The tragedy that struck Torino Football Club on May 4, 1949, hasn’t been forgotten as Il Grande Torino, one of the game’s greatest sides, were wiped out in a plane crash.
Nothing quite shocked the football world like the incident that hit the Italians, in a nightmare that is only comparable with the Manchester United’s in Munich nine years later.
Torino disappeared completely and this was at a time when they never had the opportunity to measure themselves on the continent in the European Cup.
Il Grande Torino had won four straight Scudetti and at the time of the crash, they were leaders in Serie A, so much so that the title was awarded to them posthumously, and it wasn’t only as a matter of courtesy.
In addition to the losses of life, there’s a mythical halo that floats above that team’s memory, which makes the tragedy all the more extreme. Torino were enjoying the best spell in their history, and ten of their starting XI also made up Italy’s strongest team.
Only the Azzurri’s goalkeeper was from Juventus, and they were eyeing success at the 1950 World Cup, but their team were lost in the remains of the Basilica of Superga, as their plane descended through clouds to crash into the side of the hilltop building en route back from a friendly match in Lisbon and a stopover in Barcelona.
The tragedy was so well documented that the precise point of impact is known – five past five in the afternoon. Just a little while earlier the pilot had informed the control tower that the plane was perfectly aligned with the airport runway and, despite the lack of visibility, they would soon land in Turin.
A sigh of relief was breathed on the ground, where supporters had gathered to await the team’s return.
Torino had played against Benfica the previous night in a tribute to their great captain Xico Ferreira. They left at 9:40 that morning for Barcelona where they refuelled, where they crossed paths with AC Milan who themselves had stopped over on their way to Madrid.
In a coming together that wouldn’t be allowed now, the two teams shared a table for lunch in the airport before going their separate ways.
So much has been investigated about this flight that the details are known so clearly. The flight plan went through Cap de Creus, Toulon, Nice, Albenga and Savona before turning north for Turin. At five to five, the control tower communicated with Lieutenant-Colonel Meroni, commander of the plane.
The weather was described as being rainy in Piedmont with low clouds, with visibility of 40 metres and gusty winds. After a brief silence, the commander gave his position. A radio beacon in Pino Trines allowed him to take his coordinates to align with the runway.
“We are 2,000 metres above sea level,” Meroni said.
“We’ll cut through Superga.”
But that’s where the story was lost. Not only was the plane not aligned with the runway, but it wasn’t 2,000 metres above sea level either. In fact, it was only 675 metres above, some way off the pilot’s estimations.
What happened for the manoeuvre to end in tragedy? There are many theories. From a fault in the altimeter to a drift of the starboard, which led the plane into the hill because of the gusty wind.
The fact remains that only three or four minutes after the final communication, the device crashed into the wall surrounding the basilica at Superga. There were no signs of a late attempt to swerve the plane and the impact was frontal.
More than half of the plane disintegrated on impact. Only part of the tale was left visible. All 31 people on board died. Eighteen were Torino players, two coaches, two club leaders and three journalists.
Defender Sauro Toma hadn’t travelled due to a knee injury and was left with a sense of guilt for not being on board, as his friends and teammates all perished. He had been the only surviving member of the squad, and he passed away on April 18, 2018.
The city took to the streets to bid farewell to their heroes and solidarity was shown from all corners of the globe. River Plate, with Alfredo di Stefano, visited them days later to play a friendly against them.
They’re long gone but Il Grande Torino will forever remain in the hearts of fans.