Tragedy of Superga, Torino squad 1949
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The Tragedy of Superga & Il Grande Torino: 75 Years On

The story of the 1949 air disaster that killed one of Italy’s greatest ever teams:

Stand at the back of Torino’s Curva Maratona, home of La Granata’s ultras, at the northern end of the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino, and you will be faced with a 180-degree revolving window between the present and the past. Looking to the pitch, you will see a collection of eleven players inhabiting the shirts of today’s iteration of Torino FC. Turn to gaze over the open balcony-style concourse at the top of the stand and you will be met with a picturesque view of the rolling hills that envelop Turin, but deep in the distance of this beautiful sight sits a painful site for all Torinese: the Basilica of Superga.

There, on the hilltop, is where the soul of ‘il Grande Torino’ lies and has done for exactly 75 years. It marks the origin story from which the club of today emanates. A club, if the same in name, is certainly not in spirit. It is where a premature end befell a football team, a story of legend and most importantly, the lives of 31 individuals who perished in the air disaster of May 4th, 1949—the Tragedy of Superga.

Superga, in both a physical and spiritual sense, symbolises the resting place of ‘Il Grande Torino’, the ‘Great Torino’ side that dominated Italian football in the 1940s.

The Basilica of Superga on the 75th anniversary of the tragedy
The Basilica of Superga on the 75th anniversary of the tragedy

Friday, May 3, 2024

Rarely will the symbolism on the pitch be as evocative of the club’s glorious but tragic history as it was on this particular Friday in Turin. The Torino players took to the field to face Bologna in a strikingly monochrome maroon shirt, untainted by sponsors’ and manufacturers’ logos, even with their iconic bull-shaped crest (‘il Toro’) melded into the single-shade fabric. On the eve of the 75th anniversary of Superga, all the stops were pulled out to honour the fallen greats, including this retro kit in homage to the shirt worn by the team in 1949, their final season.

The tragedy that claimed their lives all those years ago also robbed a football club of its future, deprived a fanbase of its heroes and a nation of its icons. Dozens of families lost their fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands. This is the story of one of the game’s greatest teams and one of the world’s most unfortunate clubs.

SUPERGA

When Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the celebrated French Enlightenment philosopher, visited the hill of Superga for the first time in 1728, he declared, “I have before me the most beautiful spectacle that can strike the human eye.” Duke Vittorio Amadeo II of Savoy constructed the magnificent Basilica to commemorate the Piemontese victory over the French in the bloody battle of 1706. It overlooks the sprawling cityscape of Turin, the endlessly winding River Po, and the jagged, snow-capped Alps on three sides. For its first 200 years in existence, it represented the pride of Piemonte (of which Turin is the capital) and became an icon of the city.

That would change on May 4th, 1949. Suddenly, Superga would be forever linked with one of the most profound aviation tragedies in Italian, and football history.

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“Have No Fear…” The view from Superga overlooking Turin

May 4th, 1949…

The AC Milan players could tell something was up. Returning from a game against Real Madrid, they ran into their Torinesi counterparts at Barcelona airport on a refuelling stop. Torino themselves were on the way back from Lisbon, where they had travelled to play Benfica, in the testimonial of Portugal captain Francisco Fereirra, who was friendly with Toro skipper Valentino Mazzola.

According to renowned Italian football journalist and historian Gianni Brera, Ferreira told Mazzola during a clash between Italy and Portugal in Genoa, on the 27th of March, that he would be honoured if Il Grande Torino would come to play in his testimonial. Mazzola accepted the request benevolently, as befitted his character, and asked only that Benfica cover the cost of the trip. Neither of the two men could have anticipated the catastrophic consequences this kind-hearted agreement would have.

Having shared a drink during this chance meeting at Barcelona airport, as Italian-football expert James Horncastle tells (in the ‘Golazzo’ episode dedicated to the tragedy), the AC Milan players were struck by just how exhausted the stars from Turin appeared. Understandable, perhaps, as a consequence of the added travel and sporting exertions after what had already been a long season nearing its end. There is a theory that the tiredness of the squad played a role in the decision to fly back to Turin rather than Milan Malpensa airport, which they had departed from, as was customary for such chartered flights, Horncastle continues. This was yet another chance occurrence that, ultimately, proved fatal.

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The Unthinkable

Turin was under siege by a thick layer of fog on that particular Wednesday evening, making flying difficult and reducing visibility to that of nighttime darkness. At 16:45, pilot Pierluigi Meroni communicated to air traffic control that the plane was beginning its descent and was set to land in 20 minutes.

At 17:02, Meroni received a weather report from the tower. “Roger… thank you”, he responded. That was to be the last communication received. At 17:03, owing to the stormy conditions and impossible visibility, the plane’s wing clipped the side of the basilica and crashed into the mountainside. All 31 passengers were killed.

“An intense flash of light illuminated the misty air above Superga for a second and faded to a glow that lasted long after the impact”, writes Dominic Bliss. Amilcare Rocco, a bricklayer who lived at the foot of the towering hillside, had never heard a sound like it. “Oh Signore! What was it? What was that bang?” (translated from Tuttosport, 4/05/24). He began to climb up the hill and ran into the local priest, Don Tancredi Ricca. The two men ascended to the top to discover scenes of fiery devastation. Bodies, luggage, and aircraft fragments were strewn across a blazing hilltop that more resembled a hellscape.

As Giovanni Tosco details in a commemorative piece in Tuttosport (Turin’s primary newspaper), Don Ricca sees a preserved wallet amongst the wreckage, picks it up and reads a name that makes his blood run cold. “Valerio Baciagalupo”. The Torino goalkeeper. Moments later, “That’s Maroso!” exclaimed an older gentleman shielding himself from the elements under an umbrella, identifying Virgilio Maroso, a Torino full-back who was only 23 years old. A haunting realisation dawned. As the inquisitive crowd at the scene grew, so did the fear.

Fear turned to shock as a suitcase was pulled from the debris. Inside were football shirts of the iconic ‘Granata’ colour, each adorned with an Italian tricolour on the chest—the insignia bestowed only on the Champions.

“It’s Torino! It’s Torino!” were the shouts that rose above the din. Screams of anguish and despair all of a sudden reverberated around the crash site, almost instantaneously flowing down through the fog-blocked hillside and echoing around the entire city. An echo that has never quite stopped ringing in Torino ears, penetrating their very soul for the last 75 years.

The unthinkable had happened. An imperceivable nightmare was now a harrowing reality in Turin. The team represented “the pride of an entire country” and a renewed sense of Italian identity and self-belief amidst the difficult, muddling chaos of the immediate postwar years. The team that overcame separation, war, and the Holocaust and had won five successive championships. The team that beat every team and every record. The team that the people enjoyed and enjoyed itself. It was no more. Il Grande Torino, gone from invincibility to simply… gone.

Eternal Heroes

It is said that there were over 500,000 people on the streets of Turin for the public funeral that took place honouring the 31 victims of the crash. A ceremony that was infused with overwhelming sorrow also included a coronation as the head of the Italian football association, Ottorino Barassi, declared Il Grande Torino champions for the fifth and final time.

Turning to face the coffin of captain Valentino Mazzola, he mournfully addressed the departed hero of the Italian game, “This is the cup, the fifth cup; smile. It is a great cup. Torino’s cup. Look at it. It is so great that I cannot see where it ends. As big as the world. It contains the hearts of all the world. Feel these hearts as they throb. Feel them. Listen to them, Valentino. God bless you…” (from Dominic Bliss’ book ‘Erbstein’).

Amongst the sea of mourning was Valentino’s son, Sandro Mazzola, who would follow in his father’s footballing footsteps and himself become an icon of another of Italy’s great teams, that of ‘Il Grande Inter’ in the 1960s. In 1949, though, he was a six-year-old boy who had just had his world turned upside down. In an instant, the routine of walking out onto the field at the Stadio Filadelfia on matchday, hand in hand with his father, to the adoring applause of the Granata crowd, vanished into the past. Speaking to Tuttosport from his home on the outskirts of Milan, now at the age of 81, Sandro recalls how “suddenly in 1949, my life went from heaven to hell.”

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He also reveals that, if it weren’t for the death of his father, he would have become a Torino player rather than joining Inter (where he won a European Cup, beating Benfica in the final, Valentino’s last ever opponent).

Azzurri Granata

The elder Mazzola was the brightest light in a team of shining stars. Such was the supremacy of that Toro side that they not only dominated Italian ‘calcio’ domestically but internationally too. ‘Il Grande Torino’ did its best to turn the national team into ‘La Grande Italia’ given the stranglehold they held on the Nazionale squad, to the extent that, in a 1947 match against Hungary, all 10 outfielders were La Granata players.

Naturally, they formed a strong bond with Italy’s head coach and two-time World Cup winner, Vittorio Pozzo. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the crash, Pozzo appeared up at Superga, as if via supernatural teleportation, where, amidst the apocalyptic chaos, it was left to him to solemnly identify the bodies of the dead. Until, that was, he found the remains of the Torino captain, when even for a man of such reserved diplomatic stoicism, it became too much. The sudden tears of Pozzo, staring at the soulless body of the national team’s heart, were the definitive confirmation of Valentino Mazzola’s death.

The Home of Champions

If ever Il Grande Toro needed a goal or simply wished to turn on the style, there were subtle cues that have since become stories of legend passed down through Torinese folklore. To send the message that it was time to put on a show, Mazzola would simply roll up the sleeves of his jersey, indicating to his teammates, the opposition, and those in the Filadelfia crowd that a storm was coming. There also exists the tale of the stationmaster who would ring his bell from the stands whenever he felt the team ought to turn it up a notch.

Whether winning, drawing or losing (which wasn’t often), they duly obliged. However regular or infrequent these incidents may have been, the fact that Torino went an astonishing 93 games unbeaten at the ‘Fila’ from 1943 to 1949 certainly crystallises these moments of almost fairytale mysticism into the consciousness.

Although the club moved down the road to the larger Stadio Comunale in 1963, the Filadelfia has long since remained La Granata’s spiritual home. It sat derelict for decades but has recently been converted into a training centre and youth team hub. It may be generally unrecognisable from the footballing cauldron it represented in the 1940s, but some of the old turnstiles and a chunk of the original curva have been preserved to this day as relics of the golden era. Memories of the all-conquering giants that once roamed the ‘Fila’ turf spill out of the crumbling concrete, their legacy eternally embedded in the soil of their former, yet everlasting, home.

The preserved piece of the famous curva at the Filadelfia
The preserved piece of the famous curva at the Filadelfia

Nevertheless, reminders of their untimely demise are inescapable. From three sides of the rebuilt stadium, looming beyond the right corner flag at the north end and protruding from the rural horizon where the forested green hills meet the Piemontese sky, the Basilica of Superga taunts from a distance. On May 4, 1949, the fog obstructed this view. A grey cloud never fully lifted from Filadelfia after that day.

The Basilica of Superga, visible from the Filadelfia.
The Basilica of Superga, visible from the Filadelfia.

The Architect

The indomitable force of Il Grande Torino swept its way to five consecutive Scudetti between 1943 and 1949, allowing for two suspended seasons due to the war, which underlines the team’s incredible journey through hardship to immense sporting success. For none of the group was this period more arduous, filled with greater threat and turmoil than for Erno ‘Egri’ Erbstein, Il Grande Torino’s legendary manager.

The Hungarian coach had already established his managerial credentials in a series of roles in Italy during the 1930s, following a distinguished playing career that included a stint in New York. By 1938, however, he was forced to flee the country and return to his native Budapest. This followed the fascist government’s publication of the Manifesto of Race, Italy’s equivalent of the Nurenberg Laws, which stripped Jews of citizenship and ignited years of persecution.

As it transpired, systemised antisemitism soon caught up with Erbstein in Budapest after the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944. Erbstein, like all Hungarian Jews, was forced to submit himself to a labour camp in his homeland, which involved separation from his wife Jolàn and his two daughters Susanna and Martha, who themselves went into hiding.

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As the Nazi killing machine accelerated the execution of its ‘Final Solution’, 12,000 people were being transported from Hungary to Auschwitz on cramped trains every day, according to Dominic Bliss. Erbstein miraculously managed to escape one of these trains, alongside a fellow Jewish-Hungarian coaching legend: Belà Guttmann, who would go on to lift the European Cup with Benfica (again, the final team Erbstein would ever face).

It is said that ‘Egri’, his nickname, stayed in contact with Feruccio Novo, an ex-Granata player turned industrial magnate and Torino owner, during the war years, even making illicit trips to Venice and possibly Turin at severe personal risk. The fact Erbstein survived the war was a miracle, never mind achieving the sporting success he did in the aftermath, adding yet another layer of allure and mystique to the Il Grande Torino tale.

Erbstein, much like the people of Turin, which had been part of the vast heartlands of both bloody fascist repression and Partisan resistance, emerged from years of brutality into the confused, hazy euphoria of the immediate postwar years.  In the days and weeks that followed May 4th, 1949, however, that simply began to seem like a brief interlude in a never-ending cycle of human tragedy.

The Afterlife

Since Superga, Torino has been a club that struggles with fatalism and a feeling of cursed helplessness. Whereas in the wake of the Munich air disaster, Manchester United eventually managed to return to their former glory, that has never appeared likely in Turin. A solitary Scudetto in 1976 helped sooth some sores but, in truth, it was a fleeting flash of light amidst decades under an unshakeable cloud. When the apparent heir to Valentino Mazzola, star player Gigi Meroni, was run over and killed after leaving bar in 1967 at the tender age of 24, Torinesi truly felt doomed never to escape this cycle of horror that had started with Superga.

The man behind the wheel that night was a 19-year-old Torino season ticketholder by the name of Attilo Romero, who reportedly even had a poster of Meroni, the new Granata icon, on his bedroom wall. Romero, bizarrely, became president of the club in the 1990s until their bankruptcy in 2005. Symbolism is an ever-present component in the history of Torino. Meroni, incidentally, was also the surname of the pilot of that ill-fated Fiat G-212 flight from Barcelona…

The Shrine to the victims at the crash site, just behind the Basilica
The Shrine to the victims at the crash site, just behind the Basilica

 75 years later…

Over the last seven decades, Torino has constantly been a club that looks backwards, in a starry-eyed nostalgia for the good old days, reminding itself of the fading memory of what it once was. Superga has taken on enormous spiritual, almost mythical, significance for La Granata. It has become a place of pilgrimage, never more so than on the 4th of May, when swathes of loyal supporters come from far and wide, sometimes even hiking up the hill, to honour the great team.

This year, on the 75th anniversary of the disaster, the Basilica’s courtyard was filled with thousands of Torino supporters, as well as a few sympathetic representatives of other clubs, including Fiorentina, Genoa, and River Plate. There were some famous faces too, as the entire current squad attended the service to honour their predecessors. The shrine, behind the back wall of the cathedral, dedicated to the victims of the crash, was brimming with people seeking to catch a glimpse of Alessandro Buongiorno, Toro vice captain and lauded academy product, fulfilling the role of reading aloud all 31 names of the dead in an especially poignant tradition.

 Il Grande Torino remain a firm symbol of identity and purpose for Torinesi everywhere, an everlasting attachment to the past that pervades to this day. An idealisation of what a football team should be. In the words of Vittorio Pozzo, “those that never saw them, could not possibly imagine the dynamism, the stylistic and spiritual togetherness that emanated from them when their unity was put to the test. They remain an example, a unique example to everyone, the great team of Torino, fallen at Superga.” Ever since 1949, Torino has been a club that lives in its past because its past didn’t live long enough.

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