After World War II a group of handsome Turin soccer players represented fun and glory to millions of war-weary Italians who had little to rejoice about. Led by temperamental Valentino Mazzola, the Turin team played as if they could read each other's mind. Each of them, in his splendid competence, became a national hero, a symbol of Italy's resurrection.
Turin played dazzling soccer. In the first post-war Italian championships they represented the north against Rome, all-powerful in the south. To the cheers of fans (tifosi) who backed them heavily, Turin stars passed the ball dizzily back and forth as they worked their way up the field. Rome players watched helplessly while Turin made six goals in 18 minutes of play.
The team's absolute mastery of soccer might have become a bore except for the thoroughly human characteristics of its members. Captain Mazzola, a forward, was a genius on the field at inside left, but he had redeeming faults. He was highly nervous and irascible. Occasionally even his own teammates became aggravated with his fits of temper. Before a match with a team from Florence in the 1947-48 season, Turin players were so miffed they at first refused to start the game with him. When the complete team finally took the field, the others refused to pass to Mazzola. In the last minutes of play a furious Mazzola left his forward position, dropped back into the defense area and stole the ball. All alone he worked it down the field, feinting past one defender, then another until he scored. Turin won 1-0 on Mazzola's enterprise. His teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders.
Turin's fans were used to high drama. Once (against Rome) Mazzola tore a leg muscle. But he was a fanatical player and the game was hot and close. He would not leave it "until we win." Limping, he took the ball, feinted and dribbled past two defense men to score a goal. Only after making a second goal could he be persuaded to leave the game. Goalkeeper Valerio Bacigalupo, five-time member of the National team, was made of similar stuff. Early in a match against Bologna in the 1945-46 season he broke his wrist. But he played to the end, helping Turin to a 2-0 victory.
Turin players virtually monopolized the Italian National team, composed of the best players in the nation. In the spring of 1949 they had unofficially clinched the national championship well before completing their schedule of games. Having earned the highest honors in Italian soccer, they were invited to Portugal to play a benefit match. Several members of the Turin team were ill or injured. Mazzola, running a temperature, decided at the last moment to board the plane with his fellows. Only two reserve men stayed behind, both in bed with injuries. On the plane were the 11-man first team, seven reserves, two coaches, two managers, a masseur and three top Italian sportswriters.
Four days later as crowds of tifosi waited at the Turin airport to welcome the returning team, the plane circled overhead in a fog-filled sky. A thunderstorm grumbled in the distance. On the nearby hillside the massive white Basilica di Superga (where the kings of Sardinia are buried) appeared, then vanished under black clouds. Suddenly the incoming plane crashed into the outlying Basilica walls and burst into flames. Priests rushing to the scene found the Turin team strewn amid the wreckage. All 26 passengers and five crewmen had been killed instantly. The greatest soccer team in Italy's history was wiped out in what was probably the worst mass disaster in sports history. In spite of drenching rains, a huge crowd, stunned and grieving, inched up the winding road to the hilltop by car, by bicycle and on foot.
As news of the disaster spread, all of Italy went into mourning. The Senate and Chamber of Deputies suspended session, and Turin held a mass state funeral for the dead. In two days more than 800,000 mourners filed into Turin's rococo Palazzo Madama, past the coffins of Italy's greatest team and out into a suddenly sunless world.
The 1948-49 Italian championships were still unfinished. Turin had four-games to play before it could officially claim the title. A token team composed of Turin boys ranging from 16 to 18 years in age set out to finish the schedule. Sympathetic opposing teams met Torino Simbolo, as this squad was called, with young amateur players. Torino Simbolo played the four games and won them all.