Crash that toppled an Italian giant


Crash that toppled an Italian giant

Eighteen players of the great Torino team died in the plane crash

Rick Broadbent
It was 60 years ago on Monday that football’s forgotten tragedy happened on top of a Turin hill. The Fiat G-212 aeroplane crashed into the back of a rain-lashed basilica and changed the face of the sport. Families were severed, the grieving united and Italian football was torn apart at the seams. The greatest team in the world was dead. The rest is mystery.

While the Munich disaster has become a well-known horror story around the globe, the Superga tragedy that claimed almost the entire Il Grande Torino team is either a vague memory or secret. “As far as I know, the city isn’t doing anything to mark the anniversary, apart from sponsoring a play for a couple of nights at an obscure theatre in town,” Herbie Sykes, a Turin resident and Torino fan, said. It is another depressing footnote to the history of a club who, according to Sykes, stagger punchdrunk from catastrophe to abyss and back again. “Put simply, you couldn’t make it up,” he said.

Torino are no longer grande. Juventus have long since usurped them. Relations between the clubs have flatlined, exacerbated when Juventus recently changed their club emblem from a zebra to a bull, the traditional symbol of Torino, the team and the city of Turin.

Given Juventus’s dispersed support around Italy and Torino’s status as the city team, this was seen as an unthinking act of sabotage.

A barometer of the enmity is the view of Domenico Beccaria, the curator of the Torino club museum. After telling me that there would be a religious ceremony at the church on Superga at 5pm on Monday, with relatives of the 31 victims making the pilgrimage up the hill, he added: “The black-and-white scum never respected the disaster and the anniversary. And Juventus fans had their bitter crop after Heysel, not only at Torino’s derby but everywhere in Italy. They call us the poor cousins — I can tell you that I’m not a relative of those bastards.”

Sixty years ago, Torino were the best team in Europe. They had won five successive Serie A titles with the predecessor of total football and contributed almost all the national side. Then came the crash and all on board died, including 18 players.

Torino did not win another Scudetto until 1976. They remained the people’s team, with support drawn from the city limits, but the ensuing years constituted a procession of troubles.

First Gigi Meroni, their creative maverick, was killed when he was hit by a car. In his brilliant book, Calcio, John Foot, says that Meroni’s way of playing was “anarchic and poetic”, explaining how he shocked conservative Italy by taking a chicken for a walk on a lead and trying to dress it in a swimming costume. The driver of the car that hit Meroni was called Attilio Romero. Three decades later he became the club president. “You couldn’t make it up,” Sykes repeated. By a quirk of fate, the pilot of the plane that crashed at Superga had been called Pierluigi Meroni.

Then there was what was widely seen as a betrayal over their spiritual home, the derelict Filadelfia Stadium, and the financial trouble that caused Torino Calcio to be expelled from Serie A in 2005 and the club rebranded as Torino FC. Cue street demonstrations and violence.

But more than any of the manifold dramas, it was the shock waves of Superga that changed football. Italy refused to travel to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil by plane as a consequence, made an arduous sea voyage instead and came home early. “The plane crash completely redefined the sporting landscape in Italy,” Sykes, an author on Italian sport, said. Quite honestly, Toro have never, and will never, fully recover.

“There are a great many similarities between Manchester and Torino and it’s true to say Il Toro remains well-rooted, some would say mired, in the city and Piedmont. Juve now enjoy a reasonable fan-base here, but you will be hard-pushed to find anyone of, say, 60 who supports them.”

Even the Mayor of Turin, Sergio Chiamparino, is a staunch Torino fan and has a cigarette case on his desk bearing the images of the 1949 team. “Juve are not identified with Turin,” he claimed. The Superga site is now a shrine and thousands will make the trek again on Monday, including Sauro Toma, the former player who would have been on board had he not been recovering from a knee injury. He had still wanted to go. “My wife told me not to,” he said. She was pregnant. He stayed and lived. Now he is 84 and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Yet the ceremonies are small-scale compared with the way Munich has been marked, and Superga does not resonate across the world. “There hasn’t been any contact with the Manchester United families,” Beccaria said. Yet there is one, tragic bond between the clubs and that is the curious fact that the Torino coach who died at Superga was called Leslie Lievesley, an Englishman who once played for Manchester United.