In football, there are names that reverberate around the world. The Charlton’s won a World Cup together and Jackie took the Republic of Ireland to two himself as a coach. In Africa, the Ayews are thought of with love due to uncle Kwame and his nephews, Jordan and Andre. The Koemans are now making a mark on Merseyside themselves, but Erwin and Ronald enjoyed great success as players and coaches. Another name on that list, that many people are not aware of, is Mazzola. Now Sandro Mazzola was an excellent midfielder. He scored 22 goals in 70 appearances for Italy and 116 in 417 for Inter. But he isn’t the only member of his family to make a mark on Italian football. There is another who came before him that was equally adored. I give you, Valentino Mazzola.
Born in Cassano d’Adda, Italy in 1919, Mazzola had jobs before he even left school. After his father was sacked from his job in 1933, 14-year-old Valentino worked as a baker’s boy. He was noticed playing for his village team by a worker at a nearby Alfa Romeo plant, who offered him to play for the car manufacturers team. In 1939 he joined the Navy and played a couple of times for the Navy team, where he was noticed by Venezia. In 1942, after finishing second in Serie A behind Torino and beating Roma in the Coppa Italia final, it was the northerners who wanted Mazzola. However, Torino’s rivals and Mazzola’s boyhood club, Juventus, had a verbal agreement with Venezia for first refusal. Torino offered 200,000 Lira and two players for Mazzola though and eventually got their man, and, in 1943, he led Torino to the wartime Scudetto.
During this time, Mazzola worked at the Fiat plant in Turin. He made wartime vehicles for the army and so did not have to participate directly in the war. He married his wife in 1942 and a couple of months later Sandro was born. Three years later, Sandro’s younger brother Ferruccio (named after the then Torino president) came along. Mazzola was known as a quiet man who kept himself to himself and enjoyed his privacy. Torino players at the time were not considered professionals so had to take on jobs outside the sport. So to provide for his family, Mazzola opened a sports shop selling custom made football boots after the war.
Mazzola is seen as the first all round midfielder. Whilst being widely recognised as one of the best attacking midfielders the game has ever seen due to his vision, passing and shooting accuracy, and fantastic skill, he could also play up front and was an excellent header of the ball despite his small stature. His immense work rate and leadership skills (he was infamous for rolling his sleeves up when his team were getting beat, as a sign for his team-mates to improve their performance) meant he was competent defensively and was a talismanic captain for Torino. Due to the war, Valentino Mazzola only made 12 appearances for his country and scored 4 goals.
But Il Grande Torino was not just Valentino Mazzola. Castigliano, Rigamonti and Loik were also crucial parts of that legendary team. But they knew who their leader was. They knew who they looked to on the pitch and in the dressing room. Rigamonti actually said of Mazzola, “He alone is half the squad – the other half is the rest of us.” This Torino team was not just revered by the people of Turin and fans of Il Toro, they were icons of war-ravaged Italy. When a country was recovering from a dictator that scarred them, they needed a team of giants to look up to. Those giants played in maroon and Mazzola was a Goliath.
In 1949, after winning their 5th successive Scudetto, Torino agreed to play Benfica in Lisbon in a testimonial for their captain Francisco Ferreira. The match was personally organised by Valentino Mazzola. Although feeling unwell, Mazzola felt a personal duty to his good friend Ferreira and to Torino. So he went. On the way home, tragedy struck. The plane carrying Torino crashed into a hillside outside of Turin, killing all 31 passengers including Valentino Mazzola. He was 30 years old. Torino were crowned champions for the 1948/49 season and, as a mark of respect, all of their opponents for their remaining games fielded sides of youth players. For the funerals of the players, 4 million people filled the streets of Turin.
Of all the deaths, Mazzola’s was the one that struck a chord the most. Arguably the greatest player to never play at a World Cup, the Italian public mourned the passing of their hero. Torino, as a club and a football team, never again reached the heights set by Valentino Mazzola and Il Grande Torino.
Valentino Mazzola. Father. Husband. Messiah.