In the English speaking world, it’s easy to think of the Munich Air Disaster that claimed the lives of eight Manchester United players in 1958 as football’s worst aviation tragedy. It’s not. Not that it’s a competition or anything…
Over the course of five seasons between 1942 and 1949, (one prior to and four following WWII), Torino played 172 games in Serie A. They won 121, drew 32 and lost just 19. They averaged 2.8 goals scored and less than one conceded per game. The starting XI of the Italian national team at the time once consisted of ten Torino players plus the goal keeper from Juventus – cross town rivals and in those days poor cousins. All records that have never been beaten, yet we will never know how much better they could have been if it had not all ended in such bitter tragedy.
At 5:07pm on May 4th 1949 Pierluigi Meroni, the pilot of a Fiat G212CP aircraft circling the alpine Italian city of Turin, radioed through to airport ground staff and asked them to have an espresso ready for him when he landed. On board the plane were 31 passengers including all but three of the entire membership of ‘il Grande Torino’ – the all conquering Torino squad that was only four games away from its fifth straight Serie A title.
The weather was atrocious. It was pouring with rain. Visibility was extremely poor, yet Meroni was calm. He was an experienced pilot – a World War II ace. As many did on their approach to Turin, he used the Basilica di Superga, built high upon a hilltop in 1717 by Savoy King Victor Amadeus II to fulfil a vow made during the Siege of Turin, as a reference point in his descent. At least, that’s what he thought he was doing. Best we know, he became disorientated and confused in the low cloud and exactly five minutes after he had placed his coffee order, the plane ploughed into the side of the basilica. All passengers and crew died instantly upon impact.
As news of the tragedy spread through the night, Torino fans from across the region streamed up the hill to the crash site. What they found when they arrived must have been truly horrific. Mangled wreckage, luggage and charred bodies were strewn across the hillside in the torrential rain but still they came to pay their respects to their heroes. Vittorio Pozzo, the former coach of the national team, was there to attempt to identify the bodies. He wrote later:
“The Torino team is no more. It has disappeared, it is burnt, it has exploded… the team died in action, like a group of shock troops, in the war, who left their trenches and never came back.”
For the remaining four games of the 1948/49 Serie A season, Torino fielded its youth team. Its four opponents; Genoa, Palermo, Sampdoria and Fiorentina did likewise, allowing Torino to win its fifth consecutive scudetto – its last until it managed its only title since in 1976. Having won two World Cups in 1934 and ’38 the Italian national team was unable, with its guts ripped out of it, to compete meaningfully again until 1970. The Granata (pomegranates) currently play in Serie B – the second tier of Italian football.
I must admit to indecorously chuckling to myself occasionally during Manchester Derbies. United supporters’ favourite song to taunt opposing teams with as they hand out their all too common football hidings is Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. Manchester City fans often sing back ‘Always Look on the Runway for Ice’ in reference to Munich. During local derby games between Juventus and Torino, it used to be common to see Juve Ultras holding their arms out pretending to be airplanes. Weaving from side to side before crashing into each other. Much hilarity would ensue. This practice seems to have come to a fairly abrupt end, however, around about 1985. What happened in 1985? This. One can’t help but feel there is a lesson in that somewhere…
Foot, John ‘Calcio: A History of Italian Football’ Fourth Estate, London, 2006, P86-98
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.