by Dave Hartrick
4th May 1949. The squad of AC Torino sits aboard an Avio Linee Italiane Fiat G-212 plane returning from a testimonial game in Lisbon. Flying through some terrible weather conditions around the mountains of Turin, pilot Pierluigi Meroni appears to lose his bearings momentarily. Reports indicate that the plane is seen circling though the fog while trying to find a clear path to begin a descent.
Through heavy rain and low-hanging dark cloud, Meroni has to attempt his descent by losing altitude to improve visibility. On the hill at Superga sits the 18th century basilica, often used by pilots as a landmark. The small aircraft crashes into a wall at the back of the church and explodes on impact, luggage and wreckage strewn across a vast area and fires burning in defiance of the driving rain. Initial reports that there were no survivors proved correct.
With many of the victims only identifiable by retrieved documents and personal effects due to the intense fire, the realisation that it was ‘Il Grande Torino’ on the plane gradually sweeps across Italy. Late editions of newspapers carry the story and rivalries are set to one side in mourning not just Turin’s but the whole country’s loss.
AC Torino have become a symbol of Italy’s regeneration with the twin ghosts of Fascism and war still haunting the country, and with the Italians heavily favoured for the upcoming 1950 World Cup in Brazil, the Torino side would have provided the majority of its players. Most notably it would have provided its captain and stand-out character – the great Valentino Mazzola.
Now lost forever, Mazzola had been a huge figure in the Italian game, captaining Torino to four consecutive titles and just about to complete a fifth. Playing mostly at inside-left, he’d risen to prominence with Venezia before moving to Torino in 1942. His arrival and partnership with Ezio Loik is often cited as the beginning of Torino’s dominance.
In five title-winning seasons Mazzola would score over a hundred goals for Torino from midfield. A complicated but inspirational character, it was said that when he rolled up his sleeves it was a signal to both team mates and supporters that ‘Captain Valentino’ was about to attack.
Torino’s success was based around a blistering attack. In the season before their first title they’d finished second, just three points behind Roma. Over 30 games they’d scored 60 goals – five more than the champions, 20 more than third place Venezia. In their first title-winning campaign in 1942/43, Torino improved on that tally by 8. Playing with a four-man front line and adopting the basic principals of flexibility that would later become a hallmark of ‘total football’, they were both revolutionary and an irresistible force.
Mazzola and Loik were far from Torino’s only great players. Taking part in every one of the five title-winning campaigns with them were striker Guglielmo Gabetto, winger (and fan’s darling) Franco Ossola, and defender Giuseppe Grezer. All five lost their lives in the Superga tragedy. Torino also boasted international goalkeeper Valerio Bacigalupo, defender Aldo Ballarin (whose brother Dino was Torino’s reserve keeper and died with him at Superga) and Romeo Menti who scored their last goal in the game in Lisbon.
So talented was Torino’s squad, it provided the bulk of the national side for the latter part of the decade, regularly contributing as many as eight of the starting line-up. On one famous occasion in a friendly against Hungary every outfield player played for AC Torino.
Their first title in 1943 was fittingly sealed by Mazzola, his decisive late goal in the last game of the season against Bari securing the championship. In the same season they also won the Coppa Italia at a canter – scoring 20 goals in just five games and conceding none. The 1943/44 season was a non-event due to the effects of the war, but Torino finished second in an unofficial and mainly localised championship not recognised by the Italian FA.
By the time the competition proper began again in 1945 many teams had lost or gained players due to movements according to the war effort, but Torino’s squad remained largely untouched. Club President Ferruccio Novo told the authorities that each player was employed at his FIAT production plant to avoid a call-up and ensure that the nucleus of Il Grande was preserved.
Circumstance dictated that the league would be split into a Northern Italy and Central & Southern Italian Championship, the top four from each meeting in a final league. Torino won their regional group and in the national round of games were once again in imperious form. Having won 10 of their 13 matches scoring over 30 goals in the process, they just needed a one more home win to take the title. They responded by putting nine past Pro Livorno to take the Scudetto.
After two relatively narrow league titles, the 1946/47 season was a watershed moment. Il Grande truly earned their name, taking the title by 10 clear points from Juventus in second and losing only three games out of 38 played. They scored an incredible 104 goals, but almost as impressive was their defensive record – conceding less than a goal a game with just 35. Mazzola had played every minute of every game, become the league’s top scorer, and enraged his superiors by repeatedly demanding more money, well aware of his own importance to the club.
If that title had been seen as emphatic, 1948’s would be seen as outstanding. Torino broke their own records by earning two more points and scoring 125 goals. They recorded some huge victories, including a 10-0 against Alessandria, and in 20 home games they only failed to score three or more on four occasions. They finished a huge 16 points ahead of joint second-placed Milan, Juventus, and Triestina, Mazzola contributing 25 goals, Gabetto 23. It is also worth noting that over the course of the 40-game season Torino only used 15 players throughout.
During the fateful 1948/49 season they’d comfortably led the league throughout and looked to be heading for their fifth straight championship. After the Superga tragedy the remaining four games were fulfilled by Torino’s reserve and youth team players. With the country still reeling from such a high-profile tragedy, their opponents fielded their own reserves as a mark of respect.
The Italian Football Federation had awarded them the title anyway but in the first game after the crash, Torino beat Genoa 4-0 to retain the season’s unbeaten home record. In an emotional atmosphere a capacity crowd wept and sang together.
AC Torino would never again hit the heights that Il Grande achieved. The following season marked their decline as Juventus took the title and Torino finished sixth. A single further title in 1976 proved to be their last to date. The day after the league had been won there was a spontaneous march up to Superga by the club’s fans to pay their respects. The tradition continues today every May 4th and the site of the crash has become a shrine to those that lost their lives.
31 victims died that day at Superga and both AC Torino and the national side had lost its footballing heartbeat. Several myths and even conspiracy theories surround the crash, the players have now passed into folklore as the fans that once witnessed the great side have aged and passed away themselves. In those five glorious seasons Torino set record after record, took five Scudetti and showed the world a new way to play attacking and flowing football.
While it’s true that the Superga crash robbed the world of one of its greatest club sides ever, it’s important to note that ‘Il Grande Torino’ matter because of what they achieved in life, not their tragic deaths.