AC Torino and Superga: Football’s Forgotten Air Disaster – by Rob Atkinson


Today, February 6th, is the 57th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, a seminal event in English football history – in more ways than one. The shockwaves were felt worldwide as the heart was ripped out of a Manchester United team of massive potential, one that had already achieved much, and promised to go on and dominate at home – and possibly abroad, too. The casualty list is well-known, and especially fondly-remembered is Duncan Edwards, a young colossus of immense presence and ability with a glittering future ahead of him. He hung on to life for almost a fortnight after the accident, before succumbing to his injuries on February 19th 1958. The team’s manager, Matt Busby, was also left fighting for his life, and twice received the Last Rites, but thankfully he pulled through and went on to build another great team.

This is the story that everyone is familiar with. The name of Manchester United is synonymous in the minds of football fans everywhere with Munich, and the disaster which decimated the Busby Babes.  The event has such iconic status that it has helped garner the club a worldwide fan base, and certainly in the period preceding the last twenty years of their dominance, Man Utd were often regarded as everyone’s second-favourite team, based largely on the legacy of Munich.

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Superga Air Disaster, May 4th 1949

It may surprise a lot of people then, to hear that Munich was not the only, nor yet the worst disaster of this nature to strike a major football club. On Wednesday 4th May 1949, the Torino football team were returning home from a friendly match in Lisbon, when their aeroplane crashed into the hill of Superga near Turin, killing all 31 people on board including 18 players. The Torino football team, popularly known as Il Grande Torino, were a legendary outfit. They won the last Italian league title before World War II, and when the competition resumed after the hostilities, they won four consecutive post-war titles too. At the time of the crash, Torino was leading the title race with four games to go. They fielded a youth team in each of those games, and as a mark of respect, their opponents did the same. The youth team, Primavera, won those four games to claim the Scudetto.

The disaster had hit Torino, and indeed Italian football, very hard indeed. Only three of the Champions’ squad were left, each having missed the fatal flight for one reason or another. The national team was also seriously weakened, as the players who died made up the bulk of the Italian squad. The Torino club itself failed to win another national title until 1976, fully 27 years after Superga. The crash was arguably the worst of its kind, in terms of the number of fatalities, the lack of survivors, and the impact on club and national football. Yet there have been other calamities, some much more recent than either Munich or Superga. In 1993, almost the entire national squad of Zambia died in an air crash. Virtually the whole of the Russian ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl perished in similar disaster in 2011. There are at least four more comparable incidents.

Why, then, are we so familiar with the story of Munich, but not – for instance – with the terrible loss suffered by Torino AC in 1949? We may think it’s because Manchester United are an English football club, and maybe there is some parochialism going on here. But the fame and infamy of Munich is a worldwide phenomenon, and the modern Manchester United owes much of its current global fan base to the legend that arose around the Busby Babes. Perhaps it’s because news media had progressed in the nine years between the two events, but as we have seen, much more recent tragedies remain relatively obscure.

Munich Memorial with AIG logo highlighted

Munich Memorial with AIG logo highlighted – tacky

The club itself, it must be said, have not been shy about keeping the memory of the disaster very much to the forefront of the public mind, whilst being curiously reticent and some would say callous in their treatment of some of the bereaved and of the survivors. Many felt that the decision to incorporate a sponsor’s logo into the Munich memorial outside Old Trafford was somewhat tacky. And “tacky” is a term that could easily be applied to the treatment of Munich survivor Jackie Blanchflower, for instance, who was severely injured in the crash, yet was removed from his club house shortly afterwards, with virtually no compensation.

Jeff Connor, in his sensitively-written and excellent bookThe Lost Babes, draws an illuminating contrast between the club welcoming publicity about Munich, whilst seeming somewhat uncaring about the consequences for the families left bereaved, and living a reduced existence. The bitterness felt by many people close to the Munich victims does not form a part of the legend as perpetuated by Manchester United FC. It has also frequently been claimed in popular culture that the Manchester United club owes a lot of its current and recent standing to the events of 57 years ago – a famous clip from Jimmy McGovern’s “The Street” features a rant delivered by actor Jim Broadbent, his character in the BBC drama voicing just this sentiment.

Torino AC, the club so devastated by the Superga Disaster all those years ago, did not place the same emphasis on the continual commemoration and reminiscing employed by Manchester United and its fans worldwide. Perhaps this is why they struggled for so long to regain any sort of pre-eminence, whereas it was only ten years after Munich that Matt Busby was knighted in the wake of his club’s European Cup triumph. What seems certain is that the mystique surrounding Munich, which seems to suggest that the 1958 disaster stands pre-eminent in the pantheon of sporting tragedy, does not hold up to closer examination, and should instead perhaps be marked to the credit, for want of a more appropriate word, of those who have worked so feverishly over the years to promote Man Utd as the world’s premier football club.

It is right and proper that the dead of any disaster should be remembered with respect and reverence, for their achievements in life, and to mourn their loss and the sadness of potential unfulfilled. But that should apply to all such tragedies and there has been undue emphasis on the tragedy and the marketability of Munich for far too long now.

If you offer up a thought for the Lost Babes today – I’m right there with you. But come the 4th of May – let’s also light a candle, on the 66th anniversary of that disaster, for the dead of Superga.

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10 responses to “AC Torino and Superga: Football’s Forgotten Air Disaster – by Rob Atkinson

  1. murphy jnr

    There are plenty of survivors of munich with good words for the club ie ken morgans harry gregg etc. Nobby stiles hadhis medals bought by the club for record fees. Two sides to every story and different owners. Not the club as such more the owners.

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  2. murphy jnr

    With regards to so called self promoting the disaster. The don’t have to do that in any way shape or form. The press around the world are happy to latch onto a disaster story containing bravery in gregg, scapegoat in the captain. A baby, mystery ie cause of crash, the ages of the players, two attempts to take off, the complete distruction of a family home, pressmen killed, the name cleared of the scapegoat captain. The doctors who saved so many lives. The fact that the club defied the football assoc and entered the competition and payed with tragedy all adds up to whole of scenery. It’s storybook and Manchester United where the club it happened to. After all that I think they deserved to be thhought of in a special way not castigated.

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    • I’m afraid I disagree; it’s self-evident that the club have capitalised on this event for over half a century. They’re more notable for cynical commercialism than for any real efforts to look after survivors, the injured, the bereaved and dependents.

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  3. murphy jnr

    The early years after the disaster i don’t know what went on or for sure how players were treated. But I do know that following the complaints of bill foulkes years after his retie when he said the club just forgot about him and never bothered including him in any goings on at the club. The club made massive strides to correct anything like that ever being said again. The saying family club reallyis the case now with ex players looked afer families welcomed to all functions. Ex players and managers ie ron atkinson involved inmedia and more. Its all very hands on. If any mistakes were made regarding the munich families Manchester United (certainly during the ownerships and when they were put on the stock market) during alex fergusons care have created a whole new understanding of ex player issues for all wage earners. All i see is better welfare and gratitude to these ex pro young and old. Long may it continue. I stand by my thoughts on munich and Manchester United milking it. With regards to AIG thing, that tribute wasn’t put up there permanent and looks like the crass oversight it is. Mistakes will happen when they shouldn’t. Ive never known United milk munich. They tribute the lads every year and and praise and compare those players within the club, fan sites, fan clubs, mutv where ever appropriate. And long may it continue. I’ll stand corrected if anyone can give me instance of Manchester United banging the munich drum.

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  4. murphy jnr

    Rob the commercialism you refer to only really took off after the realization of the money to be made from forming of the Premier League the reformation of the European Cup to Champions League and the global explosion of football. Sure United did do tours before all this where they played teams around Europe especially Denmark Sweden and Ireland. Not to promote themselves but because they were in demand to the fans around the world. Rob after munich untill the big commercial boom clubs relied on gate receipts basically. So your argument that United were only interested in commercialism for 50 odd years is misguided and untrue. Your wrong Rob. Anyone spouting United bang the munich commercial or sympathy drum. Have been listening to the jealous rubbish touted about because of United’s standing in the game. They are there to be ahot at. We understand that. But for those who want a fairer picture lets look at it how it really is. Who has done more for lesser clubs than Manchester United. When some club needs MONEY who do they call on for help.

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    • You obviously have your Man U-tinted specs on. You really should read “The Lost Babes” and there’s a few more books out there which avoid the usual sycophancy too. Oh – and search Man U on my blog, if you want to know more of my own views on the Man U Myth.

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  5. Very true.

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  6. murphy jnr

    Rob I don’t need to read anything about what we are discussing, Ive admitted I don’t know all that went on. Respectfully neither does anyone else. Ive admitted if United were neglectful they have tried to make amends (if all what has been implied is correct). Ive supported them since 1956 and have followed them through thick and thin. Rose coloured specs! You bet yer. Im a fan, but not to the point of being blinded. All I said was lets give credit where its due with regards to correcting any mistakes, intentional or not. As I said owners come and go they make decisions along the way. To malign the club as a whole because of the indiscressions of individuals is the complete story is it. The good name of Manchester United is being slagged off here when the people supposedly responsible are dead and buried. Do you see my point. If you decided to do another piece on the subject keep the present as well as the past in mind. Your a good writer Rob but as much as you praise the football players of the club, your mean streak comes out towads the club as whole. I also see you try not be a hater which is good. So bear in mind what I ask and keep all things in perspective.

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  7. Robskibeat

    Superga was the reason the national team, gli azzurri, had to adopt their infamous style of catennacio (padlock), counter attacking football as the most gifted attacking players of the time were on that plane. It’s helped secure a further two world cups. This is why it pains me when people whine about the national side, it was out of necessity we adopted this formula, it was successful so we stuck at it. Now we try to play piedi buoni, we are finding it hard to adjust and won’t be a force again for another World Cup or so. What’s all this about Munich anyway? I thought ‘Munich disaster’ referred to 1975. You learn something new every day

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  8. Pingback: Man Utd, Financial Fair Play and “The United Brand”: a Leeds United Fan Accuses – by Rob Atkinson | Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything

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