KEIR RADNEDGE in MILAN —– Sauro Toma, the footballer who ‘escaped’ the 1949 Superga air disaster which wiped out Il Grande Torino, has died at the age of 92.

Toma was a reserve fullback with the club on the brink of winning a fifth successive Italian championsip when the first-team squad flew to Lisbon to play a testimonial match for the Benfica captain Francisco Ferreira.

Sauro Toma . . . the player and the veteran

On the return flight the aircraft crashed into the walls of the Superga basilica above Turin on May 4, 1949. All on board were killed including 18 players, team officials and crew.

The Italian league subsequently designated Torino as seasonal champions and the club played out the remaining three games with their youth team.

Toma, who had joined Torino in 1947 from Spezia, missed the trip because of a knee injury. Fate meant he had the sorrowful task of accompanying national team manager Vittorio Pozzo to the mortuary to help identify the bodies of his team-mates including his close friend and captain Valentino Mazzola.

Memorial stadia

Toma played 40 games for the club over three seasons before winding down his career with lower division Brescia, Carrarese and Bari. He said later he felt compelling to leave the club because he felt ‘guilty’ at being a survivor. Toma retired in 1955.

Football stadia all over Italy bear the names of the players who were killed to testify that Il Grande Torino had been admired the entire length of the peninsula.

A glance at Italy’s international matches from those years shows just how Torino dominated Calcio. The starting line-up in the Azzurri’s last international before the disaster, against Spain on March 27, 1949, included six Torino players.

Earlier, when Italy met Hungary in May, 1947, Torino provided a then-unprecedented 10 players, the entire outfield unit. The odd man out was goalkeeper Lucidio Sentimenti from Juventus.

Since then Torino have never produced a team of similar quality or achievement. Ten years after the air crash Torino were relegated and they have bounced up and down between Serie A and Serie B ever since.

Juventus may be more popular of the two Turin clubs across Italy but Torino claim to be the more popular club in Turin. Down the years their imports included a number of British players – including Tottenham’s Tony Marchi in the 1950s and then Joe Baker, Denis Law and Gerry Hitchens in the early 1960s.

Later imports were headed by the likes of Uruguay’s Enzo Francescoli – Zinedine Zidane’s boyhood hero – as well as Belgium’s Enzo Scifo while Italian favourites included the 1982 World Cup-winner Francesco Graziani.

After 1949 Torino had to wait until 1976 to take their one and only post-Superga championship and they reached their only European final in 1992, losing on the away goals rule to Ajax in the two-leg final after two draws.

** Sauro Toma, born December 4, 1925, died April 10, 2018.

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