WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY: PETER BOURNE
A chance sighting of the BBC’s UEFA Cup highlights in 1992 saw an impressionable English youngster nail his colours to the mast of Torino. Now old enough to know better, Peter Bourne talks us through two decades of abject anguish as a Toro devotee. Calcio, it appears, can be a cruel mistress…
20 years as a Torino supporter have rather scarily just passed.
My first knowing sight of the Granata shirt came in 1992 after my father recorded BBC Sportsnight highlights of the UEFA Cup final first leg between Torino and Ajax. Back in the deep, dark ages when glimpses of foreign football (outside of major championships and finals) were reduced to 30 minutes a season and access to information restricted to World Soccer magazine and exhaustive and uninspiring statistical annuals.
I’m not sure what drew me to the club: whether it was the rich, blood-like Bordeaux coloured shirts, the presence in midfield of the mercurial Belgian, Enzo Scifo (who I’d first admired during Italia ’90 – a watershed moment for many football fans of my age), or the fact that the team had an undeniable stench of the underdog.
That UEFA Cup Final was agonising, a perfect microcosm both of the team’s history and what lay ahead. I can’t complain. Like a cheap packet of fags, the product came with a clear warning.
After a 2-2 first leg draw at a packed Stadio Delle Alpi (don’t judge a book by its cover), the team suffered heartache in the return leg in Amsterdam, hitting the woodwork three times and forcing enraged coach Emiliano Mondonico to lift a chair in protest at some ‘loose’ refereeing decisions.
However, this love affair may not have lasted through the summer had future Toro President Gianmarco Calleri not signed Paul Gascogine for Lazio, prompting Channel 4’s impressive and prematurely axed coverage of Serie A. At the time, Torino were still one of Italy’s top teams, having finished third in the Italian top division in 1992.
Yet my interest has prompted an almost terminal downward spiral following the club’s last major trophy – a dramatic Coppa Italia win in 1993 against Roma (many a time have I thought about revoking my support as a gesture of goodwill). A 3-0 first leg lead was almost overturned due to some more ‘loose’ arbitrage. Roma won 5-2 thanks to a hat-trick of penalties from Giuseppe Giannini. Away goals, on this occasion, were enough for Toro.
From the mid-1960s to 1994, Toro were consistently one of the powerhouses in Serie A. Admittedly, only one Scudetto was claimed in this period but the team was always competitive, had a distinct identity and enjoyed a sound cup pedigree. In the early 1990s I Granata were still, under the guidance of legendary scout Sergio Vatta, producing and nurturing some of Italy’s best footballers at the Stadio Filadelfia. Christian Vieri, Dino Baggio, Gigi Lentini, Diego Fuser and Sandro Cois were among those who came through the ranks to prosper elsewhere.
Then, in 1994, the cancer emerging at the club became public. President Gian Mauro Borsano had taken the club to the brink of European glory under the scope of obtaining political glory. However, behind the scenes, the club’s finances were catastrophic. The workings of successive Presidents only made things worse. By the mid-1990s the crown jewels – Luca Marchegiani, Scifo, Robert Jarni, Carlos Aguilera – were sold. Under Calleri in the summer of 1994, the entire team was flogged on the cheap.
By this stage, I was translating day-old copies of La Gazzetta dello Sport with the aid of a battered Anglo-Italian dictionary, fumbling my way through articles on financial crisis after crisis. A pattern emerged. The club became cripplingly unstable, Presidents came and went, promising the world but only delivering chaos. The team was unrecognisable from one year to the next, senza identità. Despite an impressive 1994/95 campaign, the miracle of surviving on a shoestring budget would not last.
The summer of 1996 marked a nadir in the team’s history, relegated to Serie B for only the third time while archrivals Juventus paraded the Champions League. We were subjected to some of the worst footballers ever to don the shirt.
Carmine Nunziata. Valeriano Fiorin. Fabio Cinetti. Names to send shivers down Toro-supporting spines.
If following Serie A from abroad had become easier, keeping tabs on Serie B was nigh-on impossible. On Sunday afternoons, I had to tune my radio to crackly coverage of ‘Tutto il calcio minuto per minuto’ listening intently for score updates. Otherwise, I was forced to spend half an hour dialling up an internet connection to then decipher early Netscape code and determine how Toro had got on at Castel di Sangro or Cesena.
Football changed during this era and Toro were rapidly left behind, slowly becoming a provincial team, weighed down rather than inspired by a great history. The opening of barriers to more foreign players enabled the richer clubs to pick up talent which otherwise would have been distributed across the league. As Serie A’s famous seven sisters (Juventus, Milan, Inter, Lazio, Roma, Parma and Fiorentina) began to dominate at home and in Europe, Toro became an extremely ugly cousin, falling behind economically, nostalgically patronised.
Over the years my Italian improved, although in the early days of internet news, I was still reliant on irregular access to information. Whenever I saw a pink newspaper from the corner of my eye in some unsuspecting newsagent, I pounced on it. It was the only way of getting news. The team yo-yoed between Serie A and B for the early part of the 21st century, too good for one, not good enough for the other.
Then, post-university, I was paid to write about Italian football full-time, working as part of the editorial staff of Calcio Italia. The daily arrival of Italian newspapers became a welcome sight.
In 2003, events conspired and I was given the opportunity to work in Turin for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. Living in Turin fermented my relationship with the club. On my third day in the city, I watched Toro lose the derby 2-0, with hapless defender Stefano Fattori missing an open goal when Toro were 1-0 down with eight men. Defeats were always comically heroic.
Following the derby, the team were then banned from home matches for the remainder of that season due to crowd trouble. My entire time in Turin was then spent watching mediocre Serie B matches on freezing cold afternoons at an oversized and unloved Stadio Delle Alpi.
Arezzo, Catanzaro, Piacenza, Albinoleffe. Year after year.
Despite having a beer sponsor emblazoned on the team’s shirt for most of that period, alcohol was banned in the stadium. We suffered.
It was only a month after I left Turin that Toro returned to Serie A.
Living in the city allowed me to obtain a season ticket, banter with fellow Toro fans and fully absorb the club’s tragic history – from the Superga air disaster to the untimely deaths of two folk heroes. Whilst the football was poor (and under the guidance of Franco Cimminelli and Attilio Romero, the club never had more detested owners with scant respect for the club’s traditions), my passage to becoming a fully-fledged torinista was complete.
In 2005, the club, burdened by debt, went bankrupt, just a month after a dramatic play-off promotion to Serie A. The saga was played out in public. For weeks, thousands of Toro supporters took to the streets, resembling an audience at the Globe, played out in Dog Day Afternoon heat. We marched and protested and spent hours outside the city hall, pushing someone to save the club. Nobody arrived. The club were declared bankrupt and demoted back to Serie B just weeks before the new season was due to start. The club effectively no longer existed. All contracts had to be renegotiated, a team of players found. The entire promotion team left on free transfers.
There was a silver lining – debts were wiped and a new owner, in the guise of a mini-Berlusconi, Urbano Cairo, marched in with an array of what proved to be redundant slogans. The club left the hated Stadio Delle Alpi to return to the Stadio Comunale, shabbily redeveloped for the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics after 16 years of inactivity. As I left Turin, a feel-good factor re-emerged and, despite the kamikaze way the club was reformed, promotion arrived at the end of that season.
However, six years of average football, a relegation and another promotion later (this season), the club are pretty much no further in the spectrum of Italian football than when Cairo took over. From afar, living in France and now Switzerland, it is easier to follow the team. My support is peppered with pessimistic optimism. The internet ensures I need not miss a game (not always a blessing), news is instantaneous and I’m only missing the operatic experience of the Curva Maratona – that sense of communal suffering and shared joy (although the Comunale’s illogical design has reduced the potency of the curva).
Our hope now is that this latest promotion is no false dawn and that Cairo – whose budget at best is modest – has learned from mistakes caused by naivety and arrogance; that the club can embrace its past in a positive style, redeveloping the mythical Filadelfia as a training venue (reportedly in progress) and nurturing young talent who play the Toro way: with respect and grinta.
If Toro are to return to greatness – perhaps unlikely in this present climate – then the short-term aim should be to follow the model of Udinese, developing players to sell at a profit, and nurturing a style of play. Most of the past 20 years has seen nothing but suffering, which unfortunately has become the principal component of the Toro DNA.
It is high time I, and many others, witnessed the team ‘suffer’ in the upper echelons of Serie A, for it has been a love affair that, until now, has provided more pain than joy.
Perhaps I should have read the small print.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have it any other way.