Il Grande Torino

WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
ARTWORK: CORRADO GOLÈ

The Grande Torino were no ordinary champions. They dominated Italian football in the forties and became a symbol of resurgent post-war Italy, whether in the granata of Toro or the azzurri of the national team. We remember the men who lost their lives in the Superga air disaster on 4 May 1949…

Lisbon handshake

This Sunday will mark the 65th anniversary of the Superga air disaster, which claimed the lives of 31 people, including one of the greatest squads in Italian football history.

The Grande Torino, who were returning from a friendly game against Benfica in Lisbon when the wing of their plane clipped the embankment wall of the basilica atop Superga, dominated Italian football in the 1940s. Leaving their wealthy neighbours Juventus in the shade, the team put together by club president Ferruccio Novo and their Hungarian manager Ernő Egri Erbstein lifted the spirits of the working class, both in Turin and all over Italy.

They also won the Scudetto five times – in 1942, 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1949 – and revolutionised the way the game could be played by fusing the short Central European passing game with Italian flair and the solidity of the English W-M system. Indeed, the formation pioneered by Herbert Chapman’s Huddersfield and Arsenal sides in pre-war England was the basis for Erbstein’s preferred tactic in Turin, where it became known as il sistema.

“Egri Erbstein’s Torino had already put into practice – in the forties – tactical concepts that have only been fully assimilated in recent years,” assessed Amedeo Amadei, who became a regular in the Italy squad alongside the Grande Torino players.

“That Torino came to the conclusion that it was not a matter of attackers, half-backs and full-backs. They were able to create, ahead of their time, a remarkable symbiosis between each position.

“Added to the undeniable modernity of the system, the whole squad was of a remarkable technical level.”

Such was their dominance of the domestic game that, on one occasion, Torino provided 10 of the starting XI for an Italy international game against Hungary. Symbolically, it was former Italy coach Vittorio Pozzo who took on the responsibility of identifying the bodies of the Torino players and management following the crash which took the lives of all on board the Fiat G-212 plane on the Superga hilltop, overlooking Turin.

18 players died that afternoon: Valerio Bacigalupo, Aldo Ballarin, Dino Ballarin, Emile Bongiorni, Eusebio Castigliano, Rubens Fadini, Guglielmo Gabetto, Ruggero Grava, Giuseppe Grezar, Ezio Loik, Virgilio Maroso, Danilo Martelli, Valentino Mazzola, Romeo Menti, Piero Operto, Franco Ossola, Mario Rigamonti and Giulio Schubert.

Below, I have profiled what is generally considered to have been the first-choice Grande Torino XI (although Danilo Martelli was regularly selected in various positions) next to the wonderful portraits drawn by Torino supporter and artist, Corrado Golè, who very kindly granted permission for their use in this piece. 

BacigalupoGOALKEEPER: VALERIO BACIGALUPO 

The last line of defence for the Grande Torino, and a man who revelled in the adulation that Italian football fans so often reserve for their great goalkeepers, Bacigalupo had remarkable reflexes and the agility of an acrobat. He was also an emotional, expressive guy, who insisted not just on shutting his opponents out, but doing so with a flawless display.

He was known to berate his team-mates after conceding, literally jumping up and down with his fists clenched, and was dismissed by some foreign correspondents who saw him play for the national team as a childish figure. But Bacigalupo was not attention seeking, he genuinely took every defeat and every concession to heart. To those who knew him well it was an endearing quality, and it drove him to steadily improve, because he never rested on his laurels.

“Bacigalupo had just reached full maturity, athletically, in 1948/49,” reflected journalist Aldo Bardelli. “He was the complete goalkeeper.”

BallarinRIGHT-BACK: ALDO BALLARIN 

An understated right-back, but a committed player with a strong character, who, while not the most famous face in the dressing room, was nevertheless an influential voice.

At first, he struggled to adapt to the demands of the sistema, which forced the full-backs into the wider roles that they occupy in the modern game for the first time. As a result, he took time to find his feet now that he was being called upon to track the runs of opposition wingers, but after some initial teething problems he grew into the role, becoming one of the best in the business between 1947 and 1949, when he regularly turned out for the national team.

Tragically, before the team travelled to Lisbon for their final game, he convinced the management to include his younger brother, Dino – who was yet to play a senior game – in the squad as third-choice goalkeeper, and they were lost together at Superga.

RigamontiCENTRE-HALF-BACK: MARIO RIGAMONTI 

The gangly centre-half was a stubborn and awkward obstacle in the middle of Torino’s three-man backline and he took every goal his team conceded as a personal insult. Towering over the opposition centre-forward, with his broad but slightly hollow frame, he represented the first in Italy’s long and illustrious line of man-marking stopper centre-halves, and he was incredibly resourceful when it came to stopping his man. To beat Rigamonti was to ask for punishment; to score after beating Rigamonti was like taunting a savage beast – something his Italy team-mate Amedeo Amadei discovered to his cost.

“I personally came up against Rigamonti many times,” the Roma, Napoli and Inter striker explained. “Physically I was put through agony… but what fights, what tussles! On one occasion, I had taken a lot from Rigamonti and company, and the next morning I was so bad that I could not get out of bed.”

MarosoLEFT-BACK: VIRGILIO MAROSO 

A thoroughly modern full-back, whose reputation was second only to Valentino Mazzola. The youngest player in the team, Maroso was known as ‘The Kid’ and he broke the mould of the traditional, robust full-backs, with their hard challenges and their hopeful long clearances. Instead, he played the game in a measured and composed way, looking to pass the ball out of defence and offer an angle for the return ball from Giuseppe Grezar and Eusebio Castigliano in the defensive midfield positions. Those who saw the Grande Torino in their pomp claim that Maroso, with his forward runs, his stylish ball play and his languid gait, was a forerunner of the great Giacinto Facchetti, who made full-backs fashionable with his buccaneering approach as he skippered Inter and Italy during the Sixties and Seventies.

Maroso was injured ahead of the trip to Lisbon, and did not play against Benfica, but he insisted on travelling anyway.

GrezarRIGHT-HALF: GIUSEPPE GREZAR 

“Grezar is the ideal type of midfielder for the ‘sistema’,” Egri Erbstein once said of his athletically built anchor man, who was one of four key players at the team’s hub.

Grezar was the deepest lying and hardest tackling of the cogs who filled the half-back and inside-forward roles in the centre of the pitch. Collectively, Grezar, Castigliano, Loik and Mazzola were known as the quadrilatero, and their tenacity off the ball, matched by an unerring directness when driving the team forward through the centre of the pitch, was usually enough to de-motivate the opposition, who struggled to get any kind of foothold in midfield.

Off the field, he built up a close friendship with Aldo Ballarin and the pair briefly went into business together, opening a short-lived fashion outlet selling shirts, but their main connection was formed on the right side of the Grande Torino sistema.

CastiglianoLEFT-HALF: EUSEBIO CASTIGLIANO 

Alongside Grezar, Castigliano’s role was two-fold. He defended doggedly, chasing down opponents and using his significant physical presence to win the ball back before turning and driving at the open spaces left by his dispossessed victim. If he was afforded the space to let fly, the boy from Vercelli certainly liked a pot shot, and he scored nineteen goals from his midfield role in the 1945/46 championship-winning season. However, as he grew older, Castigliano’s game changed and he began instead to look for a quick forward pass to one of the wingers as soon as possible, in order to catch his opponents out of position on the counterattack.

As a half-back pairing, Castigliano and Grezar were an irrepressible, relentless force, and the mere sight of them was completely soul-destroying for opponents.

“What separated them from other teams was the exceptional strength of their midfield,” said ex-Roma winger Bruno Pesaola when interviewed in the Seventies. “You don’t get midfielders like Grezar and Castigliano anymore.”

LoikINSIDE-RIGHT: EZIO LOIK 

In front of the half-backs were two more strong men, although the inside-forward pairing of Ezio Loik and Valentino Mazzola brought much more to the team than sheer athleticism. They arrived as a double act, signed from Venezia together in the summer of 1942 after they had masterminded a victory over Torino in front of Novo, and they understood each other’s game perfectly.

Loik was a powerfully built player with a fittingly forceful style of play. Described by the esteemed journalist Aldo Bardelli as ‘an enlightened workhorse’, the boy from Fiume made driving runs forward, but he matched those physical attributes with finesse on the ball, collecting the ball from the deeper-lying players and moving it on to the forwards. In many ways he was the connecting agent between the W and the M in the sistema, but he also had an eye for goal and had a habit of scoring two or three times when he did find the net.

MazzolaINSIDE-LEFT: VALENTINO MAZZOLA 

Captain and talisman of the Grande Torino, Mazzola was the team’s virtuoso performer and its conductor at the same time. He looked to dictate play, barking orders and demanding the ball wherever it was on the pitch – one minute picking up a short pass from the centre-half on the edge of his own box, the next arriving in the opposition penalty area to finish the move.

Completely two-footed, Mazzola also headed the ball like a centre-forward, and it was rumoured that he could jump higher than the crossbar, despite being only five foot six.

He was instrumental in the functioning of the sistema, making darting runs off the ball and freeing up space for his team-mates to run into. It was this unpredictable movement, this pattern-weaving, that wrought havoc in the opposition ranks.

“When Valentino Mazzola was unleashed, he dragged literally the whole squad with him,” explained Juventus legend, Carlo Parola. “If he saw a team-mate relaxing at a dangerous moment, or if opponents threatened to take over, he rolled up his sleeves and brought the course of the game back on the desired track by force.”

MentiOUTSIDE-RIGHT: ROMEO MENTI 

If you search on YouTube you will find there is some grainy video footage of several Torino games from 1947/48 season, shot from improbably difficult angles, but you can clearly make out the quick feet of Romeo Menti on the right-wing, roasting full-backs and fooling goalkeepers with the feints and body swerves he made famous during his time on the flanks at the Stadio Filadelfia.

One of the most technically gifted members of the squad, Menti could play on either wing and loved running at defenders. He unsettled teams and regularly won free kicks and penalties from uncertain defenders, often stepping up to convert those set-pieces himself.

Menti’s athleticism and his nimble feet, not to mention his unerringly accurate shooting, gave Torino’s purposeful quadrilatero an outlet after they had won possession. After all, the widemen in the sistema were expected to stretch and probe opposition defences with intelligent off-the-ball movement. 

GabettoCENTRE-FORWARD: GUGLIELMO GABETTO 

Unusual among the Grande Torino ranks in that he was already famous before he arrived at the club, Gabetto had made his name across town at Juventus and was considered quite the coup when Toro president Ferruccio Novo managed to bring him to the Stadio Filadelfia.

Gabetto, who was the most experienced player in the team, was an expert at destroying the confidence of the defenders sent to stop him. If the opposition gave him space to play in, he was the perfect foil for the overlapping runs of Mazzola, Loik and the two goal-scoring wingers, Ossola and Menti, but if they chose to play with a centre-back man-marking him, Gabetto was even more deadly, winning aerial duels and meeting crosses with his famous acrobatic finishes. His confidence was reflected in his penchant for taking the ball around the goalkeeper before finishing and his motto: “If it is not difficult, I am not interested in scoring.” 

OssolaOUTSIDE-LEFT: FRANCO OSSOLA 

A slight, yet devastatingly quick left-winger, whose direct running put the fear of God into opposition defenders, Ossola was also an entertainer, with an elegant style about him. When the ball was at his feet, the crowd began to expect something exciting, and he rarely let them down.

Ossola also weighed in with his fair share of goals, thanks largely to a knack of arriving at the back post just at the right moment to meet a cross from the other flank or one of Mazzola or Loik’s famous through-balls.

Off the pitch, Ossola and Gabetto – with their matching, severely parted, brylcreemed hairdos – were best friends and business partners, running the thriving Bar Vittoria together in Turin’s vibrant Via Roma.

His son, who is also called Franco and was unborn at the time of the Superga disaster, has dedicated much of his life to commemorating the Grande Torino team, writing several books, and contributing to many exhibitions.

Dominic Bliss is author of ‘Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Forgotten Pioneer’, which you can order from Blizzard Books now. Follow him on twitter @theinsidelefty

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