The tragic history of Wolves' Europa League opponents Torino
A club defined by its glorious post-war successes, with subsequent generations forever failing to live up to those highest of standards.
A club which posted its highest position of recent decades in 2018/19, finishing seventh to secure a rare venture into European competition, hinting at a promising future.
For Wolves in England, read Torino in Italy.
It’s undoubtedly the pick of the Europa League play-off ties. Rich in history and with a burning desire to reclaim those former glories, Wolves and Torino will both feel themselves deserving of reaching the group stage.
One of Ludogorets Razgrad or NK Maribor will be there. As will one of KAA Gent or HNK Rijeka, Ararat-Armenia or F91 Dudelange. But, such is the luck of the draw, one of Wolves or Torino will see their European adventure cut short next Thursday.
Torino’s history incessantly pirouettes around one date – May 4, 1949.
In the preceding five seasons they had won Serie A every single time. In 186 league matches they had lost only 22 times.
The exploits of Grande Torino, as they were dubbed, are legendary.
In those five seasons they scored 483 goals, with 125 of those coming in 1947/48 when they only conceded 33, winning 19 of their 20 home games.
In April 1946, away at Roma, they were 6-0 up at half-time. Their manager told them not to humiliate their opponents any further. After a 7-0 victory they were applauded off the field by the Roma supporters.
Captain Valentino Mazzola was the team’s inspiration. As John Foot writes in his excellent book Calcio: A History of Italian Football, whenever Torino needed a goal a fanatical fan named Oreste Bolmida would blow a trumpet.
Foot writes: “His call signalled the beginning of the ‘Claret red quarter of an hour’: the 15 minutes when the Great Torino would usually crush their opponents.
“As he sounded the trumpet he would run from one end of the pitch to the other. Legend has it that at that point in the game, Valentino Mazzola would pull up his sleeves (literally and metaphorically), shout ‘go’ and Torino would go on to win.”
On May 4, 1949, Torino were flying back from Lisbon where they’d played a friendly.
On the outskirts of Turin, in heavy rain and with visibility dreadfully poor due to heavy fog, the plane crashed into a wall by the Basilica of Superga church. All 31 passengers (including 18 players) and crew were killed.
The impact of the tragedy is arguably still being felt, 70 years later.
Torino won another Serie A title in 1976, but have never again reached the heights of that Grande Torino side.
It’s estimated that the disaster put the game in Italy back 30 years. In 1947, 10 Torino players had been picked in the Italian national side. For the 1950 World Cup (for which the squad travelled by boat, all the way to Brazil, refusing to fly) then two-time winners Italy went out in the first round, as they did in 1954, 1962 and 1966, failing to qualify in 1958.
In Turin, Juventus became the city’s dominant team, with Torino forever in their shadow.
“After Superga the victims of the disaster, already close to perfection and nigh-on unbeatable on the pitch, entered into the realms of myth,” Foot wrote in Calcio.
“Fewer and fewer living fans remembered that great team and the links with the past were more and more flimsy.
“Mazzola and his team-mates had not been forgotten – far from it – but they had become a mythical, soft-focus memory, light years away from the wealth and rhythms of the contemporary game.”
There have been good times for Torino in the past seven decades, but they have been few and far between.
Aside from that 1976 title triumph, they also reached the 1992 UEFA Cup final, losing to Ajax on away goals, hitting the woodwork three times as the score finished 2-2.
Torino won the Italian Cup in 1968, 1971 and 1993 (and lost three consecutive finals from 1980 to 1982). They finished third in 1992 with Enzo Scifo and future world’s most expensive footballer Gianluigi Lentini in their ranks.
In recent years they have flittered between Serie A and Serie B, with a current eight-year stay in the top flight their longest since the 1980s.
Under the guidance of ex-Inter, Napoli and Watford boss Walter Mazzarri, they lost only seven games on their way to finishing seventh last year.
The days of Grande Torino are a distant memory, but the 2019/20 team will aim to make a small slice of new history by beating Wolves tomorrow.