The story has been told a million times before. The greatest team in football, on their flight home from an exhibition game in Lisbon, meet with a premature end when their G-212 plane smashes into the Basilica di Superga. All 31 passengers died, including the entire Torino squad. Sixty years on, the pain felt on 4 May 1949 is still very much in evidence in the city of Turin.
Monday saw the anniversary of the darkest day in Italian football history, with around 1500 people making the arduous trek up to the site of the crash. As the public arrived ahead of a commemorative Mass inside the church, the heavens opened and a thunderstorm raged, recreating the treacherous conditions which had plagued the flight in question and caused the deathly impact at the rear of the building. There now stands a memorial to the victims at that exact spot, and mourners braved the weather to leave floral tributes and pay their respects to I Caduti (the fallen) before making their way to the front of the church. Here a giant TV screen had been erected to allow the public to watch the service.
As members of the Torino club staff arrived, including the entire playing squad, the skies cleared, allowing many fans to emerge from makeshift shelter under trees to greet their modern heroes. The Torino players have been under intense pressure of late as they battle to stay in Serie A, their quest helped by consecutive home wins which have given them a one-point advantage over Bologna, their visitors to the Olimpico next Sunday. But as they made their way into the church under the re-emerging sunlight, they were subject to no pressure, only handshakes and slaps on the back from fans eager to show their thanks for their attendance.
As the crowd watched the service it was difficult not to cast an eye around those gathered and wonder how many were old enough to remember the day itself. Do they remember being told of the demise of their team by a friend or loved one? Maybe even by the special news bulletins which had been broadcast on the radio moments after the crash? Perhaps they used to go down to the Stadio Filadelfia to watch the likes of Ezio Loik, Franco Ossola, Romeo Menti and the inspirational Valentino Mazzola rip opposing teams apart on their march to five successive Italian league titles.
Those who did see Il Grande Torino play were the lucky ones. A team of such style, grace, elegance and raw talent that they were revered around a world which at that time was exposed to very little football outside its own community, let alone its country. A team which would surely have gone on to challenge the great Real Madrid as the game’s superpower in the early days of European club competition in the 1950s. Instead Torino have struggled ever since their great loss, adding only the 1976 league title and three Coppa Italia triumphs. This month they face one of their toughest tests in attempting to stay in Italy’s top flight. But if the club shows the same unity on the pitch as they did at Superga yesterday, La Salvezza should be a formality.