Superga Disaster: Calcio’s Greatest Tragedy

Whenever you are having a tough time, there is always someone worse off than you. So as a distraction from Milan’s current problems, and to honor the fallen on the anniversary of the disaster, I’m throwing back five years when I wrote this for the now defunct Italy World Cup Blog. Recently, Torino renamed their stadium “Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino” to forever remember the victims of calcio’s greatest tragedy.

The legends whose lives and legacy were cut tragically short

Long before Calciopoli or even World Cup 2010, there was a disaster that truly cut Italian football to the core, one in which 31 lives were lost. May 4th is the somber anniversary of the Torino Superga air disaster.

First, a little background. Some of you may not even know that there is another team in Turin, because they have spent too many seasons relegated to Serie B in recent years. But it wasn’t always like that. In the 1940’s, they were the light of the nation, known by everyone as “Il Grande Torino.”

Following World War I, when the world, and especially Italy, were in need of something positive, Torino president Ferrucio Novo set out to give Turin and all of Italy a team of heroes. He began by signing two best friends, Ezio “the Elephant” Loik and Valentino Mazzola in 1942. This was the first of many strokes of genius for Novo, laying the foundation for perhaps the greatest team ever.

Mazzola was to become the captain of Il Grande Torino, a midfielder of formidable skills. Fans recall that if the game was tough, he was the one to turn it around, and he always did. In five seasons with Torino, he had over 100 goals. He set a record in 1947 for the fastest hat trick, scoring all three goals within 180 seconds. He is quoted as saying “You can always win in football, as long as you change.” But he is also known for his son, Alessandro “Sandro” Mazzola, who went on to be a great footballer in his own right, playing for Inter.

Valentino and Sandro Mazzola

As Novo carefully built his superteam, the records started piling up. Records that would not even fit in a single post. Outside of 1944-1945 in which no championship was played due to World War II, i Granata won five straight Serie A titles, equaling Juventus’ run in the 1930’s. But that was just the beginning for this team.

Using a playing style that would become the foundation for the Netherlands’ Total Football, they dominated Serie A. In four seasons, they never lost at home. In fact, they set the record for consecutive wins at home, with 83, and an unbeaten at home record of 93 matches in which only 2 opponents kept clean sheets.

Their greatest away win was at Roma in the 1945-46 season, when they won 7-0, invoking the mercy rule after halftime, where they were up 6-0. Their greatest home win was vs. Alessandria in the 1947-48 season, a remarkable 10-0 victory. Their second season together set an unprecedented 20 game winning streak, and their fourth title was won with 16 points ahead of 2nd place Milan and with the most goals ever scored at home in a season, at 87 goals. In their five glorious seasons, they scored a whopping 483 goals, and only conceded 165. And this is only a few of their incredible records.

They made history before disaster struck

In addition to their dominance in Serie A, they formed the nucleus (and sometimes more than that) of the Azzurri team at the time. Torino players made up 10 of the 11 starters on the Azzurri in a friendly vs. Hungary in 1947. Rumor has it that Manager Vittorio Pozzo did not want to use all 11 starters from one club team, so he benched the Torino keeper, Valerio Bacigalupo, in favor of the 2nd string keeper from Juventus. They won this match 3-2 against a very strong Hungarian side.

But their success was brought to a tragic and screeching halt by a disaster felt around the world of football. The team had gone to Portugal to play a friendly with Benfica as a farewell for Xico Farreira. On May 4th, 1949, traveling home on a FIAT G-212 plane piloted by Pierluigi Meroni, low cloud cover and other factors led to poor visibility. They were attempting to reroute toward Milan when the plane struck the Basilica on Superga Hill in Torino.

All 31 passengers died.

An entire team taken out in a matter of seconds. The core of the Azzurri team, too. But more importantly, members of the community, sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers. All gone before their time.

A few who should have been on that plane, but weren’t: Sauro Tomá, who missed the friendly due to injury; László Kubula, who stayed in Portugal with his sick son; Luigi Giuliano, who was not able to obtain his passport in time for the trip; and club president Ferrucio Novo, who had been unable to travel with the team due to prior commitments. Some might say they were lucky, but these men had to live on with a grief that was nearly too much to bear and the thoughts of what might have been. Novo is noted as saying he wishes he had been on that plane that night, rather than live in the aftermath.

Hundreds of thousands came out to mourn the fallen heroes

Estimates for the number of people who turned out in the streets of Turin to honor the fallen heroes range from 300,000-500,000 mourners. The team meant so much to this community, particularly given the recent world events and how much they impacted the people. The team had been their light in a dark world, and now, they too, had been extinguished.

Il Grande Torino had already secured their fifth Scudetto by being ahead of Inter by 15 points, despite having four games left to play. FIGC President Ottorino Barassi spoke at the funeral and read the names of the players who were lost and said, “This is the fifth cup. Torino’s cup, and look how big it is. It is big because it is filled with the hearts of the world.”

Torino played their last 4 games that season, fielding an all Primavera team. Out of respect, opponents Genoa, Palermo, Sampdoria, and Fiorentina also fielded their Primavera teams. Torino’s youth won all 4 matches.

The disaster ripped a huge piece of history out of the book of calcio, as well the hearts of a community, a club, a country, and even the football world. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that Torino were able to be competitive again, and it would be over 20 years before they would win Serie A again. Still, they have never come close to achieving what this team had. Additionally, the Azzurri were forced to rebuild, and while they had been on the road to greatness after the wars, it would be 1982 before they won the World Cup again. The Stadio Filadelfia in Turin today sits in ruin, a vivid reminder that neither Torino nor Italian Calcio would ever fully recover from this devastating event.

The memorial plaque at the Basilica on Superga reads: (translated)

Torino Football Club
In memory
of its comrades
the glory of Italian sport
and those who died with them
in a tragic air disaster
4 May 1949

Valerio Bacigalupo
Aldo Ballarin
Dino Ballarin
Milo Bongiorni
Eusebio Castigliano
Rubens Fadini
Guglielmo Gabetto
Ruggero Grava
Giuseppe Grezar
Ezio Loik
Virgilio Maroso
Danilo Martelli
Valentino Mazzola
Romeo Menti
Piero Operto
Franco Ossola
Mario Rigamonti
Julius Schubert

Club officials
Arnaldo Agnisetta, manager
Ippolito Civalleri, manager
Egri Erbstein, trainer
Leslie Lievesley, coach
Ottavio Corina, masseur

Renato Casalbore, (founder of Tuttosport)
Luigi Cavallero, (La Stampa)
Renato Tosatti, (Gazzetta del Popolo)

Pierluigi Meroni, captain
Antonio Pangrazi
Celestino D'Inca
Cesare Biancardi

Andrea Bonaiuti, organiser

Perhaps the greatest team ever... now just memories

Our next match is
Bologna vs. Milan
Saturday, May 7th • 20:45 CEST (2:45pm EDT)

Superga Disaster: Calcio’s Greatest Tragedy Superga Disaster: Calcio’s Greatest Tragedy Reviewed by Elaine on 12:30 AM Rating: 5
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