The Superga air crash is embedded in the psyche of Italian football in much the same way that the Munich air disaster is in the history of the English game. There are great similarities in the two tragedies: Torino were the dominant force in Italy during and after world war two, Manchester United were standing astride the Football League in the late 1950s.
Premature death can make “legends” out of sportsmen, entertainers and other artists, but you could argue that Torino’s squad of talented players – which formed the vast majority of the Italian national team – had achieved that status in their own lifetime. They were named, “Il Grande Torino” and little wonder: in five seasons, they scored 483 goals and conceded just 165. Between 1942-43 and 1948-49, they won Serie A five times, a period of dominance they have never been able to recapture. Since that fateful season, Torino have won the Italian title just once, in 1975-76.
The roots of success
Torino’s first successful period was built on the back of the Cinzano empire, winning Serie A in 1928 with an expensive and exciting team. A decade or so later, Torino were taken over by Ferruccio Novo, an industrialist with a taste for sport. Novo took the advice of the great Vittorio Pozzo, who had won two World Cups with Italy, and brought a team of people he could trust to the club. His technical adviser was Ernest Erbstein, a Hungarian Jew who survived the holocaust. Antonio Jani and Mario Spur had the experience of winning Serie A in 1928, while a Brit, Leslie Lievesley, was named youth coach.
In the early 1940s, with Italy embroiled in war, Novo started to bring top talent to Torino. World Cup winner Pietro Ferraris was signed from Ambrosiana-Inter for 250,000 Lire. Romeo Menti, a winger, came from Fiorentina for another big fee. But what really created a stir in Turin was the acquisition of three Juventus players in goalkeeper Alfredo Bodoira, prolific forward Felice Borel and Guglielmo Gabetto, another forward who is the only player to win Serie A with both Turin clubs.
In 1941-42, Torino finished runners-up in Serie A, despite being unbeaten at home. But the seeds had been sown for the great team.
The Torino system
Novo was approached by Borel, a player with an eye for tactics and coaching, who suggested that Torino should try a different way of playing. Pozzo’s Italian World Cup winners had set the tone for Italian football, largely built on a sturdy defence and strength. What emerged from the discussion was known as the Sistem and was effectively a modified 3-4-3 formation, although to many, it appeared to be a flexible 4-2-4. Whatever it was, Torino’s style was very much a forerunner of the Dutch “Total Football” of the 1970s.
A lot depended on the Trojan-like Mario Rigamonti, the centre half in the WM formation. Rigamonti had joined Torino in 1941 from Brescia. Mostly, the team played with four in midfield, forming a “square”. Flexibility was the watchword, with players switching positions when the occasion required. It was a very modern strategy, years ahead of its time. Very few teams could deal with it and, as a result, Torino comfortably won the Scudetto in 1943, 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1949.
Key to Torino’s success were two players who had been the talk of Italy in 1942: Ezio Loik and Valentino Mazzola of Venezia. Both made their debuts for Italy on April 5, 1942 against Croatia and a few days later, they would both be on the scoresheet as the “Azzurri” beat Spain 4-0. It was actually Italy’s last international for more than three years, when both players, now Torino’s property, lined-up for their country once more.
Torino lured inside forwards Mazzola and Loik away from Venice for a combined fee of 1.4 million Lira. Loik could be a difficult, reflective character and Mazzola was often explosive and bad tempered, in stark contrast to his off-pitch demeanour. His trademark was to nervously roll his sleeves up at the start of a game, which made him a great favourite of the crowd at Torino’s Filadelfia stadium. As a duo, operating as a pair of central midfielder in the Sistema, Loik and Mazzola – the father of the great Sandro Mazzola – were unstoppable.
Title after title
After the war, Italy was on its knees and football provided some consolation to a downtrodden nation. Torino won a Serie A competition in 1945-46, but in reality the 1946-47 campaign was the first proper post-war season. Torino won the title with a 10-point margin over their city rivals, Juve, scoring 104 goals in 38 games.
Torino’s influence on Italian football was immense. It was said that Novo paid his players huge sums of money to keep the them happy. Although Novo denied this, it was rumoured that Torino players could earn up to 30,000 Lira for a victory when the average wage in Italy was around 1,000 Lira a month.
But the extent of Torino’s stranglehold on Italian football was illustrated on May 11, 1947 when Italy beat a highly-fancied Hungary side – Puskas and all – by 3-2 in Turin. The entire team was drawn from the host city, but 10 were from Torino: Ballarin, Maroso, Grezar, Rigamonti, Castigliano, Menti, Loik, Gabetto, Mazzola and Ferraris. Only goalkeeper Sentimenti was from Juventus.
The following year, Torino won Serie A with a 16-point margin over Milan, netting 125 goals. The 1948-49 season, the great Torino team’s last, started with a win against Pro Patria but in the second game, they were beaten 2-3 at Atalanta. But by the time they won the first Turin derby of the season, in October, the team was hitting its stride.
They lost just three games – in addition to the Atalanta defeat, they were beaten at Milan (0-1) and Gena (0-3). But they beat closest rivals, Inter, 4-2 at home in an exciting game and drew 0-0 away. They also completed the double over Juve. Only one team, Triestina, avoided defeat at the Filadelfia, and that was a 1-1 draw.
May 4, 1949…and we shall never know
Torino were on the verge of winning Serie A after an 18-game unbeaten run, and were invited to play Benfica for a friendly game. They returned home from Lisbon to bad weathe. The crash, into mountain at Superga, killed the entire squad. It was a disaster that stunned Italy. Arguably, Torino football club has never recovered from it. It stopped the club in its tracks.
Italy’s World Cup bid in 1950 was also derailed, although they travelled to Brazil. Torino played in the inaugural Latin Cup in 1949, but it was not the team that captured the imagination of a war-torn nation. In 1949-50, Torino finished sixth in Serie A, in 1951, they were 15th and in 1959, the decline was complete – relegation.
A few years earlier, in 1955, the European Cup was born, but Torino were nowhere to be seen – Milan were now the Italian champions. Life is full of ifs and buts, but if things had been different and if the weather had been kinder on May 4, 1949, it’s a fair bet that Il Toro – the Bull – would have featured among Europe’s elite clubs.