FEATURE | Torino’s Superga disaster changed lives and Calcio forever

Sauro Toma’s journey from his home in Turin to Superga was a rather jarring one. The then Torino player had returned home to find commotion outside and people somehow seemed glad that he had ‘survived’. At first, he couldn’t understand what had happened. Later, it sank in.


The cityfolk had informed him that the plane carrying the Torino squad from Barcelona to Turin had crashed as they were returning from a friendly game against Benfica. A severe knee injury meant that he wasn’t in the Il Toro squad for that game but this was much, much worse.


Sauro’s friend – Mario, gave him the shattering news that no one on the plane had survived. The aircraft that was returning from Barcelona, it was later found out, had crashed into the embankment of the Basilica of Superga on an evening when the visibility was low, clouds were almost touching the ground and the gusts of wind were fierce.


When Sauro reached the top of the hill and was in front of the basilica, he was led away by Torino president Iginio Giusti. The wreckage after all was ugly and indeed, no one had survived. While there were rumours that club icon and captain Valentino Mazzola had survived the crash as he had stayed back in Barcelona, that didn’t prove to be true. Torino and Italy had lost so much on just one eventful night.


Bodies hadn’t been identified by the time Sauro had arrived. The Azzurri’s iconic former manager and former Torino player himself – Vittorio Pozzo, was one of the first to arrive onto the scene and he was tasked with identifying bodies. But it was a struggle. So many bodies were unidentifiable. The faces of many victims were beyond recognisable. Some had lost limbs. 


Somehow, Pozzo recognised certain bodies by specific markers such as shoes and ties. At the end of it, two players weren’t identified but were presumed to be victims of the crash. They were Virgilio Maroso and Danilo Martelli, who had won three Scudetti together from 1945 to 1949. The team, famously known as ‘Grande Torino’ had won five Scudetti.


It wasn’t just the players who passed away, as the club’s manager Ernő Egri Erbstein and first-team coach Leslie Lievesley were also victims of the crash. A former Manchester United player, Lievesley had joined Torino as their first-team coach after a spell as their youth coach and he is now survived by his son – Bill.


Now well into his 80s, Bill was nine or ten when his father passed away and while he has limited memory of that dark day, he does remember certain elements of it.


It was a very wet, cold and miserable day when the plane was due to come back,”  Bill tells Get Italian Football News, recalling the day rather vividly.


“I was knocking about outside. It was on the radio that the plane had crashed and there wasn’t much they could say about it first. The reports started coming in and they said they were all dead. My mum couldn’t believe it.


“The people then started coming out on the streets and it was obvious that something was wrong. The plane altimeter was wrong. It came 500 feet lower than it was thought to be and it ran into the side of the Basilica.”


As any other kid who loses a parent at a very early age, Bill was also in a state of confusion days after the crash.


He says: “They were a few terrible days, really. I didn’t really know what was happening. All the players were given a funeral. We were at the funeral and I’ve got some photos of me standing at the side of the coffin. That’s how it is.”


There is a sense of acceptance in Bill’s tone when he speaks of the tragedy, but he reveals that he missed his father as he grew older and wished he was around later.


“I left school at 15 to start work as a steam hammer driver at Hammerworks and went on from there. Fortunately, I did a bit of studying and worked at the district general hospital. I did alright but it’d have been better if my dad was around.”


Superga changed Bill’s life forever. After his father’s demise, he had to move back to England but he didn’t like that. On top of that, he had to change multiple schools when he was young.


“My mother was put under some pressure to take my father back to England, which she did. I was very disappointed we had to stay there as I was doing well at school and I had a lot of friends. Things were not good when my father died but I enjoyed Italy. Coming back to England felt like coming to the Wild West.”


Author Roberto Pennino, in his excellent book Immortal Torino: How the Superga Air Crash Robbed Italian Football of its Champions’, has detailed elements of the disaster in a truly unique way. 



Toma passed away in 2018 and Pennino met him back in 2010 and learned about the events after the crash.


Roberto with Sauro Toma in 2010

Pennino informs Get Italian Football News of how much the team, famously nicknamed ‘Grande Torino’, was beloved by the locals. Unlike the players of today, they often ate at the same restaurants as the common folk and went to the same cinemas as them, forging a bond with the masses that can’t be replicated today.


That connection with the people made sure that even though no players survived, reverberations of the impact continue to be felt throughout the city.


Bill narrates a story which perfectly encapsulates the connection that the Grande Torino side had with not just Torino fans but also with the other side in Turin. He reveals that his father was set to join Juventus at the end of the season and he was honouring Torino’s contract before leaving.


“One game in the season that this Torino side played was against Juventus. My mother, father and me went there. My father wouldn’t have a car because he thought going in a car would make people lazy. Torino won 1-0, I still remember that. I was sitting in the back of the car. The game was over and there were sections of the crowd coming around and they came to around the car. 


“It turned out it was the Juventus crowd and they had found out that my father was joining them and they were there cheering for him standing around the car. I’ll never forget that.”


Bill also reveals that when he was quite young, he used to accompany his father to the grounds and there were times when he had a kickabout with a very young Sandro Mazzola, whose father Valentino had also passed away in the crash. Sandro himself went onto become an Azzurri icon and an Inter hero.



Bill with Roberto Pennino’s book

“I was never really interested in football. I kicked the ball around with the young Sandro Mazzola, who was a couple of years younger than me. 


“I was nine or ten. I did go down to the ground with my father and that is when I had a kick around with Mazzola and he was always much better than me and that’s not surprising.”


Pennino has had conversations with Mazzola and he reveals that the now 81-year-old is still incredibly emotional about his father’s passing back in 1949.


The author says: “He is very emotional about all of it and whenever something about the disaster or his father’s legacy is taking place, he wants to be involved. That is how much he cares about all of it.”


A very young Sandro Mazzola

While the likes of Mazzola and Bill are still very much affected by the disaster, the accident came at a crucial point in history. Grande Torino’s impeccable run came after the evil reputation that Italy had acquired during the World War II. The reputation of the iconic Il Toro side was playing a key role in moulding that tag into a positive one through their attacking playing style and their achievements.


Italy were becoming a footballing force again and Grande Torino were a major reason for the rest of Europe associating the country with the sport. The Italy team of that point had about ten Torino players and the expectation was that the Azzurri would be one of the favourites for the 1950 World Cup.


Pennino informs Get Italian Football News that Ernő Egri Erbstein’s side had actually toured Brazil in 1948 to assess the conditions in the country before the World Cup, as they were going to star for the national side in the tournament in 1950. That never happened and history was changed forever, with Torino having won the Serie A only once since the tragedy.


Torino honour the victims of the crash on the 4th of May every year and Ivan Juric’s Il Toro wore a special jersey dedicated to Grande Torino in the Serie A clash against Bologna yesterday. It is a stark reminder of the significance of the event on the club and even 75 years on, the impact of the disaster is still very much there and it is felt.





Kaustubh Pandey | GIFN

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