tragic quirk of fate that Il Grande Torino’s on-field greatness ultimately contributed to their doom. Had Torino lost to Internazionale in the previous week, the team would not have traveled to Lisbon to participate in the friendly. But the match finished 0-0 and with the league title virtually won with that result, Torino went on the fateful trip.
As the news of the crash and the untimely demise of the team filtered through, the entire country plunged into a state of mourning. Two days later, over 500,000 people lined up the streets of Turin to catch a glimpse of the funeral procession. The Scudetto was awarded to Torino with 4 matches remaining. A team made up of reserve team players finished the season. As a mark of respect, Torino’s opponents too fielded their reserves in those matches.
It is difficult to predict what would have happened had this terrible occurrence been averted. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that with the birth of the European Cup looming large on the horizon, Real Madrid’s stranglehold on that particular trophy would have been severely challenged by this great Torino side, most of whose players were aged below 30 at the time of the disaster. Italy too probably wouldn’t have had to suffer the barren spell in 50’s and 60’s on the international front. But all that is conjecture. The harsh reality is that all hopes, all expectations, all prophecies associated with Il Grande Torino died with those 31 souls on that stormy day at the walls of Basilica of Superga.
A band of young men, all outrageously talented and the best within their country at their chosen field of vocation, snatched away by death at their prime. While the incident bears eerie similarities with the doom which would befall Manchester United at Munich nearly a decade later, for Torino the legacy of disaster is much darker. Because unlike United, who before Munich was just another one of the numerous clubs in Northwest England and subsequently rode on (among other things) the sheer goodwill and publicity generated out of the incident to become the football superpower that it is today, Torino never has been able to revert to those pre-disaster glory days.
Success since then has been fleeting with Scudetto win in 1975-76 season being an exception rather than a norm. Rest of it has been a grim story of multiple relegations and promotions. For Torino, the burden of the dead has seemingly crippled them forever. More than sixty years on, the ghosts of Il Grande Torino that haunt the club still remain to be exorcised.