The history of football, like anything that hinges on so many disparate variables converging in one place, plays host to innumerable ‘what if?’ moments. For all the relentless analysis, the rigorous preparation, the untold fortunes poured into the modern game, it’s remarkable that so many matches, cups, even league titles boil down to one microscopic moment.
All the razzmatazz and showmanship of the sport nowadays may talk a big game, but football remains a game of inches. Some of these moments are bigger than others. On 4 May 1949, the course of Italian and quite possibly world football changed forever. Although no-one could have predicted for certain just how long-lasting this change would be, over 60 years later it has proved little short of irrevocable.
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An unusually thick fog had enveloped the city of Turin since morning, cloaking the skyline in an opaque veil. 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 the winding streets below, but on this day, the relatively 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 the murk choking visibility, he was thrown off course and began descending 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 quite possibly the greatest Italian club side of all time, venerated across the country with the eponym Il Grande Torino.
Genoa and Pro Vercelli had been the early pacesetters in Italian football, but the consolidation of Italian calcio with the formation of the national Serie A league in 1929 saw Juventus take a vice-like grip on proceedings, winning five titles in a row before sinking back into the lower reaches of the league and leaving Italy without a dominant force.
Unbeknownst to Juve, at their cross-town rivals the wheels were already in motion to rectify the situation. Former Torino player Ferruccio Novo had made his fortune after leaving the game as an industrial magnate, and in 1939 he bought the club and returned as president, bringing the same verve and acumen that had made him successful in the world of business combined with an unusual openness to new ideas. Just prior to Novo’s arrival, the club had made a perhaps even more significant acquisition in the form of Hungarian trainer Ernest Erbstein.
Novo was tearing up the received wisdom of decades of football management, and in Erbstein he found a willing accomplice, a man who, like Novo, wasn’t afraid of acting out against perceived truisms in the game that, when examined in a cold, clinical light, were simply impractical or illogical. Erbstein’s first season saw il Toro finish just four points behind champions Bologna, their best result in the new national league format. Taking inspiration from Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal on the suggestion of striker Felice Borel, Novo and Erbstein began implementing a W-M system that flew in the face of traditionally defensive Italian tactics. Concurrently, Novo was recruiting the players who would enable his team to utilise the system effectively.
The extensive work undertaken by Novo and Erbstein began to bear fruit during the Second World War, although the latter’s Jewish faith made him a target for persecution. He fled to his native Hungary after Mussolini issued the ‘Manifesto of Race’ in 1938 before being sent to a concentration camp, where, unlike millions of others, he managed to survive and returned to the team following the resolution of the conflict.
Meanwhile, another close-miss in the 1941-42 season was followed the next year by glory, as Torino captured both the scudetto and the Coppa Italia, the first time an Italian team had achieved the double. Torino hit the second most goals and boasted the most miserly defence that season, an undeniable vindication of the new system.
The victory was spurred by the arrival of two of Venezia’s star players, inside-right Ezio Loik and inside-left Valentino Mazzola, father of Inter legend Sandro. The pair arrived having put paid to Torino’s chances for the title with just three games to go in 1942, and had an equally seismic impact in the team as they had had against it.
Loik immediately became the team’s athletic engine, able to draw on apparently inexhaustible 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 teammates, he led by example on numerous occasions and was the capocannoniere (top scorer award) in the 1946-47 season with 29 goals. Mazzola has since been recognised as one of the first great footballers.
Ahead of them, Guglielmo Gabetto’s innate goal scoring ability was complemented by the searing pace and devastating 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, utilising a ferocious tackle to keep would-be marauders heading toward the Torino backline at bay. 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.
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Read | Valentino Mazzola: the legendary leader of Il Grande Torino
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For teams that were able to break through the fearsome, fiery midfield four, a veritable brick wall stood between them and the Torino net. Aldo Ballarin was a composed, no-nonsense full back, while his opposite number, Virgilio Maroso, was considered the rising star of the team, a cultured player who eschewed the traditionally functional brand of football espoused by players of his position in favour of a refined passing style. 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 and abetted by the team’s custodian, Valerio Bacigalupo, a phenomenal goalkeeper capable of the highest calibre saves and an immensely reassuring presence despite his relatively formative years.
Together, this group of players was all-conquering.
When football resumed after the war that had been so damaging to Italy’s national pride, citizens and infrastructure, it fell to the game to give the Italian people a reason to cheer again, and all fans, regardless of affiliation, took Il Grande Torino to their hearts.
With Erbstein back at the helm, Torino 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 a huge 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.
Away from club football, one of the squad’s crowning achievements was the manner in which they dominated the national team, with the high point being a 3-2 victory over the redoubtable Hungarians in 1947, when the only member of the starting XI not to be on the books of Torino was the goalkeeper.
With the Italian national team having won both the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, expectations were astronomical and the pressure to help repair Italy’s wounded pride immense, but the Torino players rose to meet the challenge just as they did all others. The 1948-49 season was following the script that the previous four had, with Torino so confident of recapturing their title that they agreed to a prestige friendly against Benfica in Lisbon despite the fact that the season had yet to conclude.
A respite from being Italy’s great entertainers was probably the reason for an uncharacteristically lackadaisical defensive display in a 4-3 loss, but it would have mattered little to a group of players (even Mazzola and Bacigalupo, notorious perfectionists) safe in the knowledge that they were in the process of rewriting the annals of Italian history. They boarded the plane home, with none of them envisaging that they had played their final game together.
The haze eventually lifted from the Turin sky, but it was replaced by one altogether more oppressive, bearing down on Italian football and shrouding the game in a darkness that will never dissipate fully. 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 its irrepressible beating heart, 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. Over half a million people watched the funeral procession snake through Turin, while tens of thousands more climbed to Superga. Torino were immediately declared winners of Serie A, but opted to continue the rest of the season with a youth team, an act reciprocated by their remaining opponents out of respect.
The similarities between Superga and the Munich Air Disaster are plentiful: a young team, beloved for their sense of style, endeavour and spirit, decimated before reaching their full potential. However, while Manchester United would emerge from the disaster to retake their mantle and rule again, fate had other plans for Torino.
Despite their domination of the 1940s and the mark they left on world football – the Dutch model of Total Football is said to have taken root in the free-flowing, interchangeable talents of Il Grande Torino – things would never be the same again. One solitary scudetto in 1976 aside, the club has been left in the shade of the long shadow cast by their lost team. Events since, such as the tragic early death of star winger Gigi Meroni in 1967, have only served to compound the sense of loss and fatalistic anguish that haunts the club.
By Matt Clough. Follow @MattJClough