The Italian Almanac

The Great Turin


The Great Turin

Soccer is a religion in Italy. And probably no more so than right here, on the crest of a hill overlooking the city, behind the glorious Basilica di Superga. This is where a propeller plane crashed in a swirl of fog around 5 p.m. on May 4, 1949, wiping out the pride of Italian football, the entire "Grand Torino Calcio'' squad that had won four national championships in that decade.

An epic tragedy 31 people dead, including 18 players so sweeping and sudden that all of Turin came to a dolorous halt. Half a million mourners would attend the mass funeral service. Torino Granata, as they were familiarly known for their blood-red jerseys, were returning from a friendly in Lisbon, organized by captain Valentino Mazzola.

The cause of the accident is as shrouded in mist as the mountain was on that fateful day. Poor weather is generally blamed. Yet there remain those who still believe that the team plane had been rerouted from Turin's main airport and sent to a smaller airfield along a flight path unfamiliar to the pilot. The murmured reason, so that the players could avoid paying duty on spirits and perfumes purchased in Portugal.

In the annals of sport, with its frequent and extensive flying, there have been surprisingly few such disasters. But, arguably, no city was as profoundly stricken by the loss of their heroic athletes than Turin, where the Granata were adored. Not only were the players idolized for their legendary skills, but in the hardscrabble years after the war with the country humiliated these soccer ragazzi provided an immense boost to public morale. Many of them were also on Italy's national squad and in 1949 the government awarded Turin the league championship anyway, as a gesture of respect.

team leader Valentino Mazzola with his son Sandro

The team was Il Grande Torino (The Great Turin), four-time defending national champion, one of the best clubs in the world. Back in May 1949, Torino was king of Italy's soccer world, on its way to a fifth straight championship with a roster of dazzling, popular players.

Juventus may be mighty but Torino was beloved. And they still are, despite just one championship title in 1976. A handful of mourners can be found on a grey and chilling Sunday morning, paying their respects at the monument erected at the rear of the Basilica a church where 61 members of the House of Savoy lie buried in the royal tombs at precisely where the plane hit the ground, just at the base of a brick wall marking the edge of the Basilica complex.

There are fresh flowers at the site and brittle wreaths left over from Christmas. Someone has tucked a hand-written note into a plastic pouch: "These colours will never perish.'' Graffiti scrawled into the stones declare Toro, Toro, Toro and Forza Toro. "After the crash, (the franchise) Torino never really rose again,'' says Artur Fencini, who wasn't even born when the accident occurred. "The rest of the world knows Juventus because they win all the time. They have the big money. But those of us who live here are faithful to Torino.''

Indeed, Juventus with their distinctive black and white stripes is often compared, without warmth, to Inter-Milan and Manchester United. Locally, they're the team embraced by more recent arrivals. Torino belongs to the deeply entrenched Torinesi, who are now in the minority. Government statistics indicate that only 90,000, in a city population of 900,000, have two native-born Turin parents.

Inside the basilica grounds, a museum in honour of the squad was opened a few years ago. It contains mementos and memorabilia from the actual team, including boots they'd worn and postcards sent home from Lisbon, as well as an entire replica of the changing room from the old Filadelfia stadium.