Il Grande Torino – Italy’s Darlings

Every club has significant dates in its history, the anniversary of a championship or a famous victory, for Torino Football Club it’s the 4th of May. Their most important date comes from a tragedy.

On May 4th 1949 a thick fog had enveloped the city of Turin. A flight bound from Lisbon, via Barcelona, began its approach to the city at around five o’clock in the evening. Ordinarily, the Italian sun would have just begun to cast shadows down on the streets below, but on this day, the small Fiat plane may as well have been landing in the dead of night.

The pilot began plotting his final descent into Turin-Aeritalia Airport, but with poor visibility, he was thrown off course and initiated the descent too quickly. The exact cause of the loss of direction and the too rapid a descent will remain forever a mystery, but the sickening explosion of the jet careening into the side of the Basilica of Superga atop the hill of Turin brought people from their homes in little doubt as to what had just happened. All 31 passengers were killed, and numbering among them was the greatest Italian club side of all time, Il Grande Torino.

The team was returning home after playing a friendly match in Lisbon against Benfica and at the time Torino were the darlings of Italy, a glamorous and successful side which had caught the nation’s imagination. Their loss left Turin heartbroken, 500,000 fans lined the streets to pay their last respects.

It was the saddest day in the history of Italian football.

They were known as Il Grande Torino (The Great Torino) despite the crash they’d already won the 1949 championship with four games to go thanks to an 18 game unbeaten run, their fifth consecutive scudetto. Many argue that had it not been for the interruption of the war Il Grande Torino would have won at least six scudetti if not more.

Italy in the 1940s was a country in need of positive role models after suffering under fascist rule the nation was on its knees by the end of World War II. In an atmosphere of grinding poverty sport, and football in particular, was the only entertainment. Tornio President Ferruccio Novo responded to that need by recruiting a team of stars.

Valentino Mazzola and Ezio Loik record signings from Venezia, Guglielmo Gabetto pinched from Juventus and Romeo Menti signed from Fiorentina all talented young men who enchanted the city of Turin. 

The wreckage of the Fiat G-212 lies beside the Superga Basilica.

Lead by Hungarian trainer Ernest Erbstein Torino developed a style of football that has drawn parallels to the Dutch Total Football of the 1970s. 

Loik immediately became the team’s athletic engine, able to draw on wells of energy and transform defence into attack with galloping runs through the centre of the pitch. Mazzola wore the captain’s armband, but he was so much more. A talismanic presence who simply refused to accept anything less than perfection from himself and his team-mates, he led by example on numerous occasions and was the capocannoniere (top scorer) in the 1946-47 season with 29 goals. Mazzola has since been recognised as one of the first great footballers.

Ahead of them, Gabetto’s innate goal scoring ability was complemented by the searing pace and trickery of wingers Franco Ossola and Romeo Menti, while behind lay Giuseppe Grezar and Eusebio Castigliano, right and left half, respectively. Grezar shouldered the bulk of the defensive midfield work. Castigliano was a kindred spirit of Loik, possessing the ability to turn robust defence into scintillating attack in a heartbeat. Together with Loik and Mazzolo, Castigliano and Grezar were dubbed the quadrilatero in recognition of the synergy with which they entwined in the centre of the field.

Aldo Ballarin was a composed, no-nonsense full-back, while his opposite number, Virgilio Maroso, was considered the rising star of the team. Between them stood the formidable figure of Mario Rigamonti.

Torino’s attacking style was only possible because Rigamonti was effectively capable, such was his ability, of doing the job of more than one defender, although he was aided by the team’s custodian, Valerio Bacigalupo, a phenomenal goalkeeper capable of the highest calibre saves and an immensely reassuring presence despite his relative youth at 25 years of age.

They left their opponents overrun, overpowered and overwhelmed. They were the ultimate team. 

Torino became the first side to complete the Italian domestic double in 1943 and won the first three post-war Serie A championships with increasing ease – the first by a three-point margin, the second by ten, with the 1947-48 season less of a contest than a procession, as i Granata won by 16 points.

All three seasons saw the team set records for the number of points scored, and formed part of a six-year unbeaten sequence at home as they scored freely, defended stoically, and played some of the most dazzling football that the people of Italy had ever had the privilege of watching.

The starting eleven that won the hearts on the nation.

A testament to the sides prowess was seen in 1943 when Italy faced Hungary. Ten of the starting eleven were Torino players, the only member not on the books of Torino was the goalkeeper. They managed to beat a strong Hungarian side 3-2. Valentino Mazzola captain, goalscorer and star player for club and country was the chief inspiration, for fans of a certain age Mazzola was simply the best Italian player of all time. 

Being Italy’s premier team Torino were invited to play Benfica in a benefit match despite the fact that the season had yet to conclude they agreed safe in the knowledge they had won the title with four games to spare. Il Grande Torino lost the friendly 4-3 but boarded the plane in jovial spirits heading back to Italy.

In the aftermath of the crash, there was hope that Mazzola had missed the trip due to flu and that the shattered remnants of the great team could be rebuilt around him but the dreadful truth quickly emerged.

Eighteen players in all, Mazzola among them, along with Erbstein, four members of the coaching staff and eight others had perished. Torino were immediately declared winners of Serie A, but opted to continue the rest of the season with their youth team winning all four of their remaining games. 

While Manchester United successfully rebuilt after the Munich air disaster it seems as if Torino never fully recovered from the Superga disaster. They lacked a Busby or a Charlton to lift the club from the wreckage.

For Torino, the club and their fans the loss was just too great. I Granata have won a single scudetto (1976) since the loss of their darlings.

The club continue to honour Erbstein and his men. In 2016 their stadium was renamed the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino. Last year the first team’s training ground was rebuilt on the site of the Stadio Filadelfia the home of some of Il Grande Tornio’s greatest displays.

Each year on the 4th of May after a mass at the Basilica of Superga tradition dictates that the current Torino captain reads out the names of those who lost their lives on that fateful evening in 1949.

Players:

  • Valerio Bacigalupo
  • Aldo Ballarin
  • Dino Ballarin
  • Émile Bongiorni
  • Eusebio Castigliano
  • Rubens Fadini
  • Guglielmo Gabetto
  • Ruggero Grava
  • Giuseppe Grezar
  • Ezio Loik
  • Virgilio Maroso
  • Danilo Martelli
  • Valentino Mazzola
  • Romeo Menti
  • Piero Operto
  • Franco Ossola
  • Mario Rigamonti
  • Július Schubert

Club officials:

  • Arnaldo Agnisetta, manager
  • Ippolito Civalleri, manager
  • Egri Erbstein, trainer
  • Leslie Lievesley, coach
  • Ottavio Corina, masseur
  • Andrea Bonaiuti, organiser

Journalists:

  • Renato Casalbore, (founder of Tuttosport)
  • Luigi Cavallero, (La Stampa)
  • Renato Tosatti, (Gazzetta del Popolo)

Flight crew:

  • Pierluigi Meroni, pilot
  • Antonio Pangrazi
  • Celestino D’Inca
  • Cesare Biancardi

Italy had been robbed of its greatest team and the club had been changed forever. 69 years on from the loss of Il Grande Torino it’s important to remember those pioneers of football.

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