Only Fate could beat them

Superga air disaster: Il Grande Torino

On the 4th of May, in 1949, Italy experienced a tragedy that shook not just the country but also the entire football world. The Torino Football Club lost its most formidable squad, Il Grande Torino, in a plane crash. The Superga air disaster robbed Italy of one of its greatest teams. Like all fatal misfortunes involving famous sportspersons and celebrities, interest in the tragedy extended well beyond sports media.The team was coming back from Lisbon after playing a friendly match with Benfica in honour of Francisco Ferreira, the Portuguese captain. Valentino Mazzola, the Torino team captain, had met Ferreira in Genoa during a game between Italy and Portugal. Ferreira asked Mazzola to play a friendly against his side, Benfica, as a farewell tribute to him. The match was then set for Tuesday the 3rd of May, 1949. Torino had to move forward, their game against Inter Milan to the 30th of April in order to accommodate the friendly match. Torino lost the game, 4-3 to Benfica, in front of a supportive crowd who applauded Ferreira who was to retire from football.The next day, the team began their journey back home. The Fiat G.212CP operated by Avio Linee Italiane left Lisbon at 9.40 am that morning for Barcelona. The Torino team crossed paths with AC Milan, who were also on a stopover on their way to Madrid. While the aircraft was being refuelled, the two groups had lunch together.The team then set off at 2.50 pm for Turin-Aeritalia Airport. The flight plan was to go over Cap de Creus, Toulon, Nice, Albenga and Savona before heading for Turin. The control tower communicated the weather situation to the pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Pierluigi Meroni, at 4.55 pm. 

The weather was windy and rainy, with low clouds and poor horizontal visibility of about 40 metres. Meroni replied to the control tower's message stating that they were 2000 metres above sea level and that they would cut at Superga. Supporters had already gathered in wait for their arrival at the airport and this report from the pilot made them feel less anxious considering the weather conditions. The pilot was supposed to be able to align with the runway at Aeritalia with the help of a radio beacon in Pino Torinese, but this didn't happen.

At 5.03 pm, the aircraft turned to the left and prepared for landing when it crashed into the hill of the Basilica of Superga. The Basilica of Superga was north of Pino Torinese at 669 metres above sea level. Contrary to what the pilot communicated, the aircraft was more likely closer to this height than 2000 metres. Also, the plane was not aligned with the runway. It is possible that the aircraft shifted from its intended axis of descent and instead aligned with the hill of Superga because of the strong crosswinds. Investigations into the possible causes of the crash have also suggested that the aircraft's altimeter malfunctioned and locked at 2000 metres. With the poor horizontal visibility, Meroni wouldn't have been able to see the Superga hill ahead of them, and would have believed it was now to the right of the aircraft until his final moment.

What is surely known is that the crash happened only three or four minutes after the final communication between the pilot and the control tower. The impact was frontal, and there were no signs of a late attempt to turn the aircraft away. Most of the aircraft disintegrated on impact and only part of the tail assembly was left visible. As expected, no one survived.

Former Italian national team manager Vittorio Pozzo and Roberto Copernico, a board member of the club, had to identify the players' bodies, which must have been a very uncomfortable task for them.

The aircraft was carrying in total, 31 people of which 18 of them were players. The players on the aircraft were: Valerio Bacigalupo, Aldo Ballarin, Dino Ballarin, Emilio Bongiorni, Eusebio Castigliano, Rubens Fadini, Gugliemo Gabetto, Ruggero Grava, Giuseppe Grezar, Ezio Loik, Virgilio Maroso, Danilo Martelli, Valentino Mazzola, Romeo Menti, Piero Operto, Franco Ossola, Mario Rigamonti, and Julius Schubert.

The victims also included Erno Egri Erbstein, the Hungarian refugee club manager; Leslie Lievesley, their English coach; Ottavio Cortina, the team's massage therapist; club executives: Arnaldo Agnisetta (general manager); Andrea Bonaiuiti (travel organiser); Ippolito Civalleri (travel escort); three well-known journalists: Renato Casalbore of Tuttosport; Renato Tosatti of La Gazzetta del Popolo; and Luigi Cavallero of La Stampa. The crew members Pierluigi Meroni, Celeste D'Inca (engineer), Cesare Biancardi (co-pilot) and Antonio Pangrazi (radio operator) also died in the crash.

Three players did not participate in the friendly match. These were the surviving members of the team. Renato Gandolfi, the team's reserve goalkeeper and Luigi Giuliano, a new player in Torino's first squad, did not travel with them. Also, Torino's defender, Sauro Toma, did not travel because of a knee injury.  He found out about the tragedy when a crowd of neighbours gathered in front of his home. For years, he felt guilty that he was not on board the ill-fated flight which took the lives of his teammates. He eventually passed away in 2018. Torino's president Ferrucio Novo did not travel because of bad pneumonia, while radio commentator Nicolo Carosio stayed back in Italy for his son's confirmation.

Even though the sense of loss was more strongly felt in Turin, the victims' identities became known all over the country and beyond as Torino were a pretty dominant squad. Around the time of the tragedy, they were enjoying their best run in history and had dominated Italian football since the early 1940s. The team had won four Scudetti (Serie A) that period, in 1943, 1946, 1947, and 1948. Amazingly, ten of Torino's starting line-up made up Italy's strongest national squad, the Squadra Azzura. Only the national team's goalkeeper was from Juventus.

They led the Italian Serie A that year and were headed for the title. The title would go on to be awarded to them posthumously. They never had the opportunity to win the European Football Championships as they had not even begun then. After the tragedy, the club never really got back to dominating Italian football and this may have served to preserve the adoration of the fans of the team that perished in the crash. Rebuilding of the squad lasted a long time and Torino could not win another championship until 1976.

After the tragedy, Torino was proclaimed Serie A winner of the 1948–1949 season. Torino and the other teams fielded their youth teams in the remaining games of the tournament. Many agree that had the tragedy not happened, Torino would have still won the title anyway as they were five points clear at the top of the league. At the time, it was said that only fate could beat the team. The following season, other Italian teams were asked to donate a player to Torino. The impact on Italy was so severe that the 1950 national squad travelled to Brazil by ship for the FIFA World Cup.

Two days after the tragedy, May 6 1949, more than half a million people turned out on the streets as it was the day of their funeral. Tributes were paid to their coffins which were lined up in Palazzo Madama in the centre of the Piazza Castello. It was a long procession in which solidarity was shown from all over the world. Members of all Italian teams and even foreign teams travelled for the funeral.

The crowd's pressure was so much that the police had to turn back the fans on several occasions as the people advanced to watch the procession. In attendance representing the Italian government was Giulio Andreotti, assistant Secretary of State in charge of entertainment (who would later become Prime Minister of Italy). The President of the Italian FA, the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC), Ottorino Barassi, was also in attendance.

The Italian media joined with the Italian people in mourning. The tragedy was covered for more than a week in thorough detail. The effect of the disaster really did extend beyond Italy. River Plate, the Argentine club, decided to organise a benefit match to raise funds for the crash victims' families. The executive committee of FIFA decided that all international games played on the 7th of May 1950 observe a minute of silence in memory of the Superga Disaster.

On the anniversary of the tragedy in 2008 (4th of May), a museum 'Museo del Grande Torino e della Leggenda Granata' was opened to commemorate the team. Remains of the aircraft are kept in the museum in Grugliasco near Turin. The personal bags of Mazzola, Maroso, and Erbstein are also preserved in the museum. Eleven of the 31 who died in the crash are buried at the Cimitero Monumentale of Turin, including the two coaches and Renato Casalbore. A memorial to the victims is also maintained at the Basilica wall. Every year thousands of people gather at the site where the crash occurred.

The tragedy strengthened the emotional bond the club's supporters had for their club. Torino's fans became intent on preserving the memory of the players who fell at Superga. This memory is now embedded in what it means to be a Torino fan. The Grande Torino will continue to maintain a mythical hold in the hearts of fans.


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