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Die Unsterblichen - Il Grande Torino

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The Immortals

May 4, 2009, witnesses the 60th anniversary of the Superga air disaster, the most poignant and tragic moment in Italian football history. Peter Bourne reminisces

As posters for Clint Eastwood’s ‘Gran Torino’ are splashed over metro stations across Europe, the legend that is ‘Il Grande Torino’ is coming sharply back into focus across Italy.

May 4 is a significant day in the Italian football diary as it marks the painful anniversary of the country’s darkest sporting hour. The Superga air disaster has ensured that Il Grande Torino is not merely remembered as a football team. Nor simply as a great football team. But as a legend of almost mythical proportions. The three words ‘Il Grande Torino’ carry an enormous emotional weight not only for Toro supporters, but for all calcio lovers.

The heroes who perished when the Fiat G.212 plane crashed into the side of the Basilica of Superga, a monument built imposingly overlooking Turin by Filippo Juvarra as a celebration for a victory over the French army in the 1700s, remain alive in our minds, and forever young as athletes at the peak of their power.

That Torino team, on course for their fifth straight Serie A title – a record only shared with the Juventus team of the 1930s – is widely considered the greatest Italian club side ever. Of course, comparing teams across eras is a futile exercise, nevertheless Il Grande Torino stand not only as an example of sporting excellence but of pride, spirit and history.

The cornerstones of that team such as iconic captain Valentino Mazzola and forward Franco Ossola were everyday men who lived not only in the lives of their fans but amongst their fans.

The great Torino side were a symbol of Italy’s recovery from a barbaric and painful Second World War after which the country’s pride and mood were ravished following a humiliating defeat. This team helped in some way to forge a spirit of the new and young Italy.

The nature of the tragedy goes someway into revealing the significance of this side. In an era before European club football and with limited air travel, Il Grande Torino had already become the first Italian side to play a series of games in South America and were on their way back from a friendly against Benfica in Lisbon when tragedy struck.

The tie had been organised by Mazzola and his friend Jose Ferreira, captain of Benfica, who was marking his retirement from the game. Il Grande Torino had a global appeal and could also count Eva Peron, Argentina’s First Lady, as a supporter. Fittingly, the Granata were also the first Italian team to play outside of Italy following World War II – a friendly in Switzerland.

At 17:04 on May 4, 1949, the plane piloted by Pierluigi Meroni – a namesake of a Torino legend who died in a road accident 18 years later, the car driven by a future Torino President! – was forced to take a diversion to Milan due to the misty conditions and low clouds which prevented landing in Turin. However, the atrocious visibility led the pilot into a fateful crash into the hill just beneath the Basilica. There were no survivors.

The dead included all of the first team squad beside youngster Sauro Tomá, who missed the journey due to injury, and reserve ‘keeper Renato Gandolfi, who stayed in Turin as third choice goalkeeper Dino Ballarin was given the opportunity to travel with his older brother Aldo.

The entire coaching staff also perished along with three journalists, including the renowned scribes Renato Casalbore, founder of the Tuttosport newspaper, and Renato Tosatti, whose son Giorgio like Valentino Mazzola’s Sandro followed in his father’s footsteps.

The architect behind Il Grande Torino, President Ferruccio Novo, had business commitments and didn’t make the Lisbon friendly but admitted after the tragedy that he wished he had such was the pain of the loss.

Novo was the inspiration and architect of this great side which was fabricated in the early 1940s. He was a modern thinker and detached the club from the austere and at times passionless way clubs were run in the early years of competitive football. He maintained a personal and, at times, paternal relationship with the players and had an eye for talent and more importantly an eye for people who could spot talent.

Throughout Novo’s era, Coaches and technical directors came and went, bringing fresh ideas without disrupting the continuity which made this club great. Foreign trainers such as Englishman Leslie Lievesley and Hungarian Egri Erbstein brought European intelligence and advanced fitness regimes.

The team itself almost always adopted the WM formation. The W describing the shape of the five forward players and the M the five defensive players. It was a system devised by legendary Arsenal trainer Herbert Chapman in the 1930s and honed by Italy Coach Vittorio Pozzo during the Azzurri’s two World Cup triumphs in 1934 and 1938.

The outfit’s early signings such as Mazzola and Ezio ‘The Elephant’ Loik from Venezia proved inspired with intelligent additions each season. Every player formed an essential part of a beautiful mosaic.

‘Keeper Valerio Bacigalupo was regarded as one of the first to come off his line, Eusebio Castigliano possessed a velvet touch, Romeo Menti, speed and flair, Aldo Ballarin, a fierce combative style. Mario Rigamonti was the defensive rock, Valerio Maroso the galloping full-back, Giuseppe Grezar the midfield organiser and former Juventus hero Guglielmo ‘The Baron’ Gabetto the goal-poacher supreme.

Had it not been for WWII, which cancelled the championship between 1943 and 1945, this side would have broken already more records than it did. At the same token, the team very nearly split up due to the outbreak of the war and had it not been for Novo who convinced FIAT to pretend the players were working on the production line as “indispensable to the war effort”, Il Grande Torino may never have come to fruition.

Indeed, the war period is considered a particular turning point in the history of Il Grande Torino. As Ossola’s son, also called Franco, reveals: “The players built up such a bond and fraternity during the war that once it was over they worked as an amazing unit.” An unofficial championship was played in 1944 enabling the players to train together and retain their fitness under the premise they were working at FIAT.

Reeling off impressive statistics still doesn’t do justice to the greatness of this side but to pick a few, Il Grande Torino never lost a Serie A home match at the side’s mythical Stadio Filadelfia – 93 matches, 83 wins, 10 draws and only two opponents kept clean sheets – and not only did they never lose but victories which threatened the double figure margin were not uncommon, as Alessandria, following a 10-0 defeat during the 1947-48 season, can testify.

Mazzola remains the symbol of Il Grande Torino. As captain and inspirational leader he had something extra, a strength of character and charisma which drove the team on during key moments, combined with the physique of a bull married to a fine technique.

Mazzola, who caused controversy by divorcing his first wife, holds most of Il Grande Torino’s individual records – including appearances and goals – and famously against Vicenza in 1947, scored a hat-trick in 180 seconds.

The closest the team came to losing that famous home record at the Filadelfia was during a match against Lazio in May 1948 when Toro overcame a 3-0 deficit to win 4-3, and on such occasions the club’s legendary trumpeter, Oreste Bolmida, would bellow from his famous horn inspiring a legendary Italian football phrase ‘il quarto d’ora Granata’ – literally ‘the maroon 15 minutes’ when the team would find an extra gear and steamroller all before them.

In the 1947-48 season Toro scored 125 goals including 89 at the Filadelfia and amassed 471 League goals in five seasons from 1945-49! The team was probably at its peak in ‘47-48 when most of its records were set, this with just 15 players featuring in the 40 League matches.

However, the statistic most commonly used to highlight the force of this side is drawn from Italy’s international victory over Ferenc Puskas’ Hungary in 1947, when all 10 outfield players came from Torino. Only goalkeeper Bacigalupo missed out, although he was capped later on.

Marco Cassardo’s excellent book on the trials and tribulations of Torino ‘Belli e dannati' – Beautiful and damned – recalls the tale of a young Torino supporter, Mario, who went to Rome to watch his team play the local Giallorossi. On his arrival at the stadium Mario was heckled by a bunch of Roma supporters promising that it would be a ‘grey day for his team’.

Mario decided to watch the match with the same Roma fans. After 18 minutes Torino were 6-0 up, eventually winning 7-0. The Roma fans purred: “Incredible, incredible.” Mario proudly responded: “Just another routine victory, just another afternoon’s work.” Being a Grande Torino supporter was a status symbol of excellence and pride.

Immediately after the tragedy, the team went on to win a fifth successive title, playing the youth team against opponents’ youth teams, the Scudetto culminating in a 4-0 win over Genoa at a wake-like atmosphere at the Filadelfia. The club took an age to re-emerge from the ashes of Superga, eventually becoming competitive in the 1960s and finally winning the championship in 1976.

Unlike Manchester United, who after the Munich air disaster grew into an international superpower, Torino have never truly recovered from the heartbreak. However, whilst the team has only fleetingly touched glory, the story of Il Grande Torino has ensured that Toro are the most scribed, nostalgic and perhaps loved of all Italian clubs.

Their history since Superga has also not been without tragedy as the premature deaths of two legends Gigi Meroni and Giorgio Ferrini testify.

The 50th anniversary of the disaster in 1999 was widely celebrated with a series of events and exhibition matches. Between then and the arrival of current President Urbano Cairo in 2005, the supporters preferred to commemorate the tragedy independently of the club which at the time was struggling in Serie B and due in part to former owner Franco Cimminelli’s famous remark: “Those Torino supporters should stop crying about Superga and move on.”

To which the common sentiment was: “A man who doesn’t understand Superga can never understand Torino.” Cimminelli led the club to bankruptcy, and no Torino owner or President will ever again belittle the club’s unique history.


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Ein Beitrag von orf.at:

4. Mai 1949 als Schicksalstag

Flugzeug zerschellte mit gesamter Mannschaft an Bord.

Als das Flugzeug mit der Mannschaft von Torino am 4. Mai 1949 zum Landeanflug ansetzte, hingen dunkle Regenwolken und dichter Nebel über Turin. Ungewöhnlich schlechtes Wetter für diese Jahreszeit im Piemont. Doch ansonsten war an diesem Tag alles wie immer. "Il Grande Torino" hatte in Lissabon gewonnen - so wie man es von der stärksten Mannschaft der 40er Jahre gewohnt war.

Es war alles wie immer, bevor sich die größte Tragödie in der Geschichte des italienischen Fußballs ereignete: Im Landeanflug raste die Fiat G-212 auf Turins Stadtberg Superga zu, streifte einen Kirchturm und zerschellte. Die gesamte Torino-Mannschaft kam ums Leben. Am Montag jährt sich diese Katastrophe zum 60. Mal.

Die Ära der Unbesiegbaren fand ihr Ende

Die auf dem Platz als unbesiegbar gefeierte Mannschaft war ausgelöscht. Sechs Jahre lang hatte Torino kein einziges Heimspiel im Stadion Filadelfia verloren und innerhalb von fünf Jahren nur acht Unentschieden hinnehmen müssen.

In Turin wurden die Gegner reihenweise vorgeführt und mit hohen Niederlagen nach Hause geschickt. Allein in der Saison 1947/48 erzielte man 125 Tore. In diesen Zeiten war die italienische Nationalmannschaft nichts anderes als eine Vereinsauswahl von Torino in anderen Trikots.

Juventus stand im Schatten von "Toro"

"Toro", benannt nach dem Stier im Wappen der Stadt, gab den Ton in Turin, in Italien und ganz Europa an. In den harten Nachkriegsjahren richtete sich ein ganzes Land am Siegeszug von Torino auf. Die Spieler um Kapitän Valentino Mazzola wurden wie Nationalhelden verehrt.

In der Arbeiterstadt Turin war der Verein damals die unangefochtene Nummer eins. Juventus Turin verdiente Ende der 40er Jahre nicht einmal die Bezeichnung Lokalrivale.

"Il Grande Torino" wurde zum Mythos

Heute kämpft "Toro", wo aktuell auch ÖFB-Teamspieler Jürgen Säumel unter Vertrag steht, gegen den Abstieg aus der Serie A, während Juventus zum Spitzenclub, Rekordmeister und internationalen Aushängeschild des italienischen Fußballs aufgestiegen ist.

Nach dem Absturz der legendären Mannschaft fand der Club nie mehr zu alter Klasse zurück, "Il Grande Torino" aber wurde zu einem Mythos. Zwei Tage nach der Tragödie erklärte Italiens Fußballverband den Verein zum Meister von 1949 - vier Runden vor dem Abschluss einer Saison, die ohnehin am 4. Mai kurz nach 17.00 Uhr ihr abruptes Ende gefunden hatte.

Trauerzug vor hunderttausenden Menschen

"Toro" wurde zum fünften Mal in Folge mit dem "Scudetto" ausgezeichnet. Mit zitternden Armen streckte Verbandspräsident Barassi auf dem Superga-Hügel den Meisterpokal Richtung Himmel. Als der weit über 100 Meter lange Trauerzug mit den Särgen durch Turin zog, säumten hunderttausende Menschen die Straßen.

Sie gaben 18 Spielern, den Trainern Egri Erbstein und Leslie Lievesley, zwei Managern, dem Masseur und drei Journalisten das letzte Geleit.

Im ersten Heimspiel nach der Tragödie trat Torino mit seiner Jugendmannschaft an. Aus Respekt bot auch der Gegner sein Nachwuchsteam auf. Das Filadelfia war dennoch bis auf den letzten Platz gefüllt. 30.000 "Toro"-Fans sahen dem Spiel schweigend zu.

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