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Sport in Alternate History. Part 2: Disasters

By Pete Usher

Possibly the most famous of them all. The Munich air disaster.

Picture courtesy Sky News.

The first part of this article series, on sport in AH, can be found Here.


“And that spells disaster for Scotland” – Archie McPherson (probably)

Sporting commentary has a tendency to the hyperbolic, with the results, and individual events within contests, being described as triumphs, disasters, and so on. But the reality is that, in a world filled with international competition and the relative ease of rapid travel (especially via air), real disasters have happened, with significant potential impact on the history of given sports. The converse – accidents or incidents happening which did not occur in Real Life – is a rather morbid topic which I don’t propose spending any time on.

Sadly, there are more than enough real world incidents that need not have happened to make for some interesting Points of Divergence (PODs). Unsurprisingly, many of these involve planes. One in particular could have had significant impact on domestic, European, and World football.

On May 4th, 1949, on the outskirts of Turin, an accident occurred that impacted both a club and a national side. Torino Football Club (a number of Italian football teams use Football Club, rather than the Italian Associazione Calcio due to the strong English influence in the founding of them) were returning from Lisbon, where they had played a friendly against Benfica to honour the Benfica captain, Francisco Ferreira. Torino were widely regarded as one of the strongest clubs in Europe at the time, and provided a significant portion of the Italian national team, so this was a prestigious friendly.

Torino had won the previous three Italian league titles (or Scudetto), and were well placed to win a fourth consecutive title (and fifth as they won in 1943 before suspension of football due to World War II), equalling the Italian record at the time. The name Grande Torino had been given to the team, which had been built during the Second World War, and had dominated post-war Italian football. The previous season they had scored 125 goals in 40 matches, finishing 16 points clear (in a world of 2 points for a win) with a goal difference of +95.

The journey back from Lisbon would end in tragedy. As the plane approached Turin airport in poor visibility, it crashed into the hill of Superga at around 110 mph. There were no survivors. All 31 people on board died. There are many theories as to what happened – crosswinds causing drift in poor visibility, pilot error, instrumentation failure. The impact was that the majority of Italian football’s best team had been wiped out. The crash is still remembered every year.

1949 Torino air crash. No survivors.

Picture courtesy Philip Barker.

The reaction of the other Italian clubs was generous to say the least. Torino were awarded the title at the request of the other teams, and Torino’s reserves played against youth teams for the final four games, meaning that they won the title by 5 points over Internazionale. The following season, every club was asked to donate a player to Torino, but the era of Grande Torino was over. They finished sixth, a massive 21 points behind champions Juventus, and did not challenge for the title for the next few seasons. Torino have only won the title once more, in 1976.

The Italian side was also impacted, losing a number of players from a defence of the World title they had won in 1934 (at home) and retained in 1938 (in France). For example, Valentino Mazzola was the Italian captain at the time, and is regarded by some as the best Italian player ever.

One smaller impact is that the national side travelled to Brazil by ship, rather than by plane, such was the impact of the disaster. Shorn of a number of players, Italy lost to Sweden and were eliminated in the group stages. Sweden went on to finish third in the only World Cup without a final, as the last four teams played a round robin group to determine the winner (the fact that the decisive Uruguay-Brazil game was also the final game to be played is a stroke of luck).

So, what would be the impact of the disaster not happening? Firstly, Torino. It’s not unreasonable to assume that any decline would have been slower, and possibly less deep, or potentially avoidable. The disaster happened only a few years before the advent of the European Cup, where AC Milan represented Italy and lost 5-4 on aggregate to Real Madrid in the semi-finals. Would a still strong Torino have won the league in 1955 and done better? There is no real way of knowing, and given Madrid had the genius of Di Stefano at their disposal, it may not have made a difference. But effectively, all of Italian football (and later European football) is up for grabs. Different players on different teams means different outcomes.

Then there is the impact on the Italian performance at the 1950 World Cup. Italy lost to Sweden 3-2, and were dumped out of the competition before the final round. A stronger and more rested Italian team may do better, both in qualifying for the final stages and then being able to challenge Brazil and Uruguay for the title. In a world where the Superga disaster never happens, the Jules Rimet trophy could have ended up in a permanent home in Rome in 1950, rather than Rio de Janeiro in 1970, before being stolen in 1983. Instead, Italy had to wait until 1982 for a third triumph.

There are, sadly, a number of other incidents which have led to significant loss for a team. It is probably possible to write an article about all of them.

In 2016, the majority of the squad of Chapecoense (from Chapeco, Brazil) died in a plane crash on the way to the first leg of the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the second tier South American football competition. Their opponents, Atletico National from Medellin, asked that the trophy be awarded to Chapecoense, which qualified them for the group stage of the 2017 Copa Liberatores (where the use of an ineligible player stopped them from getting to the knock-out stages) and the 2017 Recopa Sudamericana (the equivalent of the European Supercup), ironically against Atletico National, who had qualified for both tournaments. Chapecoense have dropped somewhat, now looking like a yo-yo team, moving between the top 2 divisions of Brazilian football.

Chapecoense, 2016. One survivor, Alan Ruschel (Back row, fourth from left). Currently plays for the Brazilian team Juventude.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Away from football, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, an ice hockey team playing in the Russian dominated KHL, suffered a plane crash on 7th September 2011, which killed 37 players and staff, virtually wiping out the first team squad. After missing the 2011-12 season, Lokomotiv returned to the KHL, and have been a perennial play-off team, although a title has eluded them. Previously, in 1950, VVS Moscow, the hockey team of the Soviet air force, lost the majority of their first team in a crash at Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk at the time). VVS did recover to win two Soviet titles, before being disbanded in 1953.

Finally, on February 15th, 1961, Sabena Flight 548 crashed on approach to Brussels Airport, killing everyone on board and one person on the ground. Sadly, the flight was transporting the entire US figure skating team, who were travelling to the 1961 World Championships, to be held in Prague. All 18 skaters, plus another 16 members of the delegation, were killed. The US had been dominant in men’s and women’s skating during the previous decade, but it took five years for them to win another gold medal at the annual event. The championships were cancelled, with Prague being awarded the 1962 event, and the US Figure Skating executives put in place a mandate that remains to this day: namely, that no team travelling to an international competition is allowed to fly together.

Sabena Flight 548 and the US figure skating team. No survivors.

Picture courtesy ESPN.

Genuine tragedy can have a significant impact on the outcome of sport, and it is sadly all too easy to forget that.

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