Torino FC are a club still in mourning. Known internationally for being ‘the other’ Turin side owing to the success of their neighbours, footballing giants Juventus, many Italians will tell you that the best side ever produced in the city donned the maroon of Il Toro. The Great Torino, or Il Grande Torino, of the 1940s are one of the most acclaimed sides in European football history. Emerging with the country still under the grips of fascism, this outstanding Torino side came to symbolise a new Italy, uniting a divided nation in awe during a period of dominance which would see them win five Scudetti in a row. Torino players featured heavily in the Italian national sides of the late 1940s, who were tipped by many as favourites to retain their title at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. This made the tragedy at the Basilica of Superga in 1949 all the more profound, for when the team’s aircraft collided with a wall on the outskirts of Turin, so many were denied their main source of optimism in the bleak post-war era. 300,000 lined the streets for a public funeral during an outpouring of grief unprecedented in European sport and one from which Torino have never fully been able to recover.
While they had enjoyed brief success as inaugural winners of the Copa Italia, pre-1939 Torino were far from outstanding. This was to change in 1939, when local industrialist and former Torino player Ferruccio Novo became club owner. As President Novo remodelled Torino, with the club’s structure and tactics heavily influenced by Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal. Ernest Ebstein was employed as Technical Director, and Englishman Leslie Lievesley employed as Coach. Despite Italy’s June 1940 entrance into the Second World War Calcio did not initially cease in the country, such was Mussolini’s confidence in a rapid victory. As such, Novo’s project proceeded uninterrupted, with players avoiding draft into military service by registering as workers in essential industries, notably within Turin’s FIAT factory. The first evidence of this substantial financial backing came in 1941 as players such as Guglielmo Gabetto and Felice Borel were purchased from rivals Juventus at the start of a league campaign which would see the side finish in 2nd place. The real foundations of success were not laid however until July 1942, when Valentino Mazzola signed from Venezia. Mazzola is heralded by some as the greatest Italian footballer of all time, and would score 118 goals in 195 for the club during its greatest period of success.
Led by the talismanic Mazzola, Torino won their first Scudetto at the end of the 1942/43 season. The emergence of this dominant side was disrupted by the reality of global conflict as the 1943/44 and 44/45 Serie A tournaments were cancelled. The Allies had invaded ‘the soft underbelly of Europe’ in 1943 and the nation was in a virtual state of civil war. Bombing of infrastructure prevented regular transport or communication, while fierce German resistance at the Gothic Line, a network of defensive fortifications, effectively separated the north of the country from the south. This division was prevalent within football once the war was over, as the 45/46 league system was divided between the north and south, with the top four teams from each playing in a final table. Torino had started the campaign with the purchase of goalkeeper Valerio Bacigalupo from Savona, who would go on to become an icon of Il Toro. Despite the strange composition of the league system, Torino won the 45/46 Serie A, beating local rivals Juve by one point. Midfielder Danilo Martelli signed at the start of the 46/47 campaign, which was won by ten points with Mazzola as top goal scorer. The 47/48 Serie A was even more impressiv, as the club won the league by 16 points – back when a win was worth just two points – scoring 125 goals. Such was the team’s dominance that during a 1947 friendly against a strong Hungary team, all ten Italian outfield players played for Torino. The side was a national phenomenon, gaining the nickname Il Grande Torino ‘The Great Torino’, with Mazzola and co providing much needed entertainment to a nation uprooted by fascism.
While not as dominant during the 48/49 season, Torino were still the nation’s outstanding team, and were four points ahead of 2nd place Inter Milan with four games to go when they travelled to Lisbon for a friendly. Almost the entire club had travelled to take part in the benefit match – lost four goals to three – for Benfica and Portugal Captain Francisco Ferriera. The only notable exceptions were Sauro Toma, who was suffering from an injured knee, reserve goalkeeper Renato Gandolfi, and President Ferruccio Novo, who had a case of influenza. While returning to Turin, the aircraft Torino were travelling in is understood to have suffered with a malfunctioning altimeter. As a result, the pilot was much lower than he believed upon descending, and the plane crashed into a wall at the back of the Superga Basilica in the outskirts of Turin. There were no survivors. Such was the shock of the tragedy that Italian Parliament was suspended, and 300,000 people lined the streets of Turin in mourning. Torino were declared Italian champions, their 5th scudetto in a row, with the remaining fixtures played by the youth team.
While Ferruccio Novo tried to replicate his late, legendary team, frantic recruitment could not replicate the outstanding quality of the Great Torino. The team finished 6th during the 49/50 season, with rivals Juve claiming the Scudetto. In 1950 an Italian national team formerly so dependent on Torino for its players travelled to Brazil for the World Cup. With the memory of Superga still fresh, the team travelled two weeks by boat rather than using air transport. The Italians were knocked out in the group stages following a 3-2 loss to Sweden and a 2-0 win over Paraguay, with new Torino signing Carapellese scoring in both games. The remainder of the 1950s saw a slow decline, with Il Toro relegated to Serie B in 1959. The ecstasy of a Copa Italia win in 1967 was cruelly punctured by the death of star player Gigi Meroni, the maroon butterfly, who was killed while crossing the road. The depression following the club briefly subsided in 1976 when the club won its only post-Superga Scudetto, edging Juventus by two points. Relegation in 88/89, a UEFA Cup Final loss to Ajax and relegation again in 99/00 preceded bankruptcy in 2005, after which Torino Calcio were dissolved and reformed as Torino FC.
The Superga Disaster robbed the world of a truly incredible football team. Aside from the club president and two injured players, Il Grande Torino were effectively wiped from existence at a time when they were dominating the national league and establishing themselves as a European giant. While the 1958 Munich Air Disaster tragically ended the lives of a number of sublimely talented footballers, the foundations of Manchester United remained, and were built upon leading to European Cup glory in 1968. The affect upon Torino was arguably more profound, as they were left with no such foundations, and a nation was denied a source of much needed pride in the bleak post-war era. Robbed of these foundations, the club has never been able to replicate the successes of the 1940’s, while neighbouring Juventus have gone on to become giants of world football. Despite nearly 70 years passing, the memory of Il Grande Torino and thoughts of what could have been, not just for Torino but for the landscape of Italian and European football, continue to define the club.
Cover Photo and body image: http://storiedicalcio.altervista.org