A fortnight ago, the football world and, particularly, the city of Liverpool remembered the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough – a tragedy waiting to happen, that should never have been allowed to happen. Out of the ashes of that tragedy though, English football was dragged into the 21st century with the subsequent Taylor report demanding that stadiums remove all barriers and convert to all seater arenas.
A little over a year ago, in February 2008, the 50th anniversary of Munich was remembered by the thousands of Manchester United supporters around the world. At Munich eight of the Busby Babes died, a golden generation of footballers who looked set to rule England for years to come and challenge the might of Real Madrid for supremacy in Europe. Though it was the death of a team – a great team – in many ways Munich represented the making of a club. Manchester United became many supporters “other team” as sympathy poured in from around the globe. Ten years later Manchester United were crowned champions of Europe – the first English team to win that crown – and they remain by far the most popular team in England, if not the world.
This weekend sees the 60th anniversary of a tragedy which has had much longer term consequences for both club and country. In fact it’s fair to say that 60 years on, the club has still to recover.
On May 4, 1949 an Italian Airlines flight carrying the Torino team, returning from a testimonial for Benfica & Portugal captain Francisco Ferreira in Lisbon, crashed into the side of Superga, a hill overlooking the wonderful city of Torino, killing all on board including 18 players. 31 people died in all including crew, journalists and club officials. It was a tragedy that shocked all of Italy and it was estimated that more than 500,000 turned out for the 31 funerals just two days after the crash. The crash was caused by a heavy mist and torrential rain in the Torino area which caused limited visibility for the pilot. Navigation instruments in the 1940’s were vastly different to those which are familiar to pilots 60 years on.
In the years following the second world war, Torino had arguably the best team in the world. From 1945-46, they won four scudettos in succession, a feat yet to be repeated in Serie A. At the time it was recognised that Torino had in fact won five in a row when including the 1942-43 season. In 2002 the FIGC (Italian FA) decided to acknowledge Spezia’s win in a shortened and unofficial championship played in 1944, thus the record books now show a 4-in-a-row sequence. Along the way Torino broke record after record in Italy. Biggest home win, biggest away win, most goals scored in a season, fewest goals conceded, most points gained, longest unbeaten run at home, most wins at home, most wins away etc etc etc
Nicknamed Il Grande Torino, the side were captained by Valentino Mazzola, and regularly supplied eight or nine of the Italian national team. In May 1947 TEN of the Torino side played for Italy in a 3-2 win against Hungary – a Hungarian side, including Ferenc Puskas, that would go to the world cup final seven years later. The one player who missed out that day was the goalkeeper Valerio Bacigalupo who went on to play five times for the Azzurri. By contrast, Italy were knocked out in the first round of both the 1950 and 1954 world cups and failed to even qualify for 1958. Italy had of course been world champions in 1934 and 1938, the last two world cups before the Superga tragedy. Its fair to say that the country lost a generation of great footballers.
Following the crash, the Torino youth team played the remaining four fixtures of the Serie A season, the first of these 11 days later on May 15 1949. As a mark of respect, their opponents, Genoa, Palermo, Sampdoria & Fiorentina also played their youth teams and Torino won all four matches and won the league by five points from Internazionale.
For Torino though, the aftermath was far worse than for the Azzurri. In 1949/50 the team finished 6th in Serie A but from that season on were regularly battling relegation. Finally in 1958/59, ten years after the tragedy, the team were relegated for the first time in their history. It was to be 17 years before Torino were champions of Italy again – 27 years after the crash. At the end of that relegation season, Torino, facing financial problems, left their Stadio Filadelfia ground to ground share with city rivals Juventus. Today Torino are in Serie A but are side who regularly transfer between the top two divisions rather than battle for the championship.
As with any tragedy there are amazing escape stories and coincidences. Only one regular first team player didn’t go to Lisbon – Sauro Toma had a knee injury. Hungarian Ladislao Kubala had agreed to “guest” for Torino in the testimonial but pulled out because his son was ill. Kubala went onto star for FC Barcelona and in 1999, the clubs centenary year, was voted the Catalans greatest ever player. In 1967 Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional hosted the European Cup Final between Celtic and Inter Milan. Though Celtic won that day, Inter Milans goal was scored by Sandro Mazzola – on the very ground where his father Valentino had played his last game for Il Grande Torino eighteen years earlier.
There is no doubt that there will be little, if any, media mention of the Superga tragedy this week. But unlike Munich and unlike Hillsborough this was a tragedy that destroyed a great club.