The 1950 World Cup held in Brazil was not just about football. The tournament rose out of the shadows of the Second World War that had seen the competition cancelled in 1942 and 1946. The Italian campaign also rose out of the shadows of disaster.
The great Torino team of the 1940s had won the scudetto five times in a row and was known as Il Grande Torino. During their five title-winning seasons they amassed 483 goals. Their fifth triumph was in 1949, although this very year would be remembered for the most sobering of tragedies. On May 4, the plane carrying the squad home from a friendly match against Benfica in Portugal crashed into the Basilica of Superga, located on a hill outside Turin. All 31 passengers including 18 players and five club staff on board perished. Vittorio Pozzo, by then a local journalist and ex-Azzurri head coach, identified the bodies, a record ten of which he himself had picked for the national team in 1947.
The implications for calcio were far reaching as the following five World Cup campaigns ended disastrously as the team failed to get past the first round, not even qualifying in 1958. Superga had a major immediate psychological affect on the Italian camp too. Under the leadership of Torino president Ferruccio Novo, the team travelled to Brazil by boat rather than by air due to fear of another aviation disaster. The journey took two weeks and many of the players were seasick throughout the trip. They were unable to train properly and were bored for days on end – less than ideal preparation for international competition.
The format of the World Cup was designed to incorporate 16 teams, split into four groups of four, the winners of each competing against each other in a four team final-round group. However three countries had withdrawn from the tournament, including India who were in Italy’s Group 3 along with Sweden and Paraguay. Having only two opponents left little room for error and this was highlighted in their 3-2 defeat to Sweden in their opening game. Italy took an early lead through Riccardo Carapellese (who joined and captained Torino following the disaster), before conceding three times, meaning Ermes Muccinelli’s goal 15 minutes from time proved only to be a consolation. By the time Italy played their second game against Paraguay in Curitiba they were out, after Sweden and Paraguay had played out a 2-2 draw. The Azzurri went on to produce a solid performance and won the game 2-0 with another goal from Carapellese and one from Egisto Pandolfini. In the aftermath the team was permitted to travel back to Italy by plane, shortening the journey time to 35 hours.
It was 1970 before Italy made their mark on the World Cup after the Grande Torino tragedy. What would have happened in Brazil in 1950 had Il Grande Torino not perished we will never know.