HomeStoriesThe Ghost of Il Grande Torino

The Ghost of Il Grande Torino

July 28, 2015

The crumbling stadio Filadelfia stands as a sad reminder of the tragic history of Torino FC, the world soccer power that might have been

Illustration by Xiaohua Yang

The stretching shadows of the Alps lurch over the carcass of Torino Football Club’s spiritual home. Overrun with invasive vegetation that now lays claim to the ground’s crumbling skeleton, the once mighty Stadio Filadelfia lies in ruins. Lost and yearning, the specters of its kings float amongst the decaying, decrepit effigy of their past. It was in this very spot that Il Grande Torino would become one of the most devastating teams in post-war history. The pitch’s now untamable weeds hide the footprints of extraordinary talents, where buried in the soil rests the sacked tombs of tactics birthed long before their conquering era of glory. And beyond, a church in the hillside serves as a timeless reminder of the tragedy that robbed calcio of one of its greatest riches, along with the original blueprint for Europe’s footballing landscape.

This is the story of what could have been and what was put in its place; what should have been and what is today instead.

Valentino Mazzola played the number 10 role before that was even a thing, before universal shirt numbers all together. The talisman of Torino was crowned by teammate Mario Rigamonti as “half the squad,” but what a squad it was.

Winning five consecutive league championships between 1942 and 1949 (league play from 1943–45 was suspended due to WWII), Torino was more than just a force on the field. The club was a beacon of national pride for post-war Italians willing away the shadow cast by fascism.

“If I had to choose one indispensible player for my team, I wouldn’t choose Pelé, Di Stéfano, Cruyff, Platini, or Maradona. I’d only go for those players after choosing Mazzola.” — Former Juventus Player and President Gianpiero Boniperti

At the heart of the squad — known alternately as il Toro (The Bull) and i Granata (The Maroons) — stood Ferruccio Novo, a former Torino player who was only a man until the club faithful realized he was a god. An industrialist and agricultural businessman after his playing career, he became a legend when he assumed the presidency of Torino in 1939, architecting a vision for success in every sector of the club. It was under his guidance that Torino played a style of football with concepts that wouldn’t be grasped until decades later, all with Valentino Mazzola pulling the strings like a master puppeteer.

Il Toro was a team so thick with talent in the 40s that in a 1947 friendly against Hungary, the Italian national team fielded an all Torino lineup with the exception of the goalkeeper, winning 3–2. This is likely the match that Real Madrid’s Ferenc Puskás was referring to when he gifted his shirt to Mazzola’s son Sandro, then of Inter Milan, following Madrid’s exit from the 1964 European Cup. “I played against your father. You did him proud,” the Hungarian told Valentino’s boy.

And Juventus? Torino’s Turin derby counterparts and now Italy’s most successful club? They were left clinging on to decade-old success.

Torino was the pride of Turin, the pride of Italy.

On the opaquely foggy afternoon of May 4, 1949, members of Italy’s royal Savoy family would have been resting peacefully in their graves under the Basilica di Superga, a sandy yellow Baroque basilica built some 600 meters above the city of Turin. The nation’s footballing royalty, Il Grande Torino, would have been resting as well, making the trip home from a charity match in Portugal aboard a FIAT G-212 aircraft.

On the approach to Turin’s Aeritalia airport, some combination of factors — fog, a malfunctioning altimeter, strong winds, pilot error — conspired to keep the plane from its destination. It slammed into a retaining wall at the back of the Basilica, a rapturous crash that shook the hillside and the sport.

All aboard perished in the disaster.

Vittorio Pozzo, two-time Italian World Cup-winning manager in 1934 and 1938, now a journalist, was amongst the first on the scene. Because of his personal proximity to the players, he was made to identify the charred bodies of one of the best teams ever assembled, a scarring encounter. He confirmed it was the end of Valentino Mazzola; it was the end of Il Grande Torino.

In the few remaining games of the season, a broken Torino fielded a youth team to which its opponents, out of respect, did the same. The boys of Il Toro clinched the 1949 scudetto title, but celebrations were hardly in order. Soon after, Torino would leave the Stadio Filadelfia behind for pastures new. The club would never fully recover, and city rivals Juventus would go on to win the league title a year later.

Juve would become Turin’s flagship, Italy’s goliath.

A passage from Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga: “Ramón Calderón [former Real Madrid president] likes to tell the apocryphal anecdote of a father and son strolling through the park and coming across a statue of [Alfredo] Di Stéfano. ‘Daddy,’ says the boy, ‘was he a player?’ ‘No,’ says his father, ‘he was a team.’”

Might Torino have challenged Real Madrid for European supremacy? What could have been will forever remain a mystery.

That team was Real Madrid, the winner of the first five European Cups (1956–60), sewn together and driven forward by an artist known as “La Saeta Rubia,” the blonde arrow, Alfredo Di Stéfano. The transfer of the Argentine to Spanish football is debatable, shady even. But after much controversy it was Real, not rivals Barcelona, that secured his signature and in doing so cemented an eternally lasting affiliation with success and Europe’s most lusted after trophy, the European Cup.

Di Stéfano was Real’s Valentino Mazzola, a goal scorer that could do everything else, too. Sir Bobby Charlton described him as the brainiest player ever, and many consider the Argentine better than Pelé himself. And like Ferruccio Novo at Torino, Real Madrid had Santiago Bernabéu, a ultra-prudent president who laid the foundation for Real Madrid’s impact today. From groundsman to president and playing in-between, Bernabéu was Real Madrid. He is, with little room for doubt, the reason the club is considered the biggest on planet Earth.

Without a crystal ball to evoke the clairvoyant what-ifs, it’s impossible to know what sort of impact Il Grande Torino would have had on the shape of football today. Though Mazzola and his team would have been aging and/or recycled by the time the first European Cup took place six years after the Superga disaster, the continuity of quality in the squad surely would have posed an ominous threat to Real Madrid’s first five continental victories. Without those defining five triumphs, how would Real’s identity have evolved in comparison? Ferruccio Novo was even said to have been dreaming up an inter-European competition of his own at Il Toro’s pinnacle nearly a decade prior. His team was equipped for war with the elite.

At the very least, the argument could be made that the extension of Torino’s best team would have re-sculpted the layout of the Italian game, and i Granata would have challenged for the scudetto in the next decade and probably beyond. Juventus’ perch atop calcio might be less concrete, and the power of northern Italian football might be even further ahead of the south’s meager credentials. Turin could have been another Milan, with two of the most well-regarded and established teams in Italy, if not the entire continent. What could have been will forever remain a mystery.

Those that perished at Superga are the patron saints of the Torino fan base. The victims that died that milky day on the hill took with them an unmatched legacy but also the bright future of their club. Their stirring spirits have been made to comb an all-but-forgotten stadium, but plans to mend Stadio Filadelfia’s scars mean there’s hope on the horizon. Perhaps only when the Filadelfia is resurrected and cleansed, Torino FC can move on, forward toward the success that was stolen from them.

Robert Mohr is a freelance writer living in Milwaukee. He tweets under the handle @BobbyMohr5.

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