The lost decade: Italy in the 1950s

The landscape of football history was changed forever on the 4th of May 1949. A plane carrying the incredible Il Grande Torino side crashed into the basilica of Superga, which lay atop the hill of Turin where all 34 passengers perished. The greatest side that Italy had ever known was gone, and so were the Azzurri’s hopes of conquering the world. These were players who were supposed to form the backbone of a new era for a post-war national squad, sadly it would never materialise.

There are moments in history that can alter the future significantly; one small moment can change everything. For Italians, Superga was that moment, the chance to build on their impressive World Cup victories in 1934 and 1938. This was to be their time, their decade.

Unfortunately life is often cruel and unfair, robbing the world of a team who had nothing to lose and everything to gain. It is remarkable that this event, 72 years on, still reverberates through Italian history as a memory of what could have been. Might Italy be sitting on five or six World Cup titles? Would Italy have been the team to be feared in the ‘50s instead of Hungary or Brazil? What we do know is, the decade would prove to be vastly different to the one that every Italian would have conceived in their minds eye pre-Superga.

After every major disaster, sporting or non-sporting, there has to be major rebuilding in the immediate aftermath and this could take months, years, or in the Italian national team’s case – decades. The Italians qualified for the 1950 World Cup, to be held in Brazil, due to being the reigning champions. To nobody’s surprise, ambition was low considering the circumstances. Even the plans for making it to Brazil were drastically altered due to the Italians preferring to travel by boat rather than fly, a decision made quite understandably after the devastation that had occurred the previous year.

Cynics might say this had a negative effect on the team, as a two week long boat trip would make training and preparation almost impossible and with a depleted squad to boot, the onus for Italy was national pride rather than emerge with the Jules Rimet trophy for the third tournament in a row. Although a favourable draw beckoned with the Azzurri being pooled alongside Sweden and Paraguay, Italy’s proud World Cup record was on the verge of imminent collapse. The Scandinavian’s were without their famous Gre-No-Li trio who had the ability to cause any defence problems, the reigning Olympic champions would be a stern test for an unproven Italian line-up.

Italy at the 1950 World Cup

A fantastic start led to a small glimmer of hope for the Italians, this was only a fleeting thought though as the Swedes bounced back admirably and they raced into an unassailable 3-1 lead. Ermes Muccinelli managed to snatch another goal, which proved to be a mere consolation as Sweden won 3-2. With the absurd nature of this three team group, Sweden’s draw against Paraguay four days later rendered the Italians match against the South Americans pointless. National pride would be the only saving grace as the men in blue, after making numerous changes to the starting line-up, won 2-0 and they were rewarded with a flight back to Europe. It was a disappointing defence of their trophy, although considering the mitigating factors, it could have been worse.

There was renewed hope for the national team; a generation of players were required to make the step up post-World Cup, both to fill the void left by the tragic deaths of the Torino players, and also to establish a new era, one akin to the marvellous Italian team of the 1930s.

The fresh approach seemed to be working initially, as the Azzurri remained unbeaten in 1951, with talents such as Gina Cappello and Amedeo Amaedi emerging from the World Cup shadows to offer a hopeful renaissance.

The next few years challenged this new found optimism. However, with the Italians adopting a very much Jekyll and Hyde persona, there were some fine victories of course, for example an 8-0 demolition of the USA and wins against strong Switzerland and Czechoslovakian sides. Defeats against Belgium and Hungary offset any potential progress however. As the tail end of 1953 loomed, the Italians were to face off against Egypt for a place in the following summer’s World Cup finals.

The comparisons between 1950 and 1954 began with the travel arrangements. A short hop across the border was certainly more welcome than a two week boat trip across the Atlantic. The group the Italians were drawn into was tough, but qualifying for the quarter finals was achievable. The unique format meant that the team only played two matches, against Belgium and Switzerland.

A strong sense of déjà vu was present as Italy lost their opening World Cup match for the second tournament in succession. Losing narrowly to a well organised and disciplined Swiss team, who were out to impress as hosts, certainly wasn’t embarrassing, but it made qualifying for the knockout stages all the more daunting. The next match saw Italy back to their best as a 4-1 annihilation of Belgium allowed them to face a playoff with Switzerland for the right to advance to the quarter finals.

This was a chance that Italy had to take, to restore some pride and dignity after a group stage riddled with inconsistency. The Swiss turned on the style however and won comfortably 4-1 to advance. Another opportunity missed for the Italians and they faced exactly the same problem as they did after the 1950 World Cup, chopping and changing members of the squad in order to find the right balance and reliability in order to return to the top of the world. Little did they know but it would be a long eight years until they would get the opportunity to do so.

Once more, their unpredictable nature made them difficult to work out. As the 1958 World Cup finals raced into view, the Italians were thrown into a qualifying group which should have enabled them to gain some confidence boosting victories and establish themselves as one of the pre-tournament favourites. The reality was something totally unprecedented.

An opening victory against Northern Ireland was a routine start, what no one could have foreseen was the inauspicious collapse against opponents Portugal in the second match. A demoralising 3-0 defeat set the tone for the rest of the campaign. The return fixture against Northern Ireland was scheduled for the 4th of December 1957, where the Hungarian referee and his assistants were unable to reach the ground due to the poor weather conditions.

The match was re-designated as a friendly due to a Northern Irish referee stepping in at late notice. One of the Italian reserves wrote that “the Italians were subjected to the worst beating and humiliation I’ve ever seen on the football grounds of the world.” The match was later described as the ‘Battle of Belfast’ in reference to how dirty the game actually was. With reports stating that objects were hurled at the Italians as they walked off for half time. There were accusations by the Italian press of an “atmosphere of prejudice”. The game finished 2-2 and the qualifier was rescheduled for the 15th January 1958.

The worst result in the proud history of the Italian national team was in 1966, as North Korea sensationally knocked them out of the World Cup. Up until this point however, the 2-1 defeat to Northern Ireland in their final qualifier was the early pacesetter for worst ever result. This defeat meant that Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time (they chose not to enter in 1930) which led to questions of what had gone wrong with the national team.

One such theory was the introduction of oriundi to the national team in which Antonio Ghirelli claimed that “two were clearly strangers to our blood.” The oriundi had played a part in the Italians victory in the 1934 World Cup, and as the ‘50s wore on, more and more were being selected for the national squad. John Foot explains in his excellent book Calcio that “…the usual debates surrounded their selection and many journalists were hostile to them a priori.

What we know for sure is that the ‘50s were a decade that should be largely forgotten in the annals of Italian football history. A decade that promised so much delivered absolutely nothing and set the Azzurri back decades. It wouldn’t be until victory in the 1968 European Championship that Italy would finally emerge from the post-Superga ashes and begin their ascent to the top of the European football hierarchy.

Was it “Superga Psychosis” as Foot explains in Calcio, or were there other factors present for this decline? As the haze lifted in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the truth became apparent; a generation was lost forever.

Words by: Ross Kilvington. @Kilvington91