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Born: Sunday 26 January 1919, Cassano d’Adda, Italy
Died: Wednesday 4 May 1949, Superga, Italy (aged 30)
Position: Inside Forward
Perhaps the greatest Italian player of the 1940s, Valentino Mazzola was a victim of one of football's greatest tragedies when he lost his life along with many of his Torino team-mates in the Superga air disaster in 1949. A gifted all-round player and an inspirational captain, he was one of the first inside forwards to play the position in a way which would be recognisable as an attacking midfielder in the modern game.
Valentino Mazzola was born on 26 January 1919 in Cassano d'Adda near Milan. At the age of 10, he saved the life of a young boy who was drowning in the Adda River - that boy, Andrea Bonomi, would grow up to be a regular adversary on the pitch with AC Milan in the 1940s. Mazzola was a gifted sportsman as a child, an excellent swimmer and cyclist as well as footballer and having chosen to pursue a career in football, joined local team GS Tresoldi.
However, Mazzola lost his father at a young age and had to leave school at the age of 11 in order to help support the rest of his family. In his late teens he found a job in the Alfa Romeo factory in Milan and it was while he worked there that he got his first chance to play in senior football when the works team Alfa Romeo Milano offered him a contract. Playing in Serie C in 1938-39, Mazzola soon drew the attention of top flight clubs with his composure on the ball and ability to control the game.
When war broke out in 1939, Mazzola joined the Italian Navy and found himself stationed in Venice. While there, he was encouraged to go for a trial with Venezia who had just won promotion to Serie A. Although he had to play barefoot at his trial as there were no boots available for him, he impressed the club enough to earn a permanent move. After appearing in just six games in 1939-40, Mazzola became a first team regular the following season.
In 1941 he helped Venezia to reach the final of the Coppa Italia, where a dramatic match against Roma saw Mazzola's team fall 3-0 down inside 20 minutes. It was Mazzola who began a great fightback with a goal just before half-time and Venezia recovered to 3-3 to force a replay. The replay was won 1-0, giving the club what remains their only major trophy. When Venezia finished third in Serie A in 1942, one place behind Torino, the Turin club turned to Mazzola as the man who could take them to the title.
By now, the 23 year old Mazzola was the complete player. A regular goalscorer with eirther foot from the inside-left position, he was fast across the ground and excellent in the air. He could also track back to tackle and defend in a way that few forwards of the time ever did. Although the position of 'midfielder' had yet to be properly defined, Mazzola was one of the first to play that role effectively. His progress was recognised when he made his debut for the national team in a 4-0 win over Croatia in March 1942.
Later that year he signed for Torino in a big money deal, much to the displeasure of the Venezia fans who accused him of 'selling out'. In his first season, Torino edged out Livorno by a single point to take the Serie A title andwent on to beat Venezia of all teams 4-0 in the Coppa Italia final, with Mazzola scoring the crowning fourth goal. However, they would have to wait to retain their title as the next two seasons were not played due to the continuing Second World War.
Competitive football resumed in 1945-46 and Torino picked up where they had left off in 1943. The title was only narrowly retained ahead of local rivals Juventus, but would be won far more convincingly twelve months later. Mazzola enjoyed the greatest season of his career in 1946-47, when as an ever-present in the league he scored 29 goals in 38 games, eight more than any other player. Known as 'Il Grande Torino', the team won Serie A with a huge ten point margin and such was their dominance, in Italy's 3-2 win over Hungary on 11 May that year all ten outfield players came from the club.
Having long been captain of Torino, Mazzola was named captain of the national team as well towards the end of 1947 as the national team built towards their defence of the World Cup in 1950. As a captain, he was able to inspire his team when they were not playing well, sometimes just by the simple gesture of rolling up his sleeves. Mazzola did however come into conflict with his employers by making regular demands for more money, aware of his worth to the club.
The 1947-48 season saw Torino dominate to an even greater extent as they won Serie A by an astonishing 16 points ahead of AC Milan, averaging more than three goals per game across the whole season with 125 in 40 matches. Mazzola himself contributed 25 of those goals, the second highest total in the league. By the end of April 1949, Torino stood four points clear of Inter at the top of the table with four games left and a fifth league title in a row either side of the war seemed certain.
However, tragedy struck just days later. Mazzola had helped to organise a testimonial match against Benfica on 3 May and although he was unwell at the time, he was determined to play in the match, which Torino eventually lost 4-3. The decision was taken that the team would fly back to Turin, a rare thing for a football team at the time. On that return journey on 4 May, the plane approached the city in poor weather and was forced to descend to gain better visibility. With the pilot unable to see properly, the plane crashed into the wall of the Basilica on the hillside at Superga, just outside Turin.
Everyone on board, including 18 players and five club officials, was killed. The Italian federation awarded the league title to Torino, even though the season was not over. They played their last four matches with a youth team, against opponents who in a show of solidarity also fielded youth teams. Mazzola was just 30 years old when he died. Although he only played 12 international matches, he is remembered as one of Italy's greatest ever players. His son Sandro, just seven years old at the time of his father's death, would go on to become a great player in his own right with Internazionale.
References (all accessed 27 February 2012):
- Published on Monday, 27 February 2012 17:51