The story of Valentino Mazzola, the inspirational captain of the fabled Grande Torino side of the 1940s, is both one of the greatest and tragic in the history of Italian football.
Valentino Mazzola was just 30 years old when he was killed in the plane crash at Superga along with the rest of his teammates but is still today remembered as one of calcio’s greats for all that he achieved during his short career.
He collected seven winners medals in total during his spell at Filadelfia in both league and cup competitions and was an integral part of the club.
“Valentino alone is half the squad and the other half is made up of the rest of us together,” teammate Mario Rigamonti once said.
Valentino was born in 1919 in the small Lombard town of Cassano d’Adda but moved to Milan after the death of his father to gain work in order to support his family and soon found emloyment in the Alfa Romeo factory in the city where he joined their football team at the age of 19.
It was here that he came to the attention of many Serie A clubs for his composed, assured style on the ball even at such a tender age and the following year he was signed by Venezia after impressing during a trial in which he played bare-footed as there were no boots ready for him. It was here in Venice that he met Ezio Loik who would go on to become a great friend and the pair were to die together in the hills above Turin. They remained friends until that tragic accident and even made their debuts for La Nazionale together in 1942 against Croatia.
Restricted by the outbreak of the Second World War, neither player won the amount of caps they should have but nevertheless a return of four goals in his 12 games for the Azzurri is impressive by anyone’s standards. So great was the influence of Mazzola and Loik not just with their country but with Venezia that the combination of both players helped the Lagunari to the Coppa Italia title in 1941 which remains the club’s only major honour to date.
Due to his outstanding performances in his three years at Venezia, interest in taking the quick, skilful attacking midfielder to a bigger club was high and so it was that, in 1942, Torino president Ferrucio Novo spent the handsome sum of 1.2 million lire on bringing Mazzola to the Granata where he was to become an icon and, undoubtedly, the greatest player that has ever pulled on the claret jersey. Not only that but Mazzola could also be considered to be one of the most complete football players of all time.
Rarely has a player combined such finesse, determination, spirit and magnificent footballing ability to the effect that the Torino captain did. He possessed a terrific ability to beat an opponent with his quick feet and pace as well as excellent aerial ability and an accurate, powerful strike with both feet.
He was the complete attacker and World Cup winning coach Enzo Bearzot once simply said of him that “he was a player who could carry the whole team and was the greatest Italian player of all time.”
Valentino had an instant impact on his new club as his side won the wartime title in his first campaign with Torino and followed that up the next season by scoring 10 goals as his club chased another league championship although they were to lose out to Spezia in the end as the unofficial league was forced to finish up early due to the war.
However, Il Toro were not to be denied the title that their impressive performances that season deserved and they won their second successive championship (Spezia’s victory had not counted as an “official” Serie A title) with Mazzola putting in yet more typically commanding displays in midfield and chipping in with his fair share of goals and supplying the passes for star striker Guglielmo Gabetto.
The 1946-47 season was arguably to be Valentino’s finest for Torino. His side not only won the Scudetto once more and this time Mazzola not only supplied the crucial assists that were to secure the title but also the majority of the goals as he finished up top scorer in the league with 29 goals for the Granata.
The closest challengers to the Turin club’s title assault that season were none other than their city rivals Juventus and it was a goal from Valentino that sealed a brilliant victory in the derby that helped them on their way. The following season Torino wrapped up yet another league championship by an astounding 16 points from Milan with Valentino netting 25 goals in his side’s unstoppable charge to the championship.
This campaign is also memorable for another moment that brilliantly summed up everything that was admirable about Mazzola. During a game in the capital against Roma, his side trudged off the field 1-0 down at half time after a poor first half performance.
As the teams came out of the tunnel for the second half, Valentino roared a rallying cry to his teammates to show their hosts how football should be played. Inspired by their captain, Torino went on to win the game 7-1.
This kind of inspirational leadership was nothing new to his teammates and followers of the club.
Mazzola was famed for his never say die attitude and during games when things were not going his side’s way he would roll up his sleeves and cry out for his team to attack and more often than not, their captain’s actions would have the desired effect and help his team to a result.
The 1948-49 season was to be another successful one for Torino as they won their fifth successive title.
Although the season ended in tragedy for the club as almost their entire first team squad was killed in a horrible plane crash at Superga on the night of May 4, 1949.
The team had made its way back from a farewell game in Portugal against Benfica for midfielder Xico Ferreira. Italy was shocked by the accident that had taken away the country’s greatest team and the funerals of the players were attended in great numbers.
In spite of the tragedy, Torino still went on to win the title although they had to play their remaining fixtures with their reserve team. However, their five championships in a row between 1943 and 1949 meant that Valentino Mazzola had won the Scudetto in every one of his seasons at the Filadelfia. Truly impressive, and a great deal of this was down to their leader.
As most calcio fans will know, the Mazzola dynasty in football did not quite end there as two of the midfielder’s sons went on to become professional players themselves. His youngest son Ferrucio, named after the Torino president, went on to feature for Inter, Lazio and Fiorentina and his oldest Sandro became just as good a player as his father which his medal haul backs up. Sandro played for and captained the famous Grande Inter side of the 60s and played an important part for his country.
In fact, at one stage he was close to quitting the game as a youngster because he was so afraid that he would not be able to follow in his father’s footsteps and become as good a player as many expected him to be.
The fact that he did so says as much about how good Valentino was as it does about Sandro. Italy, and Torino, were privileged to have the footballer in their midst and, despite his career being cut short at Superga.
He will always remain as one of Italy’s finest talents.