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The plane crash that killed Serie A's champions and their English coach.


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The plane crash that killed Serie A's champions and their English coach.

By Patrick Jennings

BBC Sport


Bill Lievesley had just got home from school when his mum came in and told him: "People are saying there's been a plane crash."

Close by on the outskirts of Turin, the wreckage of an aeroplane lay smouldering on the Superga hill, 700 metres up behind the giant basilica that overlooks the city.

Going through the suitcases and bodies, searchers eventually identified the victims and began to realise that among the 31 dead were Serie A's all-conquering champions, Il Grande Torino.


It was 4 May 1949 and Torino were set to win a fifth consecutive league title. With four matches of the season remaining, the team had flown out to play a testimonial match for a Benfica player in Lisbon.

On the way back, almost the entire squad was killed, including their Hungarian-Jewish manager who had escaped from the Nazis and their English coach Leslie Lievesley, a former Manchester United full-back who incredibly had survived three previous air crashes. His son Bill was about to turn 11.

On that late afternoon, news quickly spread throughout the north Italian city. By evening it had reached Sauro Toma, a defender who had not travelled with his team-mates because of injury. Scores of emotionally overwhelmed fans mobbed him in the street. Before his death in 2018, aged 92, he said he lived as someone "condemned to survive, while my brothers perished".

The plane had collided with the back of the basilica wall, amid thick fog. Later it was concluded malfunctioning equipment must have led the pilot to believe he was well clear of the building, realising only when it was too late.

Two days after the crash, half a million people lined the streets as the funerals were held. Torino were awarded the Serie A title, at the request of their rivals. Only fate could beat them, it was said. The team passed into legend not as the Invincibles but the Immortals.

The next season each top-flight club was asked to donate a player to Torino, to help them rebuild. The 1949-50 title was won by Juventus, as Torino finished sixth. They have won the league only once since, in 1975-76, the seventh title in the club's history. This season, city rivals Juve are targeting their eighth in a row, and 35th of all time.

The Superga disaster is central to Torino's identity, and its legacy is not forgotten. Every year thousands congregate at the site where the plane came down. This year will be the 70th anniversary and Bill Lievesley will be among those present.

He first went back for the 60th anniversary, in 2009. He can't really say why he hadn't been before. "I'd been saying it so long, 'now I'm going to do it'. I really owed it to my father to go, and to do it properly," he tells BBC Sport.

On that first trip back, 10 years ago, Bill walked all the way up to Superga and back down to the city again, twice, in two days. It's about 10km from Turin's centre, up twisting roads that lead to the summit finish in the Milan-Torino cycling race. He stripped the soles of his shoes.

We meet where he now lives, in England. The day grows dark as we talk in the comfort of his living room, drinking coffee. Bill is 80 and radiates warmth on a bitterly cold afternoon in south Yorkshire, looking back on a time when Turin was home.

Along the hallway and up the stairs hangs his "gallery of rogues". There are photos of his dad, Leslie, as a Doncaster Rovers player and in a Manchester United team photo, alongside frames of his granddad Joe, goalkeeper for Sheffield United and Arsenal.

Leslie Lievesley moved his wife and young son to north Italy in 1947, when he left his first job as a coach with Dutch side Heracles Almelo to join Torino, having turned down an offer from Marseille.

The English coach was joining an already successful side. Torino became the first Italian team to win the league and cup double in 1943, the final season before Serie A was halted for two years during World War Two.

They still hold three remarkable Italian top-flight records.

In 1947-48, Torino scored 125 goals in their 40 matches, finishing with a record goal difference of +92 on their way their fourth title in as many seasons. By the time of the Superga disaster they had not lost at home in more than six years, while their 10-0 victory over Alessandria in May 1948 remains the biggest in Serie A history.

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This golden age for the club owed much to its president, Ferruccio Novo, who had lovingly signed up some of the country's best players, including Valentino Mazzola, Torino's star who became Italy's captain. Novo was devastated by the disaster. Mazzola had named one of his sons after him.

Novo did not travel on the fateful journey because of a bout of flu. Having failed in the perhaps impossible task of rebuilding the team after the crash, he resigned as Torino president in 1953, three years after leading Italy to the World Cup finals. The Azzurri travelled to Brazil by boat rather than by plane.

The other major influential figure in the club's success was Erno Egri Erbstein, the team's Hungarian manager who had been forced to return to his homeland following the 1938 anti-Semitic law that stripped Jews of their Italian citizenship under Benito Mussolini.

Erbstien escaped from a labour camp in Nazi-occupied Budapest, as is detailed in the book Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football's Forgotten Pioneer by Dominic Bliss. He would return to Torino after the war and continue to win football matches according to his attacking ideals, with help from his English coach.

'Dad probably thought he could beat Hitler single-handed'

Born in 1911, Leslie Lievesley got into coaching after his playing career was cut short by the war. He was at Crystal Palace, and Bill was a baby in Croydon, when in 1939 he signed up to join the Royal Air Force. He became a parachute dispatch officer, often involved in missions to drop soldiers, and sometimes spies, behind enemy lines.

On one such sortie, having been forced to return to base before completing their drop, his plane was shot down over Middle Wallop, just north of Southampton, by American anti-aircraft guns. Friendly fire. Everybody on board was killed, apart from Leslie, who walked out of it. "He was hard as nails," Bill says of his dad. "He probably thought he could beat Hitler single-handed."

There was a second crash in the war - although Bill can't recall the details. The third that Lievesley survived came in 1948 when, travelling with the Torino youth team, the plane's brakes malfunctioned on landing at Turin airport. Disaster was averted because the wing clipped a hangar and slowed the aircraft before it could collide with the terminal building.

That same year, England travelled to Turin to play Italy. Seven of the Torino team lined up against an English side led by goalkeeper and captain Frank Swift, who, as a journalist, would perish in the 1958 Munich air disaster. Stanley Matthews was on the wing and Tom Finney scored twice in a 4-0 win.

Lievesley was by that time also coaching Italy - it was essentially the Torino team after all, in one match all 10 outfield players came from the club. Bill remembers the heavy defeat by England did his father's reputation little damage - if anything, it only increased the desire to learn from the inventors of the game.

Lievesley seemed to always enjoy support from those who mattered most, the players. According to Bill, it was the Torino players who asked for him to be promoted to the first team, having observed his good work with the youth side.

From marble floors to a colliery house and an outside toilet

As a child, Bill would often be taken along to his father's training sessions - "when my mother had had enough of me," he says. He might watch his dad work, or kick a ball about himself with the other kids hanging around Torino's old Filadelfia stadium. It closed in 1963, and for years it lay abandoned. In May 2017 it opened once more and is now back in use as a training ground.

Bill says he was never much of a footballer himself. Cycling was more his thing - twice he competed in the Tour of Britain. But there have been times when he has wondered, what if? What if his dad had chosen to take up the job at Marseille instead, for example. What if his mother had stayed in Italy?

"There were some people who thought she ought not to leave, but she decided she should bring my dad back home, to be buried with his father and brothers," he says.

"I wish we had stayed out there, quite frankly, but she did what she thought was best at the time.

"Coming back to England was not particularly easy. At first we lived with my grandmother in Rossington, not far from Doncaster. It wasn't like our apartment in Turin with marble floors, it was a colliery house.

"In Italy my mum and dad had something of a celebrity lifestyle. Gianni Agnelli, the future head of Fiat, was a big friend of my father's. He'd always be offering him a car but he wouldn't take one, he said they made people lazy. All the players would always cycle around the city.

"We stayed with my grandmother for about a year. It was a strange time for me, like I was walking around in a dream. I think I was just going through the day to day really. You cut yourself off a bit, don't you?

"They put me in for the 11-plus, which I obviously failed miserably. I knew all about Garibaldi but not very much about pounds, shillings and pence. It was all foreign to me.

"There was very little room in the house, no bath, no electricity, the toilet was outside, but I got used to it. Then my mother got some compensation money - either from the airline or the club, I'm not sure - and bought a house in Doncaster.

"I was very dependent on my mother, I really could have done with my father being there. I only knew him for those few years after the war. That's the sad thing of it."

During the brief hours I visited Superga, having arrived by car and not on foot, the air was crisp and the sun's light especially bright as it reflected back off the spectacular snow-covered Alps in the distance. It was difficult to imagine the terrible sights and sounds of that disastrous day, when Torino's small three-engine Fiat passenger plane was immediately destroyed in a direct impact with the holy building that stands guard over the stunning valley below.

There is a memorial monument against the back wall where the plane came down. Football fans from all over the world have been coming here for years to pay their respects and have left scarves of many different colours. There used to be a museum within the basilica itself, before it was forced to move, and it is now housed in a much larger space in Grugliasco, a suburb of Turin.

Strangely, the club itself offers no official support, funding or encouragement to the museum. In fact scores of items, relics of Torino's golden age, were discarded and left abandoned under a previous ownership. They now sit proudly as exhibits in the museum run by dozens of dedicated volunteers.

They have helped keep the memory of Il Grande Torino alive - not just for one day in May.

Edited by erskblue
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Great Reputations: Torino 1940s – just how good were they?

By GOTP Editorial - NF JensenMay 4, 2018May 4, 2018

THE SUPERGA air crash is embedded in the psyche of Italian football in much the same way that the Munich air disaster is in the history of the English game. There are great similarities in the two tragedies: Torino were the dominant force in Italy during and after world war two, Manchester United were standing astride the Football League in the late 1950s.

Premature death can make “legends” out of sportsmen, entertainers and other artists, but you could argue that Torino’s squad of talented players – which formed the vast majority of the Italian national team – had achieved that status in their own lifetime. They were named, “Il Grande Torino” and little wonder: in five seasons, they scored 483 goals and conceded just 165. Between 1942-43 and 1948-49, they won Serie A five times, a period of dominance they have never been able to recapture. Since that fateful season, Torino have won the Italian title just once, in 1975-76.

The roots of success

Torino’s first successful period was built on the back of the Cinzano empire, winning Serie A in 1928 with an expensive and exciting team. A decade or so later, Torino were taken over by Ferruccio Novo, an industrialist with a taste for sport. Novo took the advice of the great Vittorio Pozzo, who had won two World Cups with Italy, and brought a team of people he could trust to the club. His technical adviser was Ernest Erbstein, a Hungarian Jew who survived the holocaust. Antonio Jani and Mario Spur had the experience of winning Serie A in 1928, while a Brit, Leslie Lievesley, was named youth coach.

In the early 1940s, with Italy embroiled in war, Novo started to bring top talent to Torino. World Cup winner Pietro Ferraris was signed from Ambrosiana-Inter for 250,000 Lire. Romeo Menti, a winger, came from Fiorentina for another big fee. But what really created a stir in Turin was the acquisition of three Juventus players in goalkeeper Alfredo Bodoira, prolific forward Felice Borel and Guglielmo Gabetto, another forward who is the only player to win Serie A with both Turin clubs.

In 1941-42, Torino finished runners-up in Serie A, despite being unbeaten at home. But the seeds had been sown for the great team.

The Torino system

Novo was approached by Borel, a player with an eye for tactics and coaching, who suggested that Torino should try a different way of playing. Pozzo’s Italian World Cup winners had set the tone for Italian football, largely built on a sturdy defence and strength. What emerged from the discussion was known as the Sistem and was effectively a modified 3-4-3 formation, although to many, it appeared to be a flexible 4-2-4. Whatever it was, Torino’s style was very much a forerunner of the Dutch “Total Football” of the 1970s.

card torino (200x155)A lot depended on the Trojan-like Mario Rigamonti, the centre half in the WM formation. Rigamonti had joined Torino in 1941 from Brescia. Mostly, the team played with four in midfield, forming a “square”. Flexibility was the watchword, with players switching positions when the occasion required. It was a very modern strategy, years ahead of its time. Very few teams could deal with it and, as a result, Torino comfortably won the Scudetto in 1943, 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1949.

Key to Torino’s success were two players who had been the talk of Italy in 1942: Ezio Loik and Valentino Mazzola of Venezia. Both made their debuts for Italy on April 5, 1942 against Croatia and a few days later, they would both be on the scoresheet as the “Azzurri” beat Spain 4-0. It was actually Italy’s last international for more than three years, when both players, now Torino’s property, lined-up for their country once more.

Torino lured inside forwards Mazzola and Loik away from Venice for a combined fee of 1.4 million Lira. Loik could be a difficult, reflective character and Mazzola was often explosive and bad tempered, in stark contrast to his off-pitch demeanour. His trademark was to nervously roll his sleeves up at the start of a game, which made him a great favourite of the crowd at Torino’s Filadelfia stadium. As a duo, operating as a pair of central midfielder in the Sistema, Loik and Mazzola – the father of the great Sandro Mazzola – were unstoppable.

Title after title

Stadio_Filadelfia_Torino (250x153)After the war, Italy was on its knees and football provided some consolation to a downtrodden nation. Torino won a Serie A competition in 1945-46, but in reality the 1946-47 campaign was the first proper post-war season. Torino won the title with a 10-point margin over their city rivals, Juve, scoring 104 goals in 38 games.

Torino’s influence on Italian football was immense. It was said that Novo paid his players huge sums of money to keep the them happy. Although Novo denied this, it was rumoured that Torino players could earn up to 30,000 Lira for a victory when the average wage in Italy was around 1,000 Lira a month.

But the extent of Torino’s stranglehold on Italian football was illustrated on May 11, 1947 when Italy beat a highly-fancied Hungary side – Puskas and all – by 3-2 in Turin. The entire team was drawn from the host city, but 10 were from Torino: Ballarin, Maroso, Grezar, Rigamonti, Castigliano, Menti, Loik, Gabetto, Mazzola and Ferraris. Only goalkeeper Sentimenti was from Juventus.

The following year, Torino won Serie A with a 16-point margin over Milan, netting 125 goals. The 1948-49 season, the great Torino team’s last, started with a win against Pro Patria but in the second game, they were beaten 2-3 at Atalanta. But by the time they won the first Turin derby of the season, in October, the team was hitting its stride.

They lost just three games – in addition to the Atalanta defeat, they were beaten at Milan (0-1) and Gena (0-3). But they beat closest rivals, Inter, 4-2 at home in an exciting game and drew 0-0 away. They also completed the double over Juve. Only one team, Triestina, avoided defeat at the Filadelfia, and that was a 1-1 draw.

May 4, 1949…and we shall never know

Torino were on the verge of winning Serie A after an 18-game unbeaten run, and were invited to play Benfica for a friendly game. They returned home from Lisbon to bad weathe. The crash, into mountain at Superga, killed the entire squad. It was a disaster that stunned Italy. Arguably, Torino football club has never recovered from it. It stopped the club in its tracks.

Italy’s World Cup bid in 1950 was also derailed, although they travelled to Brazil. Torino played in the inaugural Latin Cup in 1949, but it was not the team that captured the imagination of a war-torn nation. In 1949-50, Torino finished sixth in Serie A, in 1951, they were 15th and in 1959, the decline was complete – relegation.

A few years earlier, in 1955, the European Cup was born, but Torino were nowhere to be seen – Milan were now the Italian champions. Life is full of ifs and buts, but if things had been different and if the weather had been kinder on May 4, 1949, it’s a fair bet that Il Toro – the Bull – would have featured among Europe’s elite clubs.

Edited by erskblue
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7 hours ago, fishCFC said:

I really enjoyed that.

I wondered if you had heard the story of the Torino-loving Priest who rang his Church bells in Turin when Barca scored first against Juve in 2015. When questioned he blamed it on a misunderstanding with his young Assistant.

Clearly a man who "works in mysterious ways"




Nope never heard that one:biggrin:

Wonder if there is/was a similar 'misunderstanding' after Ajax put Juventus out last night !

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  May 2015 by MATT CLOUGH.    www.thesefoitballtimes.co  

The history of football, like anything that hinges on so many disparate variables converging in one place, plays host to innumerable ‘what if’ moments. For all the relentless analysis, the rigorous preparation, the untold fortunes poured into the modern game, it’s remarkable that so many matches, cups, even league titles boil down to one microscopic moment.

All the razzmatazz and showmanship of the sport nowadays may talk a big game, but football remains a game of inches. Some of these moments are bigger than others. On 4 May 1949, the course of Italian and quite possibly world football changed forever. Although no-one could have predicted for certain just how long-lasting this change would be, over 60 years later it has proved little short of irrevocable.

An unusually thick fog had enveloped the city of Turin since morning, cloaking the skyline in an opaque veil. A flight bound from Lisbon, via Barcelona began its approach to the city at around five o’clock in the evening. Ordinarily, the Italian sun would have just begun to cast shadows down the winding streets below, but on this day, the relatively small Fiat plane may as well have been landing in the dead of night. 

The pilot began plotting his final descent into Turin-Aeritalia Airport, but with the murk choking visibility, he was thrown off course and began descending too quickly. The exact cause of the loss of direction and the too rapid a descent will remain forever a mystery, but the sickening explosion of the jet careening into the side of the Basilica of Superga atop the hill of Turin brought people from their homes in little doubt as to what had just happened.

All 31 passengers were killed, and numbering among them was quite possibly the greatest Italian club side of all time, venerated across the country with the eponym Il Grande Torino.

Genoa and Pro Vercelli had been the early pacesetters in Italian football, but the consolidation of Italian calcio with the formation of the national Serie A league in 1929 saw Juventus take a vice-like grip on proceedings, winning five titles in a row before sinking back into the lower reaches of the league and leaving Italy without a dominant force.

Unbeknownst to Juve, at their cross-town rivals the wheels were already in motion to rectify the situation. Former Torino player Ferruccio Novo had made his fortune after leaving the game as an industrial magnate, and in 1939 he bought the club and returned as president, bringing the same verve and acumen that had made him successful in the world of business combined with an unusual openness to new ideas. Just prior to Novo’s arrival, the club had made a perhaps even more significant acquisition in the form of Hungarian trainer Ernest Erbstein.

Novo was tearing up the received wisdom of decades of football management, and in Erbstein he found a willing accomplice, a man who, like Novo, wasn’t afraid of acting out against perceived truisms in the game that, when examined in a cold, clinical light, were simply impractical or illogical. Erbstein’s first season saw Il Toro finish just four points behind champions Bologna, their best result in the new national league format.

Taking inspiration from Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal on the suggestion of striker Felice Borel, Novo and Erbstein began implementing a W-M system that flew in the face of traditionally defensive Italian tactics. Concurrently, Novo was recruiting the players who would enable his team to utilise the system effectively.

The extensive work undertaken by Novo and Erbstein began to bear fruit during the Second World War, although the latter’s Jewish faith made him a target for persecution. He fled to his native Hungary after Mussolini  issued the ‘Manifesto of Race’ in 1938 before being sent to a concentration camp, where, unlike millions of others, he managed to survive and returned to the team following the resolution of the conflict. 

Meanwhile, another close miss in the 1941-42 season was followed the next year by glory, as Torino captured both the scudetto and the Coppa Italia, the first time an Italian team had achieved the double. Torino hit the second most goals and boasted the most miserly defence that season, an undeniable vindication of the new system. 

The victory was spurred by the arrival of two of Venezia’s star players, inside-right Ezio Loik and inside-left Valentino Mazzola,father of the Inter legend Sandro.

The pair arrived having put paid to Torino’s chances for the title with just three games to go in 1942 and had an equally seismic impact in the team as they had against it. 

Loik immediately became the team’s athletic engine, able to draw on apparently inexhaustible wells of energy and transform defence into attack with galloping runs through the centre of the pitch. Mazzola wore the captain’s armband, but he was so much more. A talismanic presence who simply refused to accept anything less than perfection from himself and his team-mates, he led by example on numerous occasions and was the capocannoniere (top scorer award) in the 1946-47 season with 29 goals. Mazzola has since been recognised as one of the first great footballers.

Ahead of them, Guglielmo Gabetto’s innate goal scoring ability was complemented by the searing pace and devastating trickery of wingers Franco Ossola and Romeo Menti, while behind lay Giuseppe Grezar and Eusebio Castigliano, right and left half, respectively. Grezar shouldered the bulk of the defensive midfield work, utilising a ferocious tackle to keep would-be marauders heading toward the Torino backline at bay. Castigliano was a kindred spirit of Loik, possessing the ability to turn robust defence into scintillating attack in a heartbeat. Together with Loik and Mazzolo, Castigliano and Grezar were dubbed the quadrilatero in recognition of the synergy with which they entwined in the centre of the field.


Read  |  Valentino Mazzola: the legendary leader of Il Grande Torino

For teams that were able to break through the fearsome, fiery midfield four, a veritable brick wall stood between them and the Torino net. Aldo Ballarin was a composed, no-nonsense full-back, while his opposite number, Virgilio Maroso, was considered the rising star of the team, a cultured player who eschewed the traditionally functional brand of football espoused by players of his position in favour of a refined passing style. Between them stood the formidable figure of Mario Rigamonti. 

Torino’s attacking style was only possible because Rigamonti was effectively capable, such was his ability, of doing the job of more than one defender, although he was aided and abetted by the team’s custodian, Valerio Bacigalupo, a phenomenal goalkeeper capable of the highest calibre saves and an immensely reassuring presence despite his relatively formative years.

Together, this group of players was all-conquering. 

When football resumed after the war that had been so damaging to Italy’s national pride, citizens and infrastructure, it fell to the game to give the Italian people a reason to cheer again, and all fans, regardless of affiliation, took Il Grande Torinoto their hearts. 

With Erbstein back at the helm, Torino won the first three post-war Serie A championships with increasing ease – the first by a three-point margin, the second by ten, with the 1947-48 season less of a contest than a procession, as i Granata won by a huge 16 points. All three seasons saw the team set records for the number of points scored, and formed part of a six-year unbeaten sequence at home as they scored freely, defended stoically, and played some of the most dazzling football that the people of Italy had ever had the privilege of watching. 

Away from club football, one of the squad’s crowning achievements was the manner in which they dominated the national team, with the high point being a 3-2 victory over the redoubtable Hungarians in 1947, when the only member of the starting line-up not to be on the books of Torino was the goalkeeper. 

With the Italian national team having won both the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, expectations were astronomical and the pressure to help repair Italy’s wounded pride immense, but the Torino players rose to meet the challenge just as they did all others. The 1948-49 season was following the script that the previous four had, with Torino so confident of recapturing their title that they agreed to a prestige friendly against Benfica in Lisbon, despite the fact that the season had yet to conclude. 

A respite from being Italy’s great entertainers was probably the reason for an uncharacteristically lackadaisical defensive display in a 4-3 loss, but it would have mattered little to a group of players (even Mazzola and Bacigalupo, notorious perfectionists) safe in the knowledge that they were in the process of rewriting the annals of Italian history. They boarded the plane home, with none of them envisaging that they had played their final game together.

The haze eventually lifted from the Turin sky, but it was replaced by one altogether more oppressive, bearing down on Italian football and shrouding the game in a darkness that will never dissipate fully. In the aftermath of the crash, there was hope that Mazzola had missed the trip due to flu and that the shattered remnants of the great team could be rebuilt around its irrepressible beating heart, but the dreadful truth quickly emerged. 

Eighteen players in all, Mazzola among them, along with Erbstein, four members of the coaching staff and eight others had perished. Over half a million people watched the funeral procession snake through Turin, while tens of thousands more climbed to Superga. Torino were immediately declared winners of Serie A, but opted to continue the rest of the season with a youth team, an act reciprocated by their remaining opponents out of respect. 

The similarities between Superga and the Munich Air Disaster are plentiful: a young team, beloved for their sense of style, endeavour and spirit, decimated before reaching their full potential. However, while Manchester United would emerge from the disaster to retake their mantle and rule again, fate had other plans for Torino. 

Despite their domination of the 1940s and the mark they left on world football – the Dutch model of Total Football is said to have taken root in the free-flowing, interchangeable talents of Il Grande Torino – things would never be the same again.

One solitary scudetto in 1976 aside, the club has been left in the shade of the long shadow cast by their lost team. Events since, such as the tragic early death of star winger Gigi Meroni in 1967, have only served to compound the sense of loss and fatalistic anguish that haunts the club.

By Matt Clough  @MattJClough

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