by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (April 30th 2009)
Juventus was the first of the major football clubs in Torino (Turin), but the threat of moving the Old Lady away from the city, led to an acrimonious split in 1906, led by Alfredo Dick, which resulted in the foundation of rivals, Torino. It would lead to contentious debates about the greatest team the city had spawned, but there really should not be an argument. Only one Turin club earned the moniker il Grande (the great) and it wasn’t Juventus.
The Bianconeri (the description of Juventus’ black and white kit) was the more successful club – undoubtedly the team of the 1930s, winning five consecutive Italian titles between 1930 and 1935, but the 40s belonged to their neighbours. Torino matched Juventus’ feat and could even have bettered it but for World War II. Il Grande Torino was perhaps the greatest football team ever; they certainly feature in any sensible discussion on the best club team that Italy ever produced.
But they missed out on European competition despite being known throughout Europe. The great Real Madrid team of the late 150s and early 60s had that competition to thrive in and il Grande Torino never had the television exposure current teams now enjoy. The fact that they are remembered and revered today over six decades after their last match despite this speaks volumes.
Skippered by the legendary play-maker, Valentino Mazzola, father of one of Italy’s best ever players Sandro, il Grande Torino set several records, winning five of Torino’s Serie A championships consecutively. A decade before Brasil made the football world take notice in 1958, il Grande Torino played an attacking brand of football that some believe was the precursor of total football exemplified by the Ajax team of the 1970s.
They won their first title in 1943 and picked up where they left off two years later, after football was interrupted by the war, although the impressive Hajduk Split team found a way to both spurn the invitation to join the Italian league and also join the Yugoslav partisans, demonstrating the power of football to effect social and political change. This was an early example of liberation football., which would become a potent weapon in Africa’s struggle for independence.
During the next four seasons, after Italian football resumed, Il Grande Torino set a still unsurpassed record of being unbeaten at home, which consisted of just ten draws out of 93 matches played. They scored a phenomenal 125 goals in the season of 1947-48 – the most in a season – and only conceded a miserly 33, amassing 65 points, when there were only two points for a win. They won the title by 16 points and had a goal difference that was 64 better than second placed Milan.
This was the best of the exceptional seasons that il Grande Torino played. They had all but won the league when they played their last match in Italy’s top division on April 30th 1949, but the team of the 1940s was robbed of the chance to prove that they were the greatest ever football team by tragedy on May 4th 1949.
Valentino Mazzola had helped to arrange a friendly match in Lisbon against Benfica for the Portuguese star Xico (Francisco Ferreira), who almost joined il Grande Torino. Having helped to arrange the match Mazzola felt obliged to play, despite being unwell. It cost the legendary Azzurri captain, who only played for his country twelve times, his life.
He was a gifted midfield general who directed play, but could defend as comfortably as he could initiate attacks. He was a complete player and, unusually, the divorced father remarried and got custody of the young Sandro, who became a great player for Internazionale in his own right in the 1960s.
Sandro’s Inter was even referred to as il Grande Inter. Ladislao Kubala, recently voted Barcelona’s greatest ever player, had been due to play as a guest in the match in Lisbon, but cancelled for family reasons. The record-breaking il Grande Torino’s last match ended in defeat, with the Italian international Romeo Mente scoring their last ever goal. Despite playing just five matches for the Azzurri, he bagged an impressive tally of seven goals.
On May 11th 1947 perhaps the greatest compliment that could be paid was given to il Grande Torino by the double World Cup winning manager of Italy, Vittorio Pozzo, whose selection of Lucidio Sentimenti made a weird bit of history. The Juventus shot-stopper was the only starter for Italy in the 3-2 win over Hungary who did not play for Torino. It is the only time that the starting eleven of the defending world champions consisted of ten players from the same team.
Pozzo began his coaching career with Torino for a dozen years before moving to AC Milan and then the Azzurri, which cemented his legacy. He was an authoritarian, but quit before tragedy ripped the heart out of il Grande Torino and the Italian national team.
Torino’s goalkeeper Valerio Bacigalupo was also an Italian international. He was rested for the match against Hungary. His first team was Savona, which named their stadium after him. He made his début for Italy in 1947, playing just five times before his untimely death aged just 25.
Il Grande Torino left Portugal for Torino, having just four matches of the Italian season left to play and leading the league by four points. Sadly one of the best teams that Italy ever produced was robbed of the opportunity to prove that they were the greatest team ever and play a part in Italy’s defence of the World Cup.
The Italian Airlines Fiat G212CP reached Barcelona from Lisbon without event, but encountered a thunderstorm and poor visibility, as it neared Turin, so the pilot decided to drop altitude, but clipped a wall near the eighteenth century Basilica of Superga. The plane crashed, killing all 31 people on board.
Valerio Bacigalupo, Aldo Ballarin, Dino Ballarin, Milo Bongiorni, Eusebio Castigliano, Rubens Fadini, Guglielmo Gabetto, Ruggero Grava, Pino Grezar, Ezio Loik, Virgilio Marosso, Danilo Martelli, Valentino Mazzola, Romeo Mente, Piero Operto, Franco Ossola, Mario Rigamonti and Julius Schubert – the entire il Grande Torino team with one exception, were killed in the crash.
Club officials, journalists and the crew also died at Superga. Xico was devastated and looked after the bereaved families as best he could. Only one member of that great team survived, Sauro Tomà, who missed the trip to Lisbon due to injury. Reserve goalkeeper, Renato Gandolfi also missed it. Tomà was fortunate if that is the right word. He was persuaded not to make the trip by his wife despite his eagerness to go and even play if possible.
It was an incredibly talented team; Gabetto was a striker of rare ability, one of only two players to win championships with both Juventus and Torino; he was 33 when he died. This team united Italian football. About half a million mourners attended the funerals. Juventus supporters in their team colours paid their respects, such was the appreciation of this great team. They were important to the whole of Italy; they still are.
The causes of the crash was said to be low clouds, poor radio aids and poor navigation. It was a preventable disaster that had a terrible impact on Italian football for many years to come. Il Grande Torino is remembered fondly for helping the nation recover from the ignominy and hardship of the Second World War.
It also had an effect on Italy’s defence of the World Cup, which they retained in France in 1938, after winning it in controversial fashion in 1934 on home soil. West Germany was banned, but FIFA was keen for Italy to defend their crown and assisted the Azzurri to come to South America. Twenty years earlier they had snubbed the inaugural tournament in Uruguay, partly due to the lengthy travelling time.
After Superga the Italian Football Association refused to allow the squad to fly, but the long journey by sea left them tired and short of practice. They exited the competition in the first round. The loss of the great Torino players had a major effect in the failed defence of their title as well. No team could lose such talent and replace them easily – Torino couldn’t and nor could the Azzurri.
The price paid by Torino was higher still. The disaster meant that Torino had no option but to field their Primavera (youth) team for the remaining four fixtures of the 1948-49 season. As a mark of respect for a fantastic team their opponents, Genoa: Palermo, Sampdoria and Fiorentina sportingly fielded their youth teams, which were defeated by Torino’s Primavera team.
Torino duly won the championship for that season, but the rot set in quickly. They struggled to survive in the top division as any team would, as they had to start from scratch. A decade later Torino was relegated. Although they returned, Torino had to wait until 1976 to win another Scudetto.
They lost the Italian Cup three years in a row in the early 1980s, but good as they were, there was no comparison to Il Grande Torino, which was irreplaceable and still commands a place in the hearts of all Torino fans and many Italians too sixty years after the disaster.
They will be remembered – rightly – as one of the greatest teams ever to play the beautiful game. Il Grande Torino was an innovative team that influenced the future development of football. Playing a 4-4-2 formation, inspired by the dynamic Valentino Mazzola, they paved the way for Brasil to win the first of their world titles in 1958 and arguably gave the world total football three decades earlier than its appearance in the Netherlands.
They also influenced the development of the Mighty Magyars who shook English football to its core six years after the Torino dominated Azzurri beat them. Il Grande Torino was remembered and appreciated by all true aficionados of sport on May 4th in a well attended annual commemoration at the Basilica at Superga.
They are still special to Torino and Italy. Empower-Sport Magazine attended this year’s commemoration to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the passing of that magnificent team, which but for the intervention of tragedy may have proved themselves to be the best club team ever to play the beautiful game.