Two days ago was the 66th anniversary of the 1949 Superga Air Disaster, when the Grande Torino team tragically died in a plane crash. I put together a detailed piece in honour of this great team (most of it is paraphrased from other articles).
Il Grande Torino was the team that defined calcio in the 1940s. They won five consecutive Serie A titles, which should have been more because of the interruption of the war. Torino was a club ahead of its time thanks to the vision and direction of club owner Ferruccio Novo. The former footballer turned industrialist purchased Torino in 1939, and quickly set about redefining how a football club could be run. Novo was one of the early advocates of scouting networks.
The Superga Air Disaster, in which all its passengers – including 18 players – were killed, robbed Italy of one of its greatest sides, right at the height of their prominence. Between 1943 and 1949 (with the championship suspended for the 1943/44 season because of the Second World War), Il Toro charged to five consecutive titles and, in 1943, became the first team to win the league and cup double. Unbelievably, Torino supplied all ten outfield players to the Azzurri squad for a friendly win over Hungary in 1947, a record that may never be beaten.
Captained by the great Valentino Mazzola, their inspirational leader and the first truly modern midfielder, Torino revolutionised the game under Hungarian manager Erni Erbstein, 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 the acrobatic goal-scoring supreme. Ezio Loik was also an immensely talented mezza'la who formed one of the greatest partnerships in the history of Italian football with Mazzola. Il Grande Torino were not just a team, but a club of colossal talent and ability.
Valentino Mazzola was their "bandiera". In each of his five seasons at Torino he won a Scudetto. Over the course of his time at Torino he scored 118 goals in 204 appearances.
Born in a neighbourhood of abandoned homes to a very poor family, Mazzola lost his father at a young age. When he was ten years old, he saved the life of a young boy drowning in the Adda River - the boy's name was Andrea Bonomi, a future captain of AC Milan. Mazzola had to leave school at the age of 11 to support the rest of his family at the dawn of the Great Depression.
In 1938, still in his late teens, he found a job in the Alfa Romeo factory in Milan. He also signed a contract with their works team, Alfa Romeo Milano, who played in Serie C.
It was at Alfa Romeo he came to the attention of many Serie A clubs for his composure and ability to control the game at such a young age. Mazzola received an offer from A.C. Milan, but he turned it down because he needed his job at the factory. When war broke out in 1939, Mazzola joined the Italian Navy and found himself stationed in Venice. He was encouraged to go for a trial with Venezia who had just won promotion to Serie A. Although he had to play barefoot at his trial as there were no boots available for him, he impressed the club enough to earn a permanent move.
Venezia coach Giuseppe Girani quickly fell under the youngster’s spell and Mazzola signed his first professional contract on 1 January 1940. He made his Serie A debut in a 1-0 loss to Lazio three months later, and was soon wearing the captain’s armband. Venezia experienced the most successful spell in their history with Valentino. A natural leader, he may not have looked the most physically impressive of players, but he made his influence felt on all four corners of the pitch once the whistle blew, combining bursts of speed worthy of a sprinter with the stamina of a long-distance runner. A rock at the back thanks to his perfectly timed tackles, it was by no means unusual for him to take up three separate positions during the same game, though he eventually took up a regular spot as a left-sided attacking midfielder. Although the position of 'midfielder' had yet to be properly defined, Mazzola was one of the first to play that role effectively.
Due to Mazzola's outstanding performances in his three years at Venezia, Torino president Ferrucio Novo spent the handsome sum of 1.2 million lire on bringing Mazzola to the Granata where he was to become an icon and, undoubtedly, the greatest player that has ever pulled on the jersey. Not only that but Mazzola could also be considered to be one of the most complete football players of all time. He was one of the first inside forwards to play the position in a way which would be recognizable as an attacking midfielder in the modern game.
Rarely has a player combined such finesse, determination, spirit and magnificent footballing ability to the effect that the Torino captain did. Mazzola possessed a terrific ability to beat an opponent with his quick feet and pace as well as excellent aerial ability and an accurate, powerful strike. He was also two footed.
Former Juventus president Giampiero Boniperti claimed "If I had to choose one indispensable player for my team, I wouldn’t choose Pele, [Alfredo] Di Stefano, [Johan] Cruyff, [Michel] Platini, [Diego] Maradona – I’d only go for those players after choosing [Valentino] Mazzola." Enzo Bearzot said “The greatest Italian player of all time was Valentino Mazzola; he was a man who could carry his whole team.” Teammate Mario Rigamonti, one of his teammates in Torino, said “Valentino alone is half the squad and the other half is made up of the rest of us together.”
Novo and his new signing formed a strong bond, with Mazzola naming his second son after Novo, while on the pitch Torino became the first Italian side to win a league-and-cup double in Mazzola’s maiden season. The newcomer contested every match as Torino racked up a series of commanding victories, beating Juventus 5-1, AC Milan 5-0 and his former employers Venezia 4-0.
The next season, 1946/47, Torino were even more dominant. Torino lost the lead early on when they were defeated by Alessandria, but it would be the last time Torino would drop points that season. They finished the season with a ten point lead over runners up Juventus. They also put together a sixteen match unbeaten run, of which fourteen were victories, beginning with a Torino derby win over Juventus, followed with 5-0 victories over Inter and Atalanta, and then scoring 6 goals in games against Vicenza, Genoa, and Milan. Torino scored a total 104 goals that season, an average of nearly three per game, and Mazzola was Serie A topscorer with 29 goals.
Valentino was famous for rolling up his sleeves when his team wasn't performing well; it acted as a signal to his team mates and fans. In a game vs Vicenza on 20 April, Torino were playing for a draw because the league title was already secure and the opponents only needed a point to save themselves from relegation. However, close to the 60th minute, Vicenza scored a goal, and Mazzola reacted by pulling up his sleeves. He scored three goals in two minutes, between the 74th and the 76th minute. This formed the fastest tripletta in Serie A history and the record still stands today.
Having long been captain of Torino, Mazzola was also named captain of the national team towards the end of 1947 as La Nazionale built towards their defense of the World Cup in 1950. The war killed off his international career. The chance to play under the spotlight of the world stage never presented itself. Cancellation of the 1942 and 1946 World Cups meant that Mazzola’s on the pitch success was limited to home soil and some of the best players Italy have produced never got their international recognition.
In 1947/48, Torino set many records throughout the season, winning another Scudetto. They finished the season with a record 65 points in 40 games, with 29 wins out of 40 games. They set a record points advantage over 2nd place, 16 points over AC Milan, Juventus, and Triestina. They had the biggest home win in Serie A, 10-0 over Alessandria. They had the longest unbeaten run, 21 games, with 17 wins and 4 draws. They won the most points at home, with 19 games won out of 20 at their home ground Stadio Filadelfia. They also scored the most goals in a single season in Serie A history (to that point), 125, and conceded the least goals in the season, 33.
That year, Valentino netted 25 goals in his side’s unstoppable charge to the championship. This campaign is also memorable for another moment that brilliantly summed up everything that was admirable about Mazzola. During a game in the capital against Roma, his side trudged off the field 1-0 down at half time after a poor first half performance. As the teams came out of the tunnel for the second half, Valentino roared a rallying cry to his teammates to show their hosts how football should be played. Inspired by their captain, Torino went on to win the game 7-1.
Torino were a club with a unique connection with the supporters. Oreste Bolmida was a local stationmaster who carried his bugle to every Torino game, and when the supporters wanted more from the team, Bolmida would raise his bugle to the sky and give it a full blast. "They ran around like they had heard an air raid siren," recalled Tommaso Maestrelli, who played against that Torino side several times for Bari and Roma. "Their opponents were dazed, stunned – they no longer saw the ball."
An example of Bolmida's intervention was in the game vs Alessandria, which has already been mentioned as the biggest home win in the league that season. Toro, who led 4-0 at half-time, had taken their foot off the pedal after the break and the scoreline, frustratingly for the supporters, remained unchanged half an hour into the second half. The crowd wanted more, so Bolmida blew his horn and Mazzola responded, sparking a fifteen-minute spell in which Torino scored six times to end the game with a dramatic 10 goal scoreline.
The 1948/49 season would be the last cry for Il Grande Torino. In the second half of the season, Torino accumulated a six point advantage over Internazionale. On the verge of sealing the 1949 scudetto, Torino traveled to Lisbon for a testimonial honoring retired Benfica captain Jose "Xisco" Ferreira, a close friend of Mazzola. On 3 May 1949 at the Estádio Nacional in Lisbon, the Grande Torino went to the field for the last time, the game ending 4–3 in favour of Benfica.
On their return flight back to Italy on 4 May, their plane ran into bad weather near Turin and crashed into the walls of the Basilica of Superga. 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. Many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition. The greatest team Italian football has ever seen had met an infernal end.
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. Mazzola was just 30 years old when he died.
Only three of Torino's squad survived, having not made the journey. Sauro Tomŕ was recovering from a knee injury suffered earlier in the season but would probably still have made the trip 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, n youth team player who had featured regularly in first team that season, a problem with his passport meant that he would live.
Equally fortuitous was the case of László Kubala, who would later become one of the greatest players in the history of FC Barcelona. Kubala was set to join Torino after fleeing the fallout from the war in Hungary. However, with his wife and son having only just arrived in Turin, he chose to stay behind and care for his sick child – a decision that ultimately saved the forward's life. After the Superga tragedy, he instead joined Pro Patria, and a year later he signed for Barcelona where he had a tremendous 10 year stay.
Vittorio Pozzo was one of the first 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, then 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 jewelry on their bodies.
Public funeral procession for Il Grande Torino, 1949
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. 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 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 also 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. There would certainly have been many more trophies in Torino’s cabinet. The Italian national team, which was nearly a Torino eleven, would have performed much better in the World Cups of the 1950s. Tragically, we will never know for sure.