KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —– Some 70 years ago today – on May 4, 1949 – Italian football was cast into mourning by the Superga air disaster: the entire first-team squad of Torino, about to be crowned champions for the fifth successive time, had been wiped out when their plane hit the basilica wall above the city on May 4, 1949.
Torino had been returning from playing a testimonial match for Benfica captain Francisco Ferreira in Lisbon. Some 18 players were killed including the nucleus of the Italy team who would have been bound for Brazil the following year to defend the World Cup.
The dead included 10 Italian internationals, one Czechoslovak international and a French international. The 10 Italian internationals included Torino’s captain, insideleft and inspiration, Valentino Mazzola – father of 1960s and 1970s star, Sandro Mazzola.
One man to escape that destiny was the great Hungarian, Ladislav Kubala. He had fled Hungary and been offered a trial with Torino, against Benfica. His son was taken ill the day before and Kubala pulled out of the trip. Subsequently, he moved to Spain instead and became perhaps the greatest player in the history of Barcelona.
Il Toro – The Bull – have been through the mill since then. In the mid-1950s they were saved from financial collapse only by a biscuit company’s sponsorship. Numerous times now they have been relegated before climbing back into Serie A for the most recent attempt at stability in 2011.
Only once, in all that succeeding time since the air crash, have Torino been crowned champions, in 1976, but only after tragedy had struck once more when 1960s’ heart-throb forward Gigi Meroni was killed in a street accident.
Torino were formed by a merger of two clubs – Internazionale Torino, launched in 1890 and Football Club Torinese, launched in 1894. Both competed in the inaugural Italian championship in 1898, when Internazionale Torino lost in the Final against Genoa.
In 1900 Torinese swallowed up Internazionale; in 1906 Torinese merged with a group of dissident Juventus fans to form Football Club Torino.
The Italian league was launched in the mid-1920s and Torino won it in 1927 … only for the title to be cancelled because of a match-fixing scandal.
However one year later, as if to prove it had been no fix, Torino won the league for real. They regained top-dog status in 1943 for a war-interrupted run of five consecutive league titles which was extended in 1946, 1947, 1948 and in disaster-hit 1949.
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.
The last game — May 3, 1949:
Benfica 4 (Arsenio 2, Melão, Rogério), Torino 3 (Gabetto, Bongiorni, Menti) – Ref: Pearce (Eng)
Benfica: Contreiras – Jacinto, Fernandes – Moreira, Félix, Ferreira – Corona, Arsenio, Espírito Santo, Melão, Rogério.
Torino: Bacigalupo – Ballarin, Martelli – Castigliano, Rigamonti, Grezar – Menti, Loik, Gabetto (Bongiorni), Mazzola, Ossola.
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.
The following year they won the Italian cup for the fifth time. That was the last occasion on which their fans could celebrate a mainstream title. ‘Toro’ have also suffered from a variety of financial and corruption scandals down the years.
Not really what the club’s tradition deserves. But then, as so many other great old clubs have had to accept, tradition does not generate goals and points.