The site where arguably the greatest Italian side of all time met their tragic end isn’t immediately obvious. After taking an ancient single-track train up one of the steep hills which surround Turin, you arrive at a small café offering stunning views of the city below. Stunning views, that is, unless the hill is surrounded in icy fog as it often is.
A small path leads visitors up to the Basilica di Superga which stands atop the hill, a grand structure which can be seen for miles around, and which is the resting place of many former kings of Italy. Almost hidden around the back, with barely a signpost to denote its presence, is the site where the entire ‘Grande Torino’ side met their deaths in May 1949.
A monument bearing their names stands there, carved into the rock and surrounded by Torino flags, flowers and scarves donated by various football fans who have visited Superga. On May 4 every year, Granata fans make a pilgrimage to the site, to pay tribute to their greatest ever side.
While today most casual observers would see Toro as very much the “second team” in Turin, an Espanyol of the alps, at various points in their history they’ve been very much respected rivals to Juventus, rather than noisy neighbours.
The origins of the Derby della Mole date back to Torino’s very founding. In 1906, a group of Juventus dissidents, led by Swiss financier Alfred Dick, decided to split from the Bianconeri and form their own club. Football Club Torino played its first match on December 16 of that year, winning 3-1 against Pro Vercelli.
Not a month later the newly formed team took on Juventus for the first time, in what was their first competitive match. Toro won that one too, but bad blood remained after Dick’s defection. One possibly apocryphal tale has it that the Swiss was locked in the dressing room at the Velodromo Umberto I, forcing him to follow the score only by the roars of the crowd.
In February Torino achieved an even greater success, a 4-1 win over Juve, and were admitted to the Italian league. In the 111 years since there have been just 13 seasons without a Derby della Mole.
While many derbies take on a wider social dynamic, the same can only be said to a certain extent of the Turin derby. The purchase of Juve by the Agnelli family in 1923 certainly gave the Old Lady more of a bourgeoise air, with many of the Torinese workers in their FIAT factories backing the Granata. Immigrants from the south, however, often gravitated toward Juve, leading to the largely fallacious claim that people in Turin support Torino, while the rest of Italy supports Juventus.
The Angelli family may be the very definition of Italian capitalism, but unlike the Milan derby there isn’t truly one side for the working class and one for the rulers. Palmiro Togliatti, a noted leader of the Italian communist party, was a fervent Bianconero. Togliatti, who has a city in Russia named for him, is purported to have chided his colleague Pietro Secchia for his lack of interest in the beautiful game: “you claim to bring about the revolution without knowing the Juventus results?”.
Though Torino managed two Scudetti in the late 1920s, one of which was revoked, the financial might of the Agnelli family quickly established Juve as the leading club in Turin. The Bianconeri won five Scudetti in the 1930s and going unbeaten in 15 derbies between 1928 and 1936. In 1938 the Old Lady won her first Coppa Italia, beating Torino in a two-legged final.
All that would change though, with the advent of the ‘Grande Torino’. Renamed Associazione Calcio Torino - Benito Mussolini’s fascist government couldn’t abide the club’s English inspired name - they finished second in Serie A under the guidance of Ernest Erbstein in 1938-39.
The outbreak of World War II saw the Jewish coach return to Hungary, but the foundations were already in place for one of calcio’s greatest sides. Torino won Serie A in 1943 before the war put a halt to football, and repeated the feat four times after hostilities had ceased.
In both 1946-47 and 1947-48 they scored over 100 goals, including an incredible 125 in the latter season. Inspired by their captain Valentino Mazzola, father of Inter legend Sandro, Torino simply blew away most of their opposition, though derbies with Juventus always remained close. In 1947, the Italy side which beat Hungary 3-2 was made up of 10 Torino players, plus Juve goalkeeper Lucidio Sentimenti.
As the 1948-49 season drew to a close, Toro stood on the brink of equalling Juve’s record of five-in-a-row. Erbstein had returned to Turin as technical director, and they sat four points clear at the top of Serie A with four games to play. In the era of two points for a win, it was a significant advantage.
As the undisputed best team in Italy, the Granata were invited to play Benfica in a friendly match in honour of Portugal captain Francisco Ferreira. It would be the last time they’d ever take the field together.
As the plane carrying the team home from Portugal approached Turin, the city was shrouded in fog, with a strong south-westerly wind. Pilot Pierluigi Meroni informed the control tower of his intent to cut past Superga before making the final descent.
What happened next has never been definitively proven. Some have suggested the strong winds may have pushed the aircraft to the right, while it’s also possible a faulty altimeter gave the crew the impression they were higher than they were. Just after 17.00 on May 5, the plane smashed into the embankment behind the Basilica. With the poor visibility, Meroni didn’t even have time to try evasive action. All 31 people on board were killed.
Torino complete their remaining four fixtures with youth players, as did their opponents, and won the 1949 Scudetto to tie the record. That has since been broken by the current Juventus team, but if not for war and Superga the Grande Torino would surely have won many more.
The Granata never truly recovered from that tragedy, but the derby continued to be felt passionately, perhaps because both Turin sides had fallen on tougher times.
Juve won the first post-Superga title, but only one of the following seven Scudetti - a veritable drought by the Old Lady’s lofty standards.
It was the Milan clubs who reigned supreme during that period, but by the 1970s Turin was back on top. The 1971-72 campaign saw an epic battle between the two Piedmont sides, with Juventus pipping Torino to the Scudetto by just a point. Juve would win two of the next three, but in 1976 the title returned to the maroon half of the city.
Coached by Luigi Radice, who passed away just over a week ago, the Granata won both Derbies della Mole by a score of 2-0, eventually taking the title by two points from Juve. It remains their most recent Scudetto.
Aside from a brief revival by Toro in the early 1990s, Juventus have been top dogs in the city ever since. Giovanni Trapattoni’s great side triumphed both in Italy and in Europe in the 1980s, with Marcello Lippi achieving similar feats in the following decade.
While both sides shared the Stadio delle Alpi, their fortunes stood in stark contrast. Torino experienced a slow and painful decline, culminating in bankruptcy in 2005. The following season Juventus were demoted to Serie B as part of the Calciopoli scandal, passing their city rivals on the way.
Both sides struggled in the following years, with Toro bouncing between the top two divisions and Juve finishing seventh in both 2009-10 and 2010-11. The arrival of Antonio Conte, and later Max Allegri, brought the Old Lady back to the top though, and they have won the Scudetto in each of the past seven seasons, adding the Coppa Italia in all of the last four.
While they’re a long way from a Scudetto challenge, the Granata also appear to be on the up and go into Saturday’s game sixth in the table.
The Derby della Capitale may be more passionate, the Milan derby more illustrious, but there’s no doubting what this fixture means to both clubs. Some Juventus fans may claim it’s not all that important to them, but one only has to attend the Derby della Mole to gauge the depth of feeling on both sides.
At times that oversteps the mark - with chants about Heysel and banners about Superga - but the Turin derby is perhaps the most underrated of all the “stracittadine”.
No city in Italy can boast more Scudetti than Turin, and Torino will be desperate to become the first Italian side this season to beat the club they split from more than a century ago - even if Andrea Angelli being locked in the away dressing room seems unlikely.