Sometimes, the figures tell only a half the story. In the case of Valentino Mazzola, they relate an even cruder fraction, the Torino legend having earned himself a place in the pantheon of Italian football in the space of seven short seasons and 12 international appearances. Revered in the same hushed tones as Giuseppe Meazza and Silvio Piola, Mazzola’s reputation is even more remarkable given that he achieved immortality despite never appearing in a FIFA World Cup™ due to the Second World War.

Mazzola’s was a talent of the purest kind. Captain of the Grande Torino side that excelled in the 1940s and provided the backbone of the Italy team, he could take up any position on the pitch and still perform to the same rarefied standard. “If I had to choose one indispensable player for my team, I wouldn’t choose Pele, [Alfredo] Di Stefano, [Johan] Cruyff, [Michel] Platini or [Diego] Maradona – I’d only go for those players after choosing Mazzola,” commented former Juventus President Giampiero Boniperti.

Nine years before Manchester United lost eight players in the Munich Air Disaster, however, Mazzola’s life was ended in similarly tragic circumstances. Torino’s superlative array of international stars was wiped out in the Superga catastrophe on 4 May 1949, with Mazzola one of 18 players killed that day. Taken from the game in his prime, his impact has nonetheless never been forgotten, and his son Sandro later went on to bring even more honour to the family name.

Long road to the top
Hailing from a humble background, Valentino lost his own father at a young age and had to leave school at 11 to work as a baker’s boy, before finding a job in a factory three years later. His only contact with football at the time was the box of milk he would juggle with his feet on his way to and from work, though he later joined modest local side Tresoldi. At the age of 18, he was then spotted by a neighbour, who managed to find him employment as a mechanic at the Alfa Romeo plant in Arese, and he soon made his debut for the company’s football team in the third division.

A year later, Mazzola was called up for military service, and once again fate intervened to give him a push in the right direction. Legend has it that his talents caught the eye of a Venezia-supporting officer while performing wonders for the team of the marine commandos. Recommended by the officer, he made the trip to Venice and showed up for a trial with the club in bare feet, preferring to leave his boots at home so as not to wear them out.

Venezia coach Giuseppe Girani quickly fell under the youngster’s spell and Mazzola signed his first professional contract on 1 January 1940. He made his Serie A debut in a 1-0 loss to Lazio on 31 March the same year and was soon wearing the captain’s armband. A natural leader, he may not have looked the most physically impressive of players, but he made his influence felt on all four corners of the pitch once the whistle blew, combining bursts of speed worthy of a sprinter with the stamina of a long-distance runner. A rock at the back thanks to his perfectly timed tackles, Mazzola was just as effective in midfield and it was by no means unusual for him to take up three separate positions during the same game, though he eventually took up a regular spot as a left-sided attacking midfielder, with fellow provocateur Ezio Loik operating on the right.

Glory years
Two years later, in July 1942, Torino paid 1.25m Lira to bring Mazzola on board. It was a record transfer fee for the time, but for club president Ferruccio Novo – who also swooped for Loik – it would soon begin to look like the best bit of business of his entire career. He and his new signing formed a strong bond, with Mazzola naming his second son after Novo, while on the pitch Torino became the first Italian side to win a league-and-cup double in Mazzola’s maiden season. The newcomer contested every match as Torino racked up a series of commanding victories, beating Juventus 5-1, AC Milan 5-0 and his former employers Venezia 4-0.

Il Granata (The Clarets) reigned supreme domestically between 1942 and 1949 and were equally accomplished in Europe, where they played a number of friendly games in the period before organised continental competitions. Meanwhile, Mazzola seemed to improve with every passing year, even finishing top scorer in 1947 after notching 29 goals in 38 appearances.

“He earned twice as much as his team-mates because that’s how they wanted it,” explained Novo. Indeed, far from the type of player prone to wowing supporters with momentary displays of magic, he was a tireless worker who covered incredible distances each game, setting a sterling example for colleagues who felt compelled to match his efforts.

If I had to choose one indispensable player for my team, I wouldn’t choose Pele, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Platini, Maradona – I’d only go for those players after choosing Mazzola.
Giampiero Boniperti

Because of his untimely death, Mazzola’s experience of international football was limited to a dozen friendly outings. Called up for the first time for a 4-0 win over Croatia on 5 April 1942, he opened his scoring account for La Nazionale two weeks later as they swept aside Spain by the same margin. Just as he was finding his feet, however, international football was forced to take a back seat to the conflict increasingly ravaging Europe, and he would have to wait another three years to wear his country’s colours again.

Mazzola’s finest Italy appearance was generally judged by observers at the time to be his very last, as he starred in a 3-1 defeat of Spain on 27 March 1949, reaching the same level of excellence he regularly displayed for Torino. Overall, he plundered four goals in nine wins, a draw and two defeats, but those modest statistics do nothing to reflect the sheer magnitude of his ability.

Tragic ending
A few weeks later, on 3 May, Mazzola was expected to sit out Torino’s trip to Lisbon to take on Benfica in a friendly match. Suffering from a throat infection, he nonetheless insisted on making the voyage, not least since the occasion represented a testimonial match for his friend Francisco Ferreira.

The journey back ended in tragedy as the three-engine Fiat G212 airliner carrying 31 players, officials, journalists and crew members crashed into the wall of the Basilica of Superga. There were no survivors and, with that, the era of the great Torino side was over.

Italy was in shock, and half a million people turned out to attend the funerals on 6 May, while Torino were named champions four games from the end of the season following a proposal by their fellow Serie A clubs.