This is a tale of friendship and honor, of tragedy and memory. It involves two storied teams and their best captains, two young men who understood each other at their first glimpse, and felt they were made of the same material, the one of great players.
Francisco Ferreira captained Benfica in the 40s. originally a player of Porto, a contract dispute cut short his stint with the white and blue, allowing his passage to Benfica. For more than a decade, “Chico” Ferreira led the team with his tactical savvy. A strong midfielder, a fighter, with good feet and a tactical attitude to dominate the game, Ferreira enjoyed, with the other Portuguese players, the peace of the early 40s, when the rest of Europe was struck by WWII.
Valentino Mazzola, instead, the captain of Torino, remained trapped in the heart of the war. Acquired by Torino from the Venice team, he moved to Torino, where he won the first title at the end of the war. There, then president Ferruccio Novo built around him an extraordinary team, that, thanks to the tactical wisdom of Egri Erbstein, a Hungarian like many other successful coaches and players of the time, dominated five championships in a row.
Nevertheless, rather than just winning, that Torino team built a legacy that still stands. For the people, exhausted by the war, the story of the team with his myth of invincibility, became a sort of popular poem. Nobody could see the images, except for some news aired before movies at the cinema, and only the radio told their gestures.
The Torino roster became the backbone of the national team, and they certainly would have been again the leading group at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. Their reputation grew in Europe, their victories increased the notoriety around the continent. The kids knew the roster of the team like a poem: Bacigalupo, Ballarin, Maroso, Grezar, Rigamonti, Castigliano, Menti, Loik, Gabetto, Mazzola, Ossola.
In early 1949 Italy and Portugal played in Genoa a friendly game that Italy won 2-1. In that occasion Ferreira and Mazzola met and immediately a human sympathy, a friendship was born, fueled by reciprocal admiration. In that occasion Ferreira talked to Valentino about the game Benfica wanted to play in his captain’s honor.
Valentino proposed that Torino FC could be the opponent in that game, or maybe Ferreira asked, nevertheless the two teams agreed and the game was organized on May 3, 1949 in Lisbon.
The Sunday before the game, Torino won its 5th title, with a draw in Milan against Inter, 1-1. The players were relaxed and expected the Lisbon game to be final puzzle in a long and still victorious year. The images show them at the feet of the airplane, a Fiat 212, that would take them to the Portuguese capital.
The game was played with a free spirit, without much tactic, and Benfica won 4-3. At the end an awarding ceremony celebrated Francisco Ferreira’s achievements with Benfica and the Torino players were clapped and cheered. In the evening a party sealed the friendship between the teams and the respective captains.
The morning after, Torino’s players climbed the stairs to the same Fiat G212 plane that was taking them back to Italy. Around Turin, a city surrounded by high Hills around which all planes have to turn in order to get to the airport, a deep fog and a bad weather made it difficult for the pilots to find the right way.
At 5.05 pm, a smoke could be seen from far, over the church of Superga, the highest spot of all the hills around Turin. The airplane had crushed against the hill, and all the players and coaches had died.
Vittorio Pozzo, the coach of the winning national teams of 1934 and 1938, and the current coach of the national team, took over himself the task to recognize the players. He walked across the hill, took with his hands the wallets, the signs of the people who had died on the plane.
The tragedy struck the whole country like a national shock. Thousands of people gathered to bid farewell to the players they felt like theirs. The team that followed, sustained, often pulled with the strength of its legend the rebirth of the country after the war, had vanished, thus becoming immortal.
There was a sense of solitude, like the death of somebody who, you knew, could defend you, could help you. The Torino team had stood against all adversities to emerge from the war to demonstrate that it was possible to begin again. While the bricklayers, the woodmen, the doctors, the architects, rebuilt the roads, the buildings, the houses, the great sportsmen rebuilt the moral, the heart, the soul of the country.
Parallel to Torino, Fausto Coppi won the Tour the France and Italian cinema, with neorealismo, wrote new rules of filmmaking. It was like the war disaster had freed forces long subdued. An enthusiasm, a joy, a strength drove these years, and Torino embodied them deeply.
On May 4 1949 a legend began, because it found a perfect end. Francisco Ferreira always kept a photo of the Torino team among his trophies. Giampiero Boniperti, perhaps the greatest embodiment of Juventus, the other team of Torino that afterwards rose to prominence, said: “even now, if I have to think about a players around whom build the team, I don’t think about Pelè, Platini or Maradona, before them, I think about Valentino Mazzola”.
The following year, the national team that was heading to Brazil for the world cup, did not take a plane, but a ship, that took them to Rio in several weeks, undermining the training and the final result. But people did not trust the plane, so deep was the awe of the tragedy.
Perhaps the testament to Torino’s greatness is the game played in May 11, 1947 in Torino, against Hungary, the young team destined to dominate the next decade of football. That day, only the goalkeeper, Sentimenti IV (fourth in roman numbers, cleed like this because he was the 4th brother from that family to play at high level), was not a Torino player.
Italy won by 3-2, Puskas scored the Hungarian goals, while Gabetto scored two and Loik the winning one. 16 years later, when Inter won the Champion’s cup against Puskas’ Real Madrid, Sandro Mazzola, the son of Valentino and a star of that Inter team, was running to Di Stefano to exchange his shirt.
Ferenc Puskas ran to him and said: “I played against your father, and in his honor I want to exchange my shirt with you”.
The legend of the Grande Torino was still alive. And Francisco Ferreira, the Captain of Benfica, far in the landscape, stands as an innocent instrument of fate. His friendship with Valentino, the respect of two great teams, and a tragedy that sealed a poem impossible to repeat.