x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Turin's heartbreak

Remember when... A tragedy that made an Italian football club a living monument.

The scene after the aircrash on the mountain of Superga, near the outskirts of Turin, which killed all the Torino players onboard.
The scene after the aircrash on the mountain of Superga, near the outskirts of Turin, which killed all the Torino players onboard.

There are so many "if onlys". If only the plane carrying the great Torino team had flown from Lisbon to the bigger airport in Milan, instead of the little one in Turin. If only Mazzola, Torino's "Captain Valentino", had stayed home to nurse his flu, as the early rumours after the crash said he had.

If only the Torino players had listened to the inner voices that had been warning them for years not to fly. They used to go around Turin by bike, but were almost alone among Italian teams of the day in flying to most away games. It added to their aura of modernity. After their friendly match in Lisbon they flew back to Italy. As the Fiat G212 plane approached a very foggy Turin, the pilot radioed to the ground staff that all was fine, and asked them to make him a coffee. Five minutes later he had crashed into the Superga church on a mountain overlooking Turin.

All 31 people on board, including the "Il Grande Torino" side, one of the most dominant teams in history, were dead. Sixty years on, "Superga" remains one of the core stories of Italian football. The crash happened at 5.05pm. Seven minutes later, writes the historian John Foot in his magisterial Calcio: A History of Italian Football: "A car screeched to a halt near to the restaurant which stood on a small square next to the Basilica.

"The driver said he needed to use the phone, urgently. "The journalist he spoke to at the national press agency refused to believe his story." Il Grande Torino were just about to clinch their fifth straight Italian title. A farmer recognised the remains of one of the two Ballarin brothers, by the red team shirt he wore even when off duty. Vittorio Pozzo, journalist and former manager of Italy, had to identify the other bodies, though some were beyond recognition.

"The Torino team is no more," Pozzo wrote in a passage for his newspaper La Stampa that same evening. "It has disappeared, it is burnt, it has exploded? the team died in action, like a group of shock troops in the war who left their trenches and never came back." For one game in 1947, Pozzo had picked a record 10 of them in his Italy squad. A sole "Toro" player survived: Sauro Toma had stayed home with a knee injury. Wandering blithely through Turin that afternoon, he came across a knot of people discussing the disaster. Someone began shouting, "Toma is alive! Toma is alive!"

Everyone looked at him in wonderment. "But," asks Toma in his book Me grand Turin, one of countless works inspired by Superga, "Can you be alive if you carry death in your heart?" Toma, who is now 83, still lives in Turin. He briefly tried to resume his career, but gave up in 1950, aged only 25. "I was worth nothing," he later explained, "because I was always thinking of my old mates. It ate energy."

Italian football took well over a decade to recover. AC Milan's victory in the European Cup in 1963 was the country's first major prize since the World Cup of 1938. In 1964 and 1965 Mazzola's son Sandro, who was six when he lost his father, won two European Cups with Inter. He dedicated them to Captain Valentino. Torino never recovered at all. The club became a living monument to Superga, stricken, getting relegated, once even going bankrupt. They were always unlucky.

Soon after the disaster, Italy's "economic miracle" began. Flocks of poor southern peasants took the train north and many ended up in Turin making cars for Fiat. Just then, the Juventus club had overtaken their stricken local rivals. Naturally most of the southern migrants began to follow Juve. They also transmitted the passion to their relatives down south. Juve grew into the best supported club in Italy. But in Italian memory, Il Grande Torino and Captain Valentino keep winning.