An extraordinary team, an extraordinary character, an extraordinary story.
‘We were losing and he wasn’t pulling his weight so I kicked him in the ass. There’s nothing wrong with that.’
Giorgio Chinaglia is talking, so I’m listening. But when he shrugs as though it was no big deal to boot his own team-mate – Vincenzo D’Amico – up the backside in the San Siro, I begin to wonder if anything fazes him.
Once a giant of a striker, with chiselled Roman features and a barrel chest to boot, Cardiff-raised Chinaglia led the line for a Lazio team that made headlines for just about every reason you can name in the early Seventies. He then jetted out to America to become the NASL’s top goal-scorer.
His glamour days with the New York Cosmos have been well-covered, not least by the brilliant documentary Once in a Lifetime, which famously reveals that he made Pele cry. But what is touched on a lot less by the English-speaking press is just how nuts the Lazio side Chinaglia represented really was.
Let’s begin in 1970, when the biancocelesti endeared themselves to Tottenham fans everywhere by brawling with Arsenal players in a Rome restaurant, following a frenetic Fairs Cup fixture that was won by Bertie Mee’s Gunners.
Having opened our conversation with the statement, ‘I remember everything’, Chinaglia doesn’t disappoint me when given his first opportunity to prove it.
‘In those days we would go with the other team to have dinner after the game and then we would exchange gifts,’ explains Chinaglia, beginning the tale with a disarmingly charming prologue. ‘But some of our players didn’t want to give Arsenal any gifts because they’d had a bit of a battle on the field, which I think they should forget about after the game.
Anyway, some punches were flying, our players started hitting the Arsenal players and that was it – the dinner came to an end!’
Four years on, and with Lazio on the way to their first-ever league title, another incident with English visitors cost them a lot more than dinner.
Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town side were the second team to feel the wrath of the men who just hated to lose. Despite scoring a hat-trick in the second leg of a high-scoring cup tie, Chinaglia recalls how two key refereeing decisions provided the fuel for an all-out riot.
‘Well, we’d lost 4-0 at Ipswich but we said we could beat them 5 or 6-0 at home,’ he says, displaying just how confident that side was. ‘And we were doing that – it was 2-0 to us after 20 minutes, when I took a shot that a guy on the line parried out with his hand. But the referee didn’t give us a penalty. So that’s when it started.
Then, in the second half, he gave them a penalty that was not, and that was it!
We won the game 4-2, but we were out and afterwards the fans went crazy – everybody went crazy – so they disqualified us. Their players couldn’t come out of the dressing room because 75,000 people were waiting for them and that’s a difficult situation.
‘We had a lot of problems after that game. In fact, we didn’t play in the European Cup after winning the Scudetto because of that fight.’
And what about his team-mates – were they trying to get at the referee and the Ipswich players?
Interesting. But at this point it seems only right to take a closer look at some of the men playing alongside Chinaglia back then.
The team’s unexpected success was built largely around a solid defensive record, with just 23 goals conceded in the 30-match season, while Chinaglia hit 24 goals at the other end to top score in Serie A.
‘It was a good all-round team,’ he confirms. ‘We played with one defender – Oddi – man-marking the opposition striker, one sweeper – Pino Wilson – and two full-backs – Petrelli and Martini – who kept going forward.
We had one holding midfielder, which was Frustalupi, and some good players on the wings – Nanni and D’Amico – with a good, hard worker between them in midfield, in Re Cecconi. Then Garlaschelli was a good player up front as well.’
Yet things weren’t so harmonious away from the pitch. In fact, the 18-man squad was divided right down the middle, to the point where they changed in separate rooms and would only play on the same team for competitive first-team matches. It makes a mockery of today’s tabloid tales of dressing room unrest. This was more like civil war!
‘There were two teams in that squad,’ Chinaglia admits. ‘They were like little kids!’
‘We used to play nine against nine in training during the week and we always used to play one dressing room against the other. It was all-out war out there on Friday nights.
Sometimes we were going for three hours and the fans used to go crazy watching that. People were saying, “What the hell is going on here?”
But then on a Sunday everybody used to pull for each other.’
Some feel such discord makes the Lazio of 1973/4 the most unlikely scudetto winning-side ever, while others argue it was the divide that made the team so fiercely competitive, driving them on to success.
Chinaglia feels the debate is unnecessary, though. In his eyes, they won because they were the best.
‘At the end of the day we should have won the league the year before, but we lost it on the last day of the season. We were confident we were gonna do it the next year and we did so that tells you what you need to know.’
The previous season had seen three teams go into the final day with a chance of winning the Scudetto – Juventus, Milan and Lazio. Of the trio, only Juve managed victory, however, and Lazio finished two points from the summit of Serie A, in third place.
The man in charge of the team as they kept their heads to win the league a year on was Tommaso Maestrelli, a man who Chinaglia remembers fondly.
The popular coach hauled the team out of Serie B in his first season at the helm, before launching the aforementioned title tilt in his second. He achieved the previously elusive Scudetto the following year, but in his fourth campaign at the Olimpico he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which would eventually kill him in December 1976.
‘He was the main guy, the coach, and he had the right ideas for the right situations; the right tactics, the right people around him and the right attitude,’ praises Chinaglia, who returned from New York to help carry Maestrelli’s coffin and still becomes emotional at the mention of his friend and boss.
‘I didn’t really hang around with many of my team-mates, to be honest with you,’ he continues. ‘I was always with Maestrelli.
Since the first day he came to the club he started speaking to me, explaining what he wanted for the future and everything – I thought he was great. I had the maximum respect for him and we just took off as friends.’
Maestrelli’s death was a huge blow to Lazio, but it turned out to be just the first of several incidents that saw the side become as closely associated with off-the-field tragedy as success on it.
Just a month after joining Chinaglia in carrying their manager’s casket to church, Italian international midfielder Luciano Re Cecconi became the second victim of what the media referred to as a ‘curse’ of that exceptional squad.
His death was the result of the kind of high jinks he and his team-mates had prided themselves on. But, on 18 January, 1977, a typically outrageous Lazio joke went horribly wrong.
Entering Bruno Tabocchini’s jewellers with team-mate Piero Ghedin, the blonde prankster called out: ‘Stop, this is a robbery!’
But it wasn’t received as a gag by the jumpy jeweller, who swiftly produced a gun from under the counter, shooting Re Cecconi dead when he didn’t raise his hands.
Shocked and mortally wounded, Re Cecconi’s last words are believed to have been, ‘It’s a joke, it’s a joke.’
Chinaglia received the news over the phone, in disbelief.
‘I wasn’t there at that point, I was in America,’ he says, taking up the story. ‘But it was terrible – still today it’s unbelievable. They called me from Italy and there was nothing I could say, it was just unbelievable.
They used to play pranks on people all the time but they didn’t know this jeweller had been robbed the week before.'
‘There was so much tragedy,’ the former striker adds. ‘The coach died, Re Cecconi died like that, then Frustalupi died in a car accident in 1990. Also, some of the guys on the bench – an official, the doctor, the President – they all died. It was unbelievable.’
It would be an understatement to suggest this was not a happy ending to the fairytale. Yet Chinaglia will remember the good times as some of the best days of his career. After all, theirs was the first of just two titles ever won by Lazio and each one of the men who took the journey with him will forever be remembered as legends by the club’s supporters, who (let’s face it) have been quick to show their love for a renegade personality or two!
‘It wasn’t a normal team let’s put it that way,’ Chinaglia summarises with an understatement of his own. ‘There were different personalities but, if we hadn’t had that intensity, we wouldn’t have won the league. So, yeah, there were all these crazy people but, whatever else people want to say about us, the final goal was to win the Championship, which we did. That’s what people should remember.’
You can follow Dominic on Twitter @Dominic_Bliss