The date of May 4th will forever be associated with the greatest tragedy to strike an Italian football team, il Grande Torino. Over 70 years have passed since that tragic day in 1949, but one of the greatest Italian teams to ever grace a football pitch will never be forgotten.
The fortunes of Torino began to change back in 1939 when Ferruccio Novo took over the running of the club. They came close to winning their first Scudetto since 1928 in the 1941/42 season, when with just three games left to play, they held a one point lead over Roma. Torino had taken the top spot all for themselves with a 9-1 demolition of Atalanta on May 24th, but a week later, after taking the lead in Venice, defeat to third placed Venezia would cost them dearly.
A win over Triestina kept their title hopes alive until the last day of the season, but defeat in Florence coupled with Roma’s win over already relegated Modena meant they would have to wait for that elusive second league title. Torino had already invested well, bringing in Romeo Menti from Fiorentina and Guglielmo Gabetto from Juventus, but before the 1942/43 season they signed both Valentino Mazzola and Ezio Loik from Venezia.
The start to the new season didn’t quite meet expectations, losing to both Ambrosiana-Inter and Livorno. Livorno would turn out to be their main title rivals that campaign. After those opening two defeats, Torino turned on the style. They won the Turin derby away to neighbours Juventus, 5-2, and then won the next four games, including a 4-0 win away to Roma and a 5-0 victory over Fiorentina. At the half-way point they were level at the top with Livorno before another defeat to Ambrosiana allowed Livorno to open a gap again. When the top two met in Livorno the game ended in a scoreless draw. It was again a win over Atalanta with three games left to play that saw Torino eventually overtake their title rivals after their defeat to Roma.
Both sides won all three remaining games, and Torino won the Serie A title with one point to spare over Livorno. At the end of May, they also won the Coppa Italia with a 4-0 win over Venezia at the San Siro, becoming the first Italian side to win the league and cup double.
Torino would surely have added to their Scudetto wins but for the eventual interruption of Serie A because of the Second World War. Now came a gap of 2 and a half years, when teams took part in friendly games and non-official competitions. It also saw some players temporarily join other clubs, mainly due to the difficulties in travelling and wanting to be with their families. Luigi Griffanti, the Fiorentina goalkeeper, was one of those who played with Torino during this period, along with Silvio Piola of Lazio, top scorer in the league when Torino won the title. Romeo Menti was one of those who left Torino, joining Milan first, but by the time Serie A kicked off again in October 1945 he had re-joined his former club Fiorentina on loan.
The 1945/46 season saw Serie A divided into two initial groups, with those from the north of Italy competing in one and the clubs from the central and southern Italy in the other. Torino lost their opening game at Juventus, with Piola scoring the winner from the penalty spot, but they still went on to top their group, ahead of Inter, Juventus, and Milan. Napoli, Bari, Roma, and Livorno qualified from the other group to contest the final group to decide the league winners. Fiorentina missed out, finishing in fifth place.
The title would go down to a battle between Torino and Juventus. Torino won their opening five games, including a 7-0 win over Roma, but a Piola penalty again saw Juventus come out on top in the derby game. Torino still held a two point lead, but defeat to Milan saw Juventus join them level at the top. In July Torino suffered a 6-2 defeat at Inter which allowed Juventus move clear with just two games remaining. The first of those brought another Turin derby, this time at the Filadelfia former Juve player Gabetto scored the only goal of the game, and the two sides were level again going into the final game of the season. The last day saw Torino at home to Livorno, while Juventus travelled to take on Napoli. Against their former title rivals, Torino were being held at 1-1 up until five minutes before half-time, while they were still scoreless in Naples. Torino then ran riot, they were 3-1 up at the break, and went on to win 9-1 in the end. Juventus, meanwhile, had fallen behind to Napoli, and although Silvio Piola levelled the tie, there were no further goals, and Torino had the league title again.
Luigi Ferrero was the Torino manager for that campaign, as he would be when they again won the title the following season before he went on to manage Fiorentina. In that third consecutive Scudetto season, Torino this time finished ten points ahead of nearest rivals Juventus. During their march to the title, they had recorded two resounding victories over Fiorentina, 4-0 in Florence and earlier in the season a 7-2 win in Turin. Romeo Menti was also back at Torino after his spell with the Viola. Valentino Mazzola was the league’s top scorer for that campaign, netting 29 goals.
The 1947/48 season saw 21 teams in Serie A, after Triestina were saved from their relegation. This saw an uneven number of teams in the division for the only time, and also meant an extra-long season, which didn’t end until July. When it did end, Torino were yet again champions, their fourth title in a row. This time Milan were their rivals for a long part of the season, but they fell away dramatically, and although Torino only took over the top spot after 30 games, they ended up with a 16 point gap over their nearest challengers.
That season they defeated Fiorentina again on both occasions, winning 5-0 at the Fiadelfia. That wasn’t their biggest win of the campaign, as they doubled that result against Alessandria on May 2nd, 1948. That 10-0 win is still the highest win ever recorded in Serie A. They had sealed the Scudetto win on May 30th, in an amazing comeback win over Lazio. Losing 3-0 after 20 minutes, Torino came back to win 4-3, Mazzola scoring the winner, as they wrapped up the title with four games still to play.
Before that season started, back in May 1947, Italy had played an international friendly against Hungary in Turin, at the Stadio Comunale, home to Juventus. The Italian side was made up of ten Torino players, the Juventus goalkeeper the only non-Torino member of the team. Gabetto scored twice and Ezio Loik netted the last-minute winner in a 3-2 victory, over a Hungarian side which included Ferenc Puskás.
That tragic 1948/49 season saw their title rivals change, Inter now the challengers, but the result remained the same. Before Christmas they had defeated Inter 4-2 followed by a scoreless draw away to Fiorentina. At the halfway point of the season, they held a two point lead over Genoa, with Inter and Lucchese a further point back. They then went unbeaten right up until the end of April and going into the game at the San Siro against Inter on April 30th, Torino held a four point advantage over their title rivals. That game ended scoreless, and with just four games remaining, Torino were surely about to retain their Serie A title yet again. Nobody knew at this stage, that it had been the last time the Great Torino side would play a game in Italy.
Back in March, Italy had won a friendly game in Madrid against Spain. Seven Torino players were on the pitch that day in a 3-1 win, and on May 22nd, Italy were due to play against Austria at Fiorentina’s Stadio Comunale. The Florence crowd would not get to see the Torino dominated Italian side, but there was one last international appearance for the Torino players to make.
In February 1949, Italy had defeated Portugal 4-1 in Genoa. Again, there were seven Torino players in the national side, with Mazzola captaining his team to victory over a Portugal side captained by Benfica’s Francisco Ferreira. A game was later arranged between Mazzola’s Torino and Ferreira’s Benfica, in a benefit game for the Portuguese player who had fallen on hard times. The match was scheduled for Tuesday May 3rd, and on Sunday May 1st, the squad, along with club officials and journalists, departed Malpensa airport in Milan for Lisbon.
The club president, Ferruccio Novo, was unable to travel because of illness. Mazzola, meanwhile, who had missed the game at Inter with fever and a sore throat, had just about recovered enough to make the trip. With just two goalkeepers making the journey to Lisbon, reserve keeper Renato Gandolfi gave up his place to third choice Dino Ballarin, after a request from Dino’s brother Aldo, a rock at the heart of the Torino defence since 1945. Another defender, Sauro Tomà, missed the trip because of a knee injury. Missing from the journalists who took the flight, was Vittorio Pozzo, former Italy manager, but also a former Torino player and manager. It seems he had fallen out with club owner Novo, and so he wasn’t included.
The game took place on the Tuesday afternoon, with 40,000 fans inside the Estádio Nacional. In what turned out to be a very entertaining game, Benfica came out on top, getting the better of a side who had played a massive league game on the Saturday before making the trip here to Lisbon. Franco Ossola opened the scoring, before Benfica took a 3-1 lead. French player, Émile Bongiorni then pulled one back before the break, having replaced Gabetto. Five minutes from the end Benfica stretched their lead, and a late penalty converted by Romeo Menti made it 4-3 the final score, Menti’s goal would be the last ever scored by this Torino team.
The two sides spent the evening together at a dinner, and Torino then decided to head back to Italy early the next morning. They were tired, and had an important game coming up on Sunday, at home to Fiorentina. At 9:40am, on Wednesday May 4th, the plane took off from Lisbon, and made a stop in Barcelona for refuelling. There they would end up meeting the Milan squad, who were on their way to play a friendly that day against Real Madrid. The plane took off again at 2:50 pm, but instead of returning to Malpensa as had been planned, a change was made, and they decided to land at the Turin airport.
In the La Stampa newspaper that morning, those back in Turin would have read the following: “This morning the Granate rose early to prepare for their return. In a few hours, the plane which brough to Lisbon officials, players, and journalists, will take off and then land at the Aeronautica in Turin, weather permitting, around 5 pm.” Those lines, at the end of the match report, were written by the journalist Luigi Cavallero, and he ended the piece with the following wish: “May the clouds and the winds be favourable for us, and not make us rock too much.”
The weather had been decidedly unseasonal in those first days of May, with Turin experiencing heavy rain and flooding. Over Savona, the plane headed north, and the destination was just a half an hour away. Over Turin, low clouds, heavy rain, strong winds, and poor visibility meant that flying conditions were far from ideal. At 4:55 pm the airport informed the flight crew of the weather conditions.
At 5:02 pm, the crew onboard made a last call to the airport to confirm the angle of approach to the runway. Whether it was the strong crosswinds which took them off course, or a malfunction in the altimeter, the plane took the wrong approach for the runway. A minute after that final call, the plane crashed into the embankment behind the Basilica on the Superga hills. At 5:05 pm the airport tried to call the plane again, but by now it had disintegrated on impact and gone up in flames. All 31 on board died instantly.
One of the main people responsible for identifying the bodies would be Vittorio Pozzo. One of the first to be identified was Romeo Menti, thanks to his Fiorentina brooch on his jacket. Eighteen Torino players lost their lives that day, Valerio Bacigalupo, brothers Aldo and Dino Ballarin, Émile 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, and Július Schubert.
Torino club officials on board were Arnaldo Agnisetta, Ippolito Civalleri, and Andrea Bonaiuti. The management and staff who died were Egri Erbstein, Leslie Lievesley, and Osvaldo Cortina. The pilot and crew who lost their lives were Pierluigi Meroni, Celeste D’Inca, Cesare Bianciardi, and Antonio Pangrazzi. The three journalists who died were Renato Casalbore, the founder and director of the Tuttosport newspaper, Renato Tosatti, of the Gazzetta del Popolo, and Luigi Cavallero, who wrotes those final words for La Stampa.
It was decided to award that season’s Serie A title to Torino, even though they hadn’t yet mathematically won the league. The final four games would be played by the club’s youth players, with the opposition teams doing the same. The funerals took place two days after the tragedy, with hundreds of thousands of shocked and heartbroken members of the public packing the streets of Turin to pay their final respects.
That Sunday, while the rest of the Serie A games continued as normal, Torino versus Fiorentina was postponed. The Torino youth players did pull on their jerseys though, and at 3 pm they went to the site of the crash to lay flowers. A week later they were in action, and they won all four games. One of the matches took place in Florence, before the international game between Italy and Austria. With the proceeds from the game going to the families of the victims, almost 90,000 people packed the Stadio Comunale on May 22nd, and they saw the Torino youths beat Palermo 3-0, before watching Italy defeat Austria 3-1. The final game of the season brought Fiorentina to Turin. Torino won 2-0, on June 12th, a day when most of the deceased Torino players would have been in Budapest as Italy took on Hungary.
Torino have managed to win one Scudetto since that great Torino era, along with three Coppa Italia trophies, but who knows what might have been. They would surely have added to their trophy haul, and if the European competitions had been around, then the whole continent would have seen one of the finest Italian sides there has ever been.