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‘Something disastrous has happened’: How an air crash instantly wiped out one of soccer’s great teams

By Matias Grez, CNN

(CNN) — Umberto Motto had always dreamed of playing for Torino FC. He had dreamed of pulling on the team’s maroon shirt in front of thousands of adoring fans. And he had dreamed of hearing his name announced as he made his way onto the pitch at the Stadio Filadelfia.

A local boy born in the northern Italian city of Turin and the captain of Torino’s youth team, Motto seemed destined to represent his boyhood club.

His dream did come true – and sooner than he expected – but the day was a living nightmare.

On May 4, 1949, Motto was giving a tour of Turin to two clients of his parents’ factory, which manufactured shirts for Torino and the Italian national team.

Motto recalls a dense fog that hung over the city and says it hadn’t stopped raining for seven days straight, leading the river Po to burst its banks in places.

So bad was the weather that Motto decided to abandon sightseeing in the city and take the two visitors up to the Superga hill and Superga Basilica that overlook Turin, hoping to at least send the tourists home with a view to remember.

The weather, however, was even worse and the fog meant they could barely see a few metres in front of their faces, much less the city below. On their way back down into Turin, the trio stopped for coffee and Motto remembers conversing with the café owner about how unusually bad the weather had been.

When they arrived back in the city, they were met by another unusual sight: the roads packed with cars all honking their horns.

“We thought something good had happened,” Motto, now 93 years old, recalls to CNN.

Motto returned to the Torino FC headquarters in the city where he was met by the building’s caretaker, Mario Lanati, who quickly ushered him upstairs.

“Umberto, you have to know that something disastrous has happened,” Lanati told him. “The plane crashed.”

A confused Motto replied: “Which plane?”

Lanati’s answer would irrevocably change Motto’s life and the lives of everyone associated with Torino.

The plane Lanati was talking about had been carrying almost the entire Torino first team from Lisbon, Portugal where it had been playing a friendly match against Benfica.

With the approach to Turin-Aeritalia Airport affected by the weather conditions, the plane crashed into the side of the Superga hill, killing all 31 people on board.

Among the dead were 18 of Torino’s first-team players, its coaches, Italian sports journalists, and flight crew. It remains one of the biggest sporting disasters in history and immediately wiped out one of the greatest teams Italian football has ever known.

That Torino side, affectionately known as ‘Grande Torino’ due to its incredible success, had been on the brink of securing a fifth straight Italian league title, while its players also formed the backbone of the Italian national team at the time.

The impact on the city and its people was devastating. Author Roberto Pennino spent years interviewing those affected and recounts the sense of loss in his book ‘Immortal Torino,’ which has been released in English for the 75th anniversary of the disaster.

“These players who perished on Superga, they were really approachable,” Pennino tells CNN. “You could see them all over town. They went to the same restaurants, to the same cinemas, to the same bakeries as their supporters.

“So when they perished, they were – as a team – missed deeply, but also in the city itself. All the places they would be seen, and people could have a chat with them. A lot of people felt like they lost a relative.”

On top of the emotional scars that remain visible even 75 years later, Pennino says the sporting cost for Torino was “disastrous.”

The club didn’t have the money or transfer coffers it does today. All of Torino’s capital was on the pitch, Pennino explains. It’s players.

Clubs were supportive during Torino’s plight. To an extent. Other Italian teams loaned – and even gave – players to Torino, Pennino says.

“But never the best players, of course,” he adds.

Club president Feruccio Novo tried desperately to rebuild the team but would never achieve his goal.

“He had an idea to make a second ‘Grande Torino’ and to buy stars, to honor those players, but also to keep up the with the results they had,” Pennino says.

But there was no money, and the support from other teams just wasn’t enough.

After winning five straight championships, Torino has won the first division title just once in the intervening 75 years, lifting the trophy in 1975-76.

‘Forza ragazzi’

Still trying to process what Lanati had told him, Motto remained in denial. Surely, this was impossible, he thought. He had just been on Superga and heard and saw nothing.

Lanati sat Motto down by the radio and told him to listen. The next news report confirmed the tragedy.

As the minutes and hours slowly ticked on, more and more people affiliated with the club began to arrive at the headquarters; the rest of the youth team, the players’ wives and, finally, club president Novo.

Motto remembers Novo, who only missed the trip to Lisbon due to an illness, had to be physically held up by two fans as he entered the building. “He was literally destroyed,” Motto says. “Like all of us.”

Motto says Novo considered the team more like sons than players.

Some journalists had also managed to make it into the building, Motto recalls, and were asking questions to those present. They were met with only silence.

“No one had the courage to speak,” Motto says. “Because we understood that faced with a situation like this, there is no possibility of conversation.”

Days later, the players’ families received the postcards they had been sent while the team was in Lisbon, a poignant detail that Pennino says still gives him goosebumps.

With just four matches of the season remaining, the rest of the league and the Italian federation agreed to award Torino the title, but the team still needed to finish the season.

The federation accepted a proposal from Torino that it would play its youth team, the champions of Italy at the time, against the youth teams of its four remaining opponents.

Before the first match against Genoa – just 11 days after the crash – Motto remembers Novo coming into the changing room and hugging each player individually, before telling them: “Boys, your masters are watching you.”

Even the referee had words of encouragement, according to Motto. “Forza ragazzi,” the referee told the Torino players: “Come on, boys.”

As the captain of the youth team, Motto was also made captain for the remaining four matches and led the team out onto the pitch against Genoa at the Stadio Filadelfia. Motto had made it. His dream was fulfilled. Only it had come in the most unimaginable of circumstances.

Torino’s youth players beat Genoa 4-0 in an atmosphere Motto has never forgotten. The level of noise usually only reserved for a goal boomed from the stands with every pass the team made.

After beating Genoa, Torino went on to earn victories over Palermo, Sampdoria and Fiorentina in the final games of the season. “They honored their mentors in the best possible way,” Pennino says.

As many as 700,000 fans are estimated to have lined the streets as the players’ caskets were driven through the city just two days after the crash.

Today, the club continues to honor its heroes and will hold a service on Saturday, the 75th anniversary of the disaster, at the Monumental Cemetery in Turin, where some of the players are buried.

Later that afternoon, there will be a mass in the Superga Basilica before the day finishes with a service at the Torino FC memorial at the top of the hill.

“They are still remembered every year,” Pennino says. “On May 4, the names are exclaimed on the Superga Hill. It’s a worthy tribute to those great players.”

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