WORDS: PETER BOURNE
Triumph and tragedy sit uneasily alongside each other as Peter Bourne looks at the moments, the men and the mindset that define one of Italy’s oldest clubs in the second part of his love letter to Torino…
TORINO SUPPORTERS. DEFINED.
Proud. Pessimistic. Romantic. Resilient. Unique.
No club in Italian football has had such an influence in popular culture from novels to poems to films. Torino provide plentiful screenplay material.
MY FIRST LIVE MATCH
It took me seven years to watch Toro play live. It shouldn’t have taken this long. In the age before cheap airlines and for my 18th birthday, my father took me to Turin with the idea of watching the final match of the 1996/97 Serie B season. Booking the tickets some six months beforehand, we hoped to be celebrating promotion. Instead, Toro suffered the worst season in their history, finishing ninth. Fortunately for us, a month before the trip, the fixtures were inexplicably shifted and the game played a week earlier. Toro lost 4-0 at home to Ravenna: a good game to avoid.
My first match eventually came at the beginning of the 1999/2000 season – against Inter at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Backed by a large following, Toro matched their opponents for much of the game. At 0-0, Marco Ferrante saw his penalty saved by Angelo Peruzzi and within minutes Christian Vieri scored for Inter against his former club. It was fitting that, in my first game, I would witness a hard-fought defeat.
A SYMBOLIC PLAYER #1
Gigi Meroni. The tragic ‘what if’. A bit like Torino. Meroni was killed in a car crash at the age of 24 in October 1967, just hours after a league win over Sampdoria. Handsome, atypical and anti-conformist – Meroni was a kind of Italian George Best without the bar tab. Nicknamed ‘La Farfalla Granata – The Maroon Butterfly’ – his scintillating wing play, rock star looks and quirkiness ensured him cult status long before he died. Meroni represented Italy at the 1966 World Cup and a wonderful career lay ahead.
Instead, he was mowed down by a car driven by a young Torino supporter called Attilio Romero. Name ring a bell? It should. Romero was the very man who some 35 years later presided over the demise of Torino Calcio as President of the club. If that wasn’t spooky enough, the name of the pilot during the Superga air tragedy that took the lives of the entire Torino team in 1949? Pierluigi Meroni….
Tragedy stuck again shortly after Torino won their last Scudetto in 1976. The club’s former captain Giorgio Ferrini (he of the Battle of Santiago at the 1962 World Cup) – who still holds Torino’s record number of league appearances – died of an aneurysm a year after retiring from the game and becoming part of the backroom staff.
A SYMBOLIC PLAYER #2
It is unlikely that any of the players who have donned the Toro shirt in the last 20 years would make the club’s all-time best XI. And most of the club’s icons are long retired or dead.
During my twenty years of support, Toro had some decent players – Luca Marchegiani, Enzo Scifo, Abedi Pele, Jocelyn Angloma, Enzo Francescoli. However, players of this magnitude wouldn’t best capture the spirit of the last 20 years.
Perhaps Gigi Lentini, who in 1992 left for Milan in a world record £13 million deal, embodies the decline of Toro. His departure from Turin was played out to violent protests, his passage to greatness at Milan curtailed by a near fatal car crash which effectively ended his career; an accident set aside in folklore (there are plenty of internet rumours). Lentini returned to Torino in 1997, staying for five seasons, largely resembling a player competing in a veterans’ tournament. He still had the touch, but his physique and deceptive pace was shot. Once sold for £13 million to a month of fervent protests, his departure on a free transfer nearly a decade later went without a whisper.
Lentini became depressed, eating and smoking his way through a nine-month football sabbatical before resuming his career in the lower divisions.
First and foremost: I Gobbi – the hunchbacks. On the field, Juventus and Torino have not had a meaningful rivalry for twenty years but off the pitch, the relationship remains spiteful and complicated.
Torino are the team of the city of Turin, Juventus the team of Italy. Within the city itself, the divide is visible. Juventus are largely backed by FIAT, the company who brought the money and migrant workers to the city during the economic boom of the 1960s. Two factors which have helped spiral the Old Lady to sustained periods of success and cemented her position (until recent developments) as the most popular team in the peninsula. The most liked perhaps, but never the most loved.
Juventus have always had the support of the city’s aristocracy, Torino the proletariat vote. This has created an imbalance within the city. Despite Toro having the overwhelming support, Juventus have always found more influence.
Toro have not won the Derby della Mole since 1995, until when the scores had been relatively equal. Toro’s decline has led the rivalry to become quite one sided. Most young Juventus supporters would now prefer to beat Inter or Milan.
One of the few bright spots over the last two decades for Torino supporters was the Calciopoli scandal, which exposed many of the long-standing sensations that had been held. A year earlier, there was widespread belief that Juventus had sought to capitalise on Toro’s bankruptcy, and push Turin towards being a ‘one club’ city. There was little sympathy for Luciano Moggi and his clan when their SIM cards were seized.
Historically, Torino have enjoyed a good relationship with Genoa (until a mass punch-up between players following a recent fixture) and Fiorentina (by virtue of a common hatred for Juventus), while other rivals include Perugia, Sampdoria and Verona.
ANNEX: THE CONTEXT OF SUPERGA
4 May 1949 is a date that should be etched on all self-respecting Italian football minds. The Superga air disaster – which saw the entire Torino team wiped out – remains one of the dark day’s in the country’s sporting history.
That Torino team, on course for their fifth straight Serie A title – a record only shared with the Juventus team of the 1930s – is widely considered the greatest Italian club side ever. Il Grande Torino stood not only as an example of sporting excellence but of pride, spirit and history and was a symbol of Italy’s recovery from a barbaric and painful Second World War after which the country’s pride and mood were ravished following a humiliating defeat. This team helped to forge a spirit of the new, young Italy.
The nature of the tragedy goes some way towards revealing the significance of this side. In an era before European club football and with limited air travel, Il Grande Torino had already become the first Italian side to play a series of games in South America and were on their way back from a friendly against Benfica in Lisbon when tragedy struck.
The tie had been organised by captain Valentino Mazzola and his friend Jose Ferreira, captain of Benfica, who was marking his retirement from the game. Il Grande Torino had a global appeal and could also count Eva Peron, Argentina’s First Lady, as a supporter. Fittingly, the Granata were also the first Italian team to play outside of Italy following World War II – a friendly in Switzerland.
At 17:04 on May 4, 1949, the plane piloted by Pierluigi Meroni was forced to take a diversion to Milan due to the misty conditions and low clouds which prevented landing in Turin. However, the atrocious visibility led the pilot into a fateful crash into the Superga hill just beneath the Basilica. There were no survivors.
Reeling off impressive statistics still doesn’t do justice to the greatness of this side but to pick a few, Il Grande Torino never lost a Serie A home match at the side’s mythical Stadio Filadelfia – 93 matches, 83 wins, 10 draws and only two opponents kept clean sheets – and not only did they never lose but victories which hit double figures were not uncommon, as Alessandria, following a 10-0 defeat during the 1947-48 season, can testify.
Unlike Manchester United, who after the Munich air disaster grew into an international superpower, Torino have never truly recovered from the heartbreak.