By Paul Gardner
Ernie was a massive Londoner who used to sell newspapers outside London’s Tottenham Court Road subway station. The foghorn voice went with the job and every night I’d hear his cry of “Star, News, Standard” as I headed down the steps to the trains.
Those were the three London evening papers -- maybe he chanted “News, Standard, Star” -- who remembers these things? On the rare evenings when I bought a paper, maybe we’d have a short joking chat about soccer. Ernie was from South London, Charlton was his team. He knew I went to watch Arsenal, a team he despised with loud unprintable relish.
On this late afternoon in 1958 -- it was February, so it was probably chilly, maybe even foggy, they told me later that was the way it was -- he shoved a paper at me: “‘Ere -- Manchester United, don’t sound too good.” I wasn’t about to spend my money on ManU. I went home without a paper, back to my lodgings where there was no television and a wonderful landlady who found soccer boring -- boring to watch, boring to talk about or even to think about. Our pet boredoms were a tradeoff -- she loved to carry on about the royal family ... I mean, you want boredom?
Not until the following morning did I understand. On the train I read the headlines of other people’s newspapers. Ernie had got it right. It wasn’t too good. ManU, returning by plane from a game in Belgrade, had touched down to refuel in Munich. By 3 pm the snow was getting heavier, two takeoff attempts had already been aborted. The third spelled tragedy as the plane overshot the runway and smashed into a house and some trees. Six top ManU players were dead. A seventh, the 21-year-old Duncan Edwards, already being hailed as the greatest English player ever, was fighting for his life in a Munich hospital.
Edwards fought on for two weeks, then he too was dead. So healthy, so strong, so young. How could that happen, how could soccer be this cruel? But we’d already had one of these death-dealing catastrophes back in 1946. Thirty-three fans were crushed to death when barriers gave way at a cup game at Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park.
They lined the bodies up on the ground behind one of the goals, the ambulances took them away, and the game resumed. It sounds cold, insensitive. It was. But we’d only just emerged from a horrible war -- maybe we were hardened to death, the sight of dead bodies.
Munich seemed different, anyway. ManU was champion of England. These were young athletes, heroes. But it is not easy to come to terms with the ease, the speed, with which these awful occasions are forgotten. Who, today, recalls Burnden Park? Even the stadium itself has gone, torn down by bulldozers. Now it’s a supermarket.
Today we know about Hillsborough, more recent, more dead (96) and of course more dramatic, more widely experienced through the unblinking eye of television.
In those days, in 1958, in the early black-and-white television days of the Munich crash, we grieved and mourned, seriously, genuinely. But there had been an earlier crash. A worse one, really. This wasn’t one we, in England, had forgotten. It was one the vast majority of English people, including the soccer fans, simply didn’t know about.
It had happened in Italy in 1949, eight years before Munich. But the two disasters had eerie similarities. Torino -- Il Grande Torino, the Great Turin -- was Italian champions, considered to be one of the greatest-ever of all Italian club sides.
Like ManU, they were flying home after an away game -- this one had been in Lisbon. Again, the weather was bad. Thick fog around Turin. At 5 pm the team’s plane was flying low, preparing to land. Farmers living nearby heard the roar of the plane, so loud, then a tremendous crash. They came out of their houses, ran to investigate -- and found the horror of black smoke rising from a totally destroyed airplane. Just smoke. Nobody talked of flames.
There were no survivors. All 31 people aboard were killed. Among the dead were all the 18 players who comprised the Torino squad. Il Grande Torino, a team that was then providing as many as 10 players to the Italian national team, the azzurri, was no more. It was, literally dead, the biggest names in Italian soccer lifeless on the hillside.
But this was not just any old hillside. This was Superga hill, it was crowned by the majestic basilica of Superga. The church was undamaged. The plane had roared head-first into the church’s massive stone foundations.
It wasn’t until I was living in Italy in 1965 – 16 years after the event -- that I learned about La Tragedia di Superga. It happened in 1949, its 65th anniversary fell last Sunday on May 4th.
I’m wondering about all the soccer victims -- those from Burnden who we never knew, those from Superga, the 1987 Allianza Lima team and the 1993 Zambian national team that was wiped out in air crashes, plus the untold thousands of fans who have been killed in stadium disasters -- surely we need not, in remembering one tragedy, ignore the others? Possibly there already is a remembrance day for all of soccer’s sad victims. If there is, I do not know of it. If there isn’t, then maybe it’s time to consider inaugurating such a day.