A Melancholy To Die For: A History of Plane Crashes in Football

In December 2016, an aircraft carrying 73 passengers and four crew members ran out of fuel, crashing into a Colombian mountain range shortly before it was due to land. Of the 77 people on board that day, there were 71 fatalities. Among the dead were 19 players and 23 coaching staff from the Brazilian Serie A side Associação Chapecoense de Futebol. The club was left decimated by an entirely avoidable disaster.

For Rory Hill, there were eerie parallels between the Chapecoense incident and other major air disasters – most notably the Munich air disaster, which claimed the lives of eight Manchester United players and three members of the club's coaching staff in 1958. Rory was inspired to delve further into the history of plane crashes in football, and eventually to write a book on the subject.

Glory were lucky enough to receive an advanced extract of Rory's book, focussing on the tragic plight of the 1949 Torino side. You can read it here.


Not long after the end of the Second World War, the Italian national football team was comprised almost solely of players from one single club, Torino FC, or as they had been known during that particular decade, Il Grande Torino. Over seven years they had accomplished the feat of being crowned Serie A champions five times, as well as triumphantly lifting the Coppa Italia in 1943, cementing their place in history as heroes of the game. Since the Superga Air Disaster on the 4th of May 1949, which saw the entire Torino team killed in a horrific plane crash, the achievements of the club have faded and local rivals Juventus have gone on to claim most of the glory both nationally and on the world stage. The fans of Il Toro (the bull) have long memories however and will always remember who the superstars were at a time of fear and fascism in war torn Italy.

Geographically Turin is steeped in history; it was the first capital of Italy during its time as home to the House of Savoy and it serves as the capital of the Piedmont region in the north of the country. An industrial powerhouse due to its links to automotive manufacturers, as well as a cultural hotspot, Turin is more than just a sporting city. Football however does serve as its beating heart. The ‘Derby della Molle’ between Torino and Juventus is Italy’s oldest rivalry and the longest fought battle between two clubs in one city. Originally seen as a meeting of two opposing classes, with Juventus previously supported by the aristocracy and Torino by the industrialists, the derby still holds just as much power today in a less divided Italy. Much debate surrounds the identity of the clubs; Torino have always adopted the famous bull of Turin as both it’s nickname (Il Toro) and it’s symbol, whilst Juventus are known as Gobbi (the hunchbacks) and both I Bianconeri (the black and whites) and Le Zebre (the zebras) due to their kit colours. Throughout history Juventus have flirted with the bull as part of their crest, an association not well regarded by fans of Torino.

It would be 1927 before the club could adorn their shirts with the Scudetto (the shield of the Italian flag worn by championship winners) and even after a triumphant 1926-1927 season, scandal would see their title revoked in what felt like a cruel bump in the road for Il Toro; a Juventus player was accused of taking a bribe from Torino staff, a claim that was never proven.  That season saw another landmark for the club, the building of their own stadium, Stadio Filadelfia. A legendary ground, nicknamed ‘Fossa dei Leoni (The Lion’s Den), the Filadelfia would be home to Torino for thirty seven years, playing host to the team’s most iconic performances. In 1928, spurred on by the perceived injustice of the season before, Torino stormed to championship victory and claimed their first official title.

The first major step towards becoming Il Grande Torino was taken in 1939 with the appointment of industrialist Ferrucio Novo as club president. A former player for the club as a teenager and a native of Turin, Novo was a die hard fan elevated to the highest status. On the advice of one of his predecessors, Vittorio Pozzo (who by that point had gone on to become the coach of the Italian national team), Novo began to emulate both the business model and tactics of clubs in England. Two recently appointed members of staff that became key to this way of thinking were Hungarian born technical director Ernest Egri Erbstein and English youth coach Leslie Lievesley. These backroom acquisitions were complimented by the purchase of young Franco Ossola, a footballing prodigy that would become a defining character in the team to come.

The 1942-1943 season saw the first Serie A title win for the Ferrucio Novo’s Torino, with the championship being decided on the last day by a goal from Valentino Mazzola. To further announce their entrance on to the grand stage of Italian football they claimed the Coppa Italia, becoming the first team to lift both domestic trophies in one season. This majestic start soon fell prey to the inevitable and yet again Torino were thrown into disarray. 1944 saw the retreat of Nazi forces played out on The Gothic Line, a front that literally split Italy and its football in two. The Campionato Alta Italia (Northern Italy Championship) was won by Spezia that year yet it would take until 2002 for the Italian Football Federation to officially recognise this achievement, even then it was only awarded on a ‘decorative’ basis.

The end of the Second World War saw Torino add goalkeeper Valerio Bacigalupo (a player that would define the space between the Filadelfia goalposts), hot headed defender Aldo Ballarin and stylish midfielder Eusebio Castigliano. Novo also handed debuts to defenders Virgilio Marosa and Mario Rigamonti, recalled forward Pietro Ferraris and appointed a former player and fellow Turinese Luigi Ferrero as coach. The 1945-1946 season had still not returned to a single championship format and the league reverted back to a more traditional style, with two geographically segregated divisions running in tandem. Torino made it to the final round where they beat Pro Livorno 9-1 on the final day to snatch the title away from Juventus by a singular point. Two Scudettos under the belt for Il Grande Torino but neither had been plain sailing.

The following season saw both the return of the Serie A and the beginning of reunification for Italy; dominated by the spectre of fascism for so long, the country had emerged from the ashes of warwith a point to prove. The popularity of King Emmanuel Victor III had suffered greatly due to Italy’s losses in the war and even abdication was not enough to stop a constitutional referendum calling for the dissolution of the country's monarchy. Turin would no longer welcome the House of Savoy and Italy became a republic for the first time. The 1946-1947 season saw Torino win the league by 10 points (directly above Juventus), scoring 104 goals in the process, with a staggering 29 of them coming from the near mythical captain Valentino Mazzola. By now Mazzola was a father to two sons; Ferrucio (in tribute to Novo) and Sandro, both of whom would spend their adult life as professional footballers. Sandro went on to be seen as a hero; a one club man at Internazionale where he won 4 Serie A titles and 2 European Cups, as well as a member of the Italian national side that won a European Championship in 1968.

By 1947, Mazzola and Il Grande Torino were almost as well known in the community as they were on the pitch. The 1940s were a far cry from today’s world of six figure weekly salaries and celebrity profile, instead fans witnessed a team more interested in family than fame. They took buses and trains to away fixtures, shovelled snow at Filadelfia, ate meals with the opposition, Gabetto and Ossola even owned a local bar, Vittoria, where they could be seen serving the players and public after matches. Such behaviour would be unimaginable in the 21st Century for a group of internationally capped footballers with three Scudetti to their name.

The 1947-1948 season arguably saw Il Grande Torino at their finest; a record 21 games unbeaten and a title win that saw them 16 points above A.C. Milan, Juventus and Triestina. The journey to the top was far from simple though, in an away game at Genoa towards the end of the season, goalkeeper Bacigalupo was sent off for punching a particularly aggressive opponent and it was winger Mazzola that took his place between the sticks. Torino went on to win the match and the title that day, seemingly able to solve any problem that they faced.

It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that the world would see the arrival of Pelé but Brazil in the 1940s still harboured many greats and it was this iconic footballing country that would be chosen as the place to exhibit Il Grande Torino. So, in the Summer of 1948, Torino travelled to Brazil to play a 4 match tour against Palmeiras, Corinthians, Portuguesa and finally Sao Paolo. It would be at their final match that they would have their most eventful encounter. There they faced Leônidas, a man credited with the invention of the bicycle kick, a piece of skill he wouldfamously employ later that year in an 8-0 win over Juventus. The game at Sao Paolo included another thrown punch and sending off for Bacigalupo, a saved penalty, a full scale riot and 4 goals culminating in a draw. To rub salt in to the wound that was their initial journey to Brazil, the return flight was even worse. An emergency landing in Rio de Janeiro followed by the news of a plane crash in the Atlantic did much to exacerbate the team’s distrust of flying, especially within the fearful captain Mazzola.

Back on solid ground, Il Grande Torino were looking ahead to a fresh season and a chance to further assert their dominance on the Serie A with a fifth Scudetti. The season itself had the hallmarks of an entrenched battle, a far cry from the rout of the year before, with Torino scoring almost half the amount of goals and eventually winning the league by only 5 points. Where the team of 1947-1948 had thrived on the thrill of dominance, it would be the players’ ability to dig in and rally at the most difficult times that would define this fifth and final Scudetto.

A football club plagued by setbacks in its short history, 1949 would see Torino’s worst (if not last) disaster. By May they were at the top of the table, narrowly ahead of second placed Internazionale and barring any serious drop in form, on course to win yet another title. It was the team’s international profile that would set the chain of events in motion that culminated in the Superga disaster; specifically a relationship with Portuguese club Benfica and its captain, Francisco Ferreira. Known the world over as a footballing great, Ferreira was a one time transfer target for Torino and a player due to retire from the game. Mazzola lined up opposite him at an international friendly earlier that year and it was here that the idea of a club friendly was proposed, Torino would fly to Lisbon and play against Benfica in honour of the great Portuguese midfielder. Though initially dismissed by Ferrucio Novo, the idea was officially sanctioned with the caveat that the league must remain the priority. It was decided that if Torino lost to Internazionale on Saturday the 30th of April, the game against Benfica would not go ahead. As fate would have it, 36,000 people witnessed a gruelling 0-0 draw at San Siro, a game that inevitably decided the Scudetto winner that year and the end to Il Grande Torino. It was under these circumstances that Torino would take to the skies once again on the 1st of May, 1949, talismans for the country and its footballing talent. Absences due to injury included defender Sauro Toma, reserve keeper Renato Gandolfi (his place being given to Dino Ballarin, Aldo’s brother) and president Ferrucio Novo, himself recovering from an operation.

The treatment of the team in Lisbon was reminiscent of that bestowed on visiting royalty, for in those days ll Grande Torino really were kings of football. Fans were desperate to catch a glimpse of the players known for their domestic and international success, as well as a chance to watch their famous brand of Italian football. The team themselves enjoyed playing the roles of tourists and took in the sights of Lisbon, sending postcards to loved ones in what would be their last correspondence with home. On the Tuesday, both teams arrived at the Stadio Naçional ready to put on a show to a crowd of 40,000 eager fans. Bacigalupo, Ballarin, Martelli, Grezar, Rigamonti, Castigliano, Menti, Loik, Gabetto, Mazzola and Ossola were the starting XI of Il Grande Torino that evening and though the match looked set to finish 3-3, a 90th minute Menti penalty clinched the win for I Granata. This was a game of camaraderie however and one without either victor or victim, instead it stood testament to the class that Novo’s Torino had been known for throughout their history, and as the exhibition of two greats, Mazzola and Ferreira. Like the meals the team would share with the opposition back at home, Torino were invited to dinner that night in honour of Ferreira and his illustrious career. The next morning they would depart as friends of Benfica and heroes to the Portuguese public.

At 9.40am on the 4th of May, 1949, an Italian Airlines ‘Fiat G.212’ airplane took off with eighteen Torino players, five club officials (including Egri Erbstein and Leslie Lievesley), three journalists, a flight crew of four and tour organiser Andrea Bonaiuti. By 1pm the atmosphere was jovial as they were in Barcelona, a refuelling stop, where they ate lunch with A.C. Milan, themselves headed to Madrid. At 2.50pm, captain Pierluigi Meroni set off in the direction of home, the Aeritalia Aiport in Turin, where the weather was far from calm and visibility was poor. Only several miles from their destination was the Basilica of Superga, an 18th Century church built to house the tombs of the now dissolved House of Savoy. The church is situated on a hill 672 metres above sea level and it would be the embankment of this hill that the Fiat G212 would crash in to at approximately 5.03pm. It is thought that the dense fog and rain led Meroni to believe that he was on a clear course, despite the fact that he was headed straight for disaster. Whilst doubts were raised over Meroni’s decision to take that particular route during such bad weather, no full explanation for the crash has ever been recorded, the accident is simply seen as ‘pilot error’. So scarce are the details surrounding the crash, the disaster seemed almost as simple as turning off a light; in one afternoon an entire footballing culture disappeared from history. Due perhaps in part to the city’s difficulty in grieving, some accusations were also levelled at the club and surrounding people regarding the disaster but the authorities have always maintained that it was a tragic accident. Vittorio Pozzo was given the unfortunate task of identifying the bodies on the hillside but sadly most could only be recognised by their documentation or personal effects, such was the scale of the injuries inflicted on the men. Not one footballer, official, journalist, or crew member survived the crash on the 4th of May and a scattering of luggage was all that remained of the magical Grande Torino.

Grief was quick to envelope both Turin and Italy. The footballers that had carried people’s hopes throughout the war, whilst also helping to rebuild the nation’s identity in the ensuing years of peace, had gone. For dedicated Toro fans, it felt like yet another cruel joke in the history of the club: financial woes, scandal, war and eventually disaster. For Sauro Toma, Renato Gandolfi and Ferrucio Novo it was heartbreaking on the most personal level, all feeling they should have been on the plane and all harbouring a profound sense of guilt. On May the 6th 1949, a mass funeral took place with over half a million people lining the streets of Turin. Amongst the mourners were footballers from all over Italy as well as journalists, politicians, men, women and children. The Juventus team were scheduled to play a match in Palermo that day but travelled on a later train to ensure that they could take their place alongside the other grieving people in Piazza Castello. The coffin of Virgilio Marosa, the youngest player in the Torino team, was carried on the shoulders of members of the youth squad, the young boys who would eventually be given the unenviable task of replacing the city’s greatest heroes.

Despite the fact that 4 games remained in the 1948-1949 season; the day of the funeral saw Torino declared honorary Serie A champions. The Italian Football Federation decided thatorder must continue however and it was agreed that the remaining fixtures between all teams would take place as scheduled. For Torino there was only one way they could do this, by placing huge responsibility on the shoulders of the young. These players were intended to be football stars of the future but the Superga disaster saw them thrust in to the limelight well before their time. This championship surely was the hardest fight of them all. The death of Il Grande Torino marked the end of post-war optimism at the club, as well as the hope to remain heroes of the city. The fans would have to wait another twenty seven years to see their beloved team crowned champions again.

It is impossible to overstate the impact that the Superga air disaster had on Turin and Torino Calcio FC. Not only footballers but family men, community icons and effectively world celebrities, Il Grande Torino were integral to life in Piedmont. Though not as well known today, in the 1940s their achievements were on par with that of the Manchester United team that crashed at Munich in 1959. In contrast, that accident saw the loss of eight footballers whereas Superga saw an entire team wiped out. Manchester United would also go on to win the European Cup, FA Cup and First Division title all within ten years of Munich, but a decade on from Torino’s crash left them relegated to Serie B for the first time in history. The fate of Il Grande Torino was also inextricably linked with that of the Italian national team. In 1950 they were scheduled to travel to Brazil in an attempt to retain the 1938 World Cup and originally that responsibility would have fallen largely on the shoulders of Torino players. With half of their squad missing, and a fear of flying so intense that they took a boat all the way to Brazil, the team opened their World Cup campaign with a 3-2 loss to Sweden and were eliminated in the first round. In contrast England won the World Cup in 1966, helped by three goals from Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton, a passenger on the plane at Munich only eight years before.

One constant feeling for Toro supporters has been heartbreak and 1949 would certainly not spell the end of that. Since Superga, Torino have spent a total of twelve spells in the second division and despite claiming the Scudetto in 1976, as well as three Coppa Italia wins in ’68, ’71 and ’93; they have never managed to regain the lasting success of that legendary decade. In 1964 they signedwinger Luigi Meroni (his name sharing a haunting likeness to that of the Fiat G.212. pilot), a 21 year old destined for success. In three seasons he captured the hearts of Torino fans and earned himself the nickname La Farfalla Granata (The Maroon Butterfly), drawing comparisons in playing style with the great George Best. He was even named in the much lambasted 1966 World Cup squad alongside Valentino Mazzola’s son Sandro. His glittering career was cut short one afternoon when, returning from a home game against Sampdoria with a team mate, he was struck by a Fiat Coupé whilst crossing the road in Turin. The driver of the car was a young Torino season ticket holder named Attilio Romero who, in a bizarre twist of fate, would go on to be club president in 2000.

Not all recent history has been downbeat for Il Toro; the championship win of the 1975-1976 season supposedly saw the most people on the streets of Turin since the end of the Second World War. That famous year included a 2-0 win at home against Juventus, a game which featured a goal from the talismanic Paolo Pulici, the top scorer in the Serie A that season and future all-time record goal scorer for Turin. Il Toro would finish only a point behind their rivals in the following season and in 1978 they finished second yet again. One notable trip to Europe took place in the 1991-1992 season, where Torino narrowly lost out on a UEFA Cup win against Ajax on the away goals rule. A year later howver and that same rule saw them win a Coppa Italia stalemate against A.S. Roma, a trophy that would be their last in the Serie A.

As with any moment that defines a team, it is natural for fans to ask themselves ‘what if?’. In Torino’s case there are many parts of history they would undoubtedly wish to rewrite but none more so than the end of Il Grande Torino. By 1949 their club achievements were on par with that of their local rivals but as of today Juventus have sixteen more Scudetti and six more Coppa Italia wins, they’ve won the UEFA Cup three times and the Champions League twice. In the decade after the crash, Juventus were picking up momentum whilst Torino attempted to pick themselves up from the darkest depths of despair, by 1960 it was too late and the Bianconeri had done the domestic double whilst Torino sat in the second division. Those ten years in the wilderness speak volumes, instead of building on a great legacy, Il Toro were searching for their identity. Luckily, notwithstanding further heartbreak, Torino did find their feet again. They may not have matched the honours of their arch-rivals or succeeded in yet again dominating the sporting landscape of Italy but they have certainly survived. Where fans outlive the players, a club will always outlive the fans. Glory can only last so long and in the case of Turin, perhaps the day will come when Il Toro conquer Le Zebre yet again.

– Rory Hill.

You can follow the progress of Rory's book on the history of plane crashes in football on his Twitter: @roryjhill.

Lee NashComment