Wednesday May 4th, 1949, a date unfamiliar to many football fans outside of Italy. It was a day that changed the course of Italian football and a tragedy that devastated one team in particular, Torino F.C.
On that fateful day, a plane carrying the all-conquering Torino team of the 1940’s (famously known as Il Grande Torino) crashed into Superga Hill near Turin, killing 31 people on board, including all 18 players. More than 60 years on and Il Toro have never fully recovered.
The squad was returning home following a friendly match in Lisbon when their Fiat G-212CP plane got caught in a thunderstorm. Encountering low clouds and poor visibility in the area surrounding Superga Hill, the pilot was forced to descend. During this descent the aircraft crashed against the rear wall of the Basilica standing on top of Superga. In the aftermath, the causes of the crash were attributed to low cloud levels, poor radio communication and an error in navigation by the experienced pilot, Pierluigi Meroni.
The task of identifying the victims fell to ex-Italian national coach, Vittorio Pozzo. Many of the bodies had been burnt beyond recognition. Some could only be identified by the documents found in their pockets or by the rings on their fingers. That evening Pozzo, by this time a journalist for the Turin based daily La Stampa, wrote: “The Torino team is no more. It has disappeared, it is burnt, it has exploded…” He concluded “…the team died in action, like a group of shock troops in the war, who left their trenches and never came back”.
The emotional impact of the crash on Italian s was profound. The team was the vision of club President Ferruccio Novo. The side he had created were darlings of Italy and with the majority of the squad aged just 30 or under, this was a team set to dominate. Il Grande Torino had won four consecutive league titles (1946-1949) and had virtually clinched a fifth title at the time of the disaster. Following Superga, Torino played their four remaining fixtures fielding mainly youth team players. As a mark of respect, their opponents replicated and Torino were awarded the championship title.
To this day, the team holds the record for winning five consecutive league titles, an honour shared with Juventus. In five seasons between 1945 and 1949, the Granata scored 483 goals, conceding only 165. Their captain and inspirational leader Valentino Mazzola, simply known as Captain Valentino, guided the team to all five Scudetti. The oldest player to perish in the disaster was centre-forward Giuseppe Gabetto (33), the youngest was midfielder Rubens Fadini, aged just 21. There was some initial confusion after the crash as it was reported that Mazzola had not made the trip to Lisbon due to fever. Sadly, these reports turned out to be false.
Two days after the crash 500,000 people attended the funeral procession in Turin. The streets were packed with mourners and the event was transmitted live on national radio. Coffins were transported through the streets on lorries, each bearing the name of the deceased. That same day, over 30,000 people climbed Superga Hill to pay their respects and leave floral tributes. On the front wall of the Basilica, a plaque commemorates those who died and Superga remains a site of annual pilgrimage.
This team was truly remarkable. With the advent of the European Cup in 1955, Torino would have had the chance to become one of the most successful club sides in the world. They never got that chance and it was Real Madrid who went onto dominate Europe.
The disaster also left the Italian national team in tatters. Torino provided 10 players for the Azzuri, who at that time were World Cup holders after their triumph in 1938. In four of the five proceeding World Cup’s, Italy didn’t progress past the first round and in 1958 they failed to even qualify for the tournament finals.
It wasn’t until the 1970 World Cup that Italy managed to progress past
the first round, Superga’s effects had lasted longer than many could have
And what of Torino? They slowly rebuilt but have failed to scale the heights conquered by Il Grande Toro, largely overshadowed by their city rivals Juventus. Since Superga, Juve (backed by the FIAT empire) have won 22 league titles to Torino’s one (a lone Scudetto in 1976). This year the Granatahave returned to the European stage following one of their most successful seasons in over a decade during the 2013/14 campaign. However, despite this mini renaissance the balance of power in Turin shows no sign of shifting any time soon.
Wednesday May 4th 1949, a poignant date in the history of Italian
football that will never be forgotten.
I Campioni d'Italia: ‘The Champions of Italy’
Valerio Bacigalupo (25) Goalkeeper
Aldo Ballarin (27) Full-back
Dino Ballarin (23) Goalkeeper
Emile Bongiorni (27) Wing-back
Eusebio Castigliano (27) Midfield
Rubens Fadini (21) Midfield
Gugliemo Gabetto (33) Centre-forward
Ruggero Grava (27) Centre-forward
Giuseppe Grezar (30) Midfield
Ezio Loik (29) Wing-back
Virgilio Maroso (23) Full-back
Danilo Martelli (25) Midfield
Valentino Mazzola (30) Wing-back
Romeo Menti (30) Winger
Pierino Operto (22) Full-back
Franco Ossola (27) Winger
Mario Rigamonti (26) Defender
Julius Schubert (26) Wing-half
Torino Football Club
of its comrades
- the glory of Italian sport -
and those who died with them
in a tragic air disaster
4 May 1949
Words by Ian Such: @insearchofluca