On May 4th 1949 the aircraft bringing the all-conquering Italian side Torino back from a friendly at Benfica crashed into the basilica on a hill called Superga, on the outskirts of Turin. All those on board perished: 18 players, including the heart of the Italian national side, along with the trainers, management, air crew and local journalists. Oddly, one of those trainers was born in Staveley. What was he doing on the flight?
We have to go back to 1939. Ferrucio Novo, the Turin industrialist and former Torino player, bought the club and set about turning them into world-beaters. Novo wanted an English-style team playing the “WM” formation that brought such success to Arsenal under Herbert Chapman. Novo was a modern Football President in the style of a Berlusconi (at least, as far as the football went!) and took care of the club’s image on and off the field. He found great success in wartime football in Italy but to continue this through post-war football Novo looked outside Italy for senior personnel.
Egri Erbstein, a Hungarian Jew, survived the concentration camps to become Torino’s Technical Director while Leslie Leivesley (left) became Trainer. He was the son of the former Arsenal goalie Joe, rose to the rank of Squadron Leader during meritorious service in the Second World War. Les had played at wing-half for Doncaster Rovers, Manchester United (briefly), Torquay United and Crystal Palace. He also signed for Chesterfield in March 1933 but, oddly, does not appear to have played more than a handful of reserve games for The Spireites. He returned to football after the war as a coach in Holland. He moved to Turin around 1947. He was a born leader of men – tall, well-built and fearless.
Images of the "Grande Torino" side
Success continued and grew. The Italy side that beat Hungary in 1947 contained now fewer than ten Torino players as the club racked up successive championships, going six years unbeaten at their much-loved, if a little ramshackle ground, at Filadelfia. Their fame brought invitations to tour to Brazil, and left them in demand as opponents for testimonial games – so it was that they visited Lisbon in May 1949.
Following a 4-3 defeat the aircraft carrying the team diverted from a planned landing at Milan – for no accountable reason – and made for Turin instead. A thick haze enveloped the city and mountains around it, and rain fell steadily as the pilots searched for the airfield.
The rest can be better imagined than described. As always, there are stories of survival; Sauro Toma had a knee injury and didn’t fly, while Valentino Mazzola, father of the great Italian player Sandro, went despite suffering from flu. The match had been organised at his instigation and felt he could not stay at home while his mates travelled. The funeral for the victims attracted an estimated 500,000 people, including supporters from all over Italy and Europe. Leivesley was buried in Turin with his team-mates.
Torino put out their reserves to complete the last four games of the season; as a mark of respect, their opponents fielded reserve teams, too. Torino won it, but it would be their last Scudetto for nearly thirty years as the side yo-yoed between the first and second divisions.
Torino's Filadelfia ground was abandoned after both Torino and Juventus were encouraged to share the Stadio Mussolini (thoughtfully renamed the Stadio Delle Alpi,) and it lay unused since Toro stopped training there in the 1990s. Plans continued to be published to refurbish it and move Torino back in, but successive attempts to get the project moving stalled under the weight of planning arguments and local politics, until 2015, when work began on a plan to build a 4,000 capacity stadium on the site that would host Torino's reserve and youth set-up. Filadelfia’s re-birth will be a fitting memorial to the men who lost their lives on a foggy hillside in 1949.