When Lucas Boyé struck a looping wonder goal from the edge of the box on his Torino debut last month, he did much more than announce himself on the Italian football scene. The Argentine’s dipping effort – spectacular as it was – also carried the weight of history behind it.
Boyé, after all, arrived in Italy from River Plate, the Buenos Aires club whose links to Torino go back more than half a century to the most tragic day in Italian football history, 4 May 1949.
That was the day the Grande Torino died, an entire squad wiped out when the plane carrying them home from a friendly game at Benfica crashed into the Superga hillside overlooking Turin amidst the thick fog that hangs so often above the Po Valley.
A team has to achieve special things to earn the epithet ‘Grande’ in Italian football folklore and the Torino side of the 1940s were possibly the greatest of all. Between 1943 and 1949, they won every Serie A title – five in total, if you allow for one season lost to the war – and remained unbeaten at home for more than six years. At their pinnacle, 10 of the Italian national team’s starting XI came from Ernő Egri Erbstein’s Torino side.
It is impossible to overstate how important the Granata players had become in the collective imagination of the city, which had been targeted by bombs from both sides of the conflict during the Second World War. Their football team had been one of the first symbols of hope after those dark days and now those boys had been taken from them, at the peak of their powers, in the most shocking circumstances.
More than 500,000 people took to the streets for the funeral two days after the crash and the Palazzo Madama, where the bodies had been laid in a chapel of rest, was besieged by mourners who wanted to catch one last glimpse of their idols.
But the legend of the Grande Torino had travelled around the globe and the tragedy was mourned far and wide. Several South American football associations declared May 4 a ‘day of football’ in solidarity with the fallen Torino team who had made such an impression across the Atlantic Ocean on a tour the previous summer. River Plate, however, went further.
The Argentinean club had enjoyed a golden era of their own in the 1940s and counted many of Buenos Aires’ significant Italian community among their supporters. Their president at the time, Antonio Liberti, was one of them, and within an hour of hearing about the plane crash at Superga, he had made up his mind to fly his team to Turin for a benefit match to raise money for the bereaved families.
Upon their arrival in Italy, Liberti was met with an emotional embrace on the runway from his Torino counterpart Ferruccio Novo, signalling the start of a unique friendship between the two clubs that remains as strong as ever today.
The game – against a Serie A select XI who played under the name ‘Torino Simbolo’ – took place on 26 May, three weeks after the disaster. River Plate’s star-studded side included Alfredo Di Stefano, while Juventus legend Giampiero Boniperti was among those who pulled on the granata jersey of his club’s city rivals. The symbolic Torino team was captained by Pietro Ferraris, the Grande Torino winger who had left the club the previous summer after winning four consecutive scudetti. A 2-2 draw seemed fitting on an emotional afternoon, but the gestures of solidarity went further.
Liberti also reportedly offered legendary River Plate forward Angel Labruna to Torino in an act of remarkable generosity, although the move never materialised. That offer may have taken place in June, when Torino’s president Novo – accompanied by legendary Italy forward Silvio Piola, who had played for Torino during the war – was invited to Buenos Aires to receive a special presentation from Evita Peron.
In the ensuing decades, the likes of Enzo Francescoli, Patricio Hernández and current Torino forward Maxi Lopez have turned out for both teams, but there is a more permanent, emblematic reminder of the gesture River Plate made that day in May 1949.
Since the 1950s, the two clubs have regularly used each other’s home colours for their respective away kits, and it is no coincidence that Boyé made his first Serie A appearance for Torino wearing a white shirt with a red sash running from shoulder to hip – the colours of River Plate. The kit he wore on the opening day in Milan has its roots in the appreciation of his former club’s commitment to fly across the Atlantic at a moment’s notice to pay tribute to Italy’s greatest-ever side and to offer help to a club in crisis.
67 years on, that act of solidarity and respect has not been forgotten. If Lucas Boyé fulfils his significant potential in the colours of Torino, the Granata faithful will have something else to thank River Plate for.