Sergio Cragnotti: The rise and fall of Lazio’s Roman Emperor

The emperors of ancient Rome were well-known for lascivious lifestyles, eccentric tastes and political controversies. History has long sought to argue just who built the biggest wall or which leader best managed Imperial Rome’s finances.

To this day Italy remains a complex place. Amidst the medieval squares, architectural wonders and sprawling agricultural countryside, there sits a land of dark themes. Scratch just beneath the surface in Lombardy or Sicily, and you see a different Italy to that of picturesque medieval wonder. This is often a nation full of corruption, crime and financial skulduggery.

While the Emperor of the Roman Empire is a role that no longer exists, that of the president in Italian football continues to be prominent. At AC Milan, Silvio Berlusconi was the main theatrical protagonist for two decades, doubling a role as leader of the club with being Prime Minister of Italy.

Naturally, the status of the president can be a divisive one. He can be loved by his wife but hated by the emotive fans that stand on the Curva. Financial disaster, peer argument, player exclusion, legal conflict and even jail are themes which always seem to characterise the reign of a club president.

Once one of Italy’s most powerful businessman thanks to position as head of the Cirio food conglomerate, the former Lazio president Sergio Cragnotti is one such controversial figure.  Now an ageing man of 77 years, recent times have seen him and his family chased by the law makers and threatened with a spell behind bars.

Like many presidents, his was a reign that attracted sin, success, conflict, controversy and financial turmoil. A charismatic man, he named his dog after Christian Vieri and his time at Lazio saw him rule over the most successful period in the club’s recent history.

Often viewed as arrogant, aloof and cold, this was a hard man to please and befriend. There is a famous story involving Cragnotti and one of his first marquee signings at Lazio, Paul Gascoigne. Having arrived at training, the Lazio president stepped out of his car followed by a fawning entourage, only for Gazza to walk up to him, shake his hand and proclaim: ‘Tua figlia, grandi tette’ (your daughter has big tits).

Of course, Gascoigne had been on the receiving end of a a player prank. Having just arrived in Rome, and lacking any sort of fluency in Italian, Gascoigne had been set up by his teammates. While the likes of Beppe Signori sniggered in the background, Cragnotti was not amused.  Overall, the jape highlighted the huge failings in the relationship between the Englishman, Lazio and the fans. While Cragnotti and Dino Zoff saw Gascoigne as a high profile ambassador for the proud Lazio badge, the club was another stage for Gascoigne’s childish sense of humour. For the Lazio fans, Gazza was just one of them; as distant from the riches and prestige of Cragnotti as you could get.

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Gazza was a cult hero with the Lazio fans, but he experienced a frosty relationship with president Cragnotti

Born in Rome on 9 January 1940, Cragnotti’s early years were shaped by the Second World War.  After school he ended up in Brazil, and by the 1970s he gained renown for his financial expertise. He eventually travelled back to Europe in the 1980s and became CEO at a number of sugar and grain companies.

By the early 1990s, he began to form loose partnerships with Lazio directors. In early 1991, the first signs of his financial interest in the club became apparent. And eventually, by March 1992, all of the remaining obstacles to gaining the presidency of the Biancocelesti would be removed.

Just like the great Roman Emperors of old, Cragnotti began to install trusty lieutenants and make plans for improving infrastructure. On the playing front, Signori joined from Foggia and was soon followed by Gascoigne, Aron Winter and Giuseppe Favalli. Later came the even more high profile Pierluigi Casiraghi, as well as tall Croatian striker Alen Bokšić​.

If his early years at the helm of Lazio were lean, then the most pivotal moments arrived in 1997. Despite claims Ronaldo was joining, it was Roberto Mancini who transferred the the Aquile from Sampdoria. Changes were made in the coaching department too. Out went the chain smoking Czech, Zdeněk Zeman, and in came the shrewd Swede, Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Domestically, the Coppa Italia was won in 1998, the first piece of success since Lazio’s first and only Scudetto win in 1974. Meanwhile, off the field, Cragnotti’s grasp and control of his business empire was increasing with the acquisition and control of Del Monte Foods, swelling the product range of a growing food empire dramatically. The Cirio logo was displayed on the Lazio shirt as the main sponsor between 1996 and 2000, and became an iconic hallmark of the Cragnotti era.

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Pavel Nedvěd, Alen Bokšić (left) and Giuseppe Favalli (right) were three important signings made under Cragnotti

By 1999, Lazio had an all-star line-up that included Luca Marchegiani in goal, a captain marvel in Alessandro Nesta, and sparkling forwards in Vieri, Mancini and Marcelo Salas. The strength of the squad was such that even Attilio Lombardo could only find a place on the bench.

In Europe, the team won both the Cup Winner’s Cup and the European Super Cup, the latter seeing Manchester United defeated. But even bigger successes were to arrive.

The 1999-00 season saw the Biancocelesti well placed to challenge for a domestic double of Scudetto and Coppa Italia. Eventually, the title was won in controversial circumstances over Juventus. Refereeing decisions were called into question, as the run in heated up to a powder keg finish. The Serie A title was only secured thanks to Lazio’s final day win over Reggina, whilst Juventus toiled on a flooded pitch in Perugia. The Coppa Italia was then added at the San Siro thanks to a win over Inter.

But instead of kicking on to even greater success in the Champions League, Lazio descended into a downward decline. Multiple conflicts between the corporate visions of Cragnotti and the footballing side of his empire collided, culminating in Cirio bonds defaulting and player wages going unpaid.

Then, in 2003, Cragnotti was forced to step aside and was replaced as president by Ugo Longo. Soon after, Cragnotti wound up in prison on charges of fraudulent bankruptcy related to his running of Cirio. Equally punishing was the fact that his family were called into the criminal investigation.

For the most fervent amongst the Irriducibili fans of Lazio, there was ‘only one president’, and that was the chant that reverberated from the Curva Nord. But in the opposing Curva Sud – the realm of Roma’s support – the shouts were unsurprisingly more derogatory, with a selection of chants asking questions about when Cragnotti and his family would be jailed.

Ultimately, Cragnotti’s reign was like that of Rome’s greatest emperors. The legitimacy of an emperor’s rule depended on his control of his army and the respectful recognition of the ruling senate. An emperor would normally be proclaimed heroically by his troops, or invested with imperial titles by the Senate, or both. And though Cragnotti enjoyed success and grandeur, by the end of his reign, this particular emperor had neither the respect of his troops, the players, nor of the game’s administrators.

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Cragnotti held aloft by Lazio players following their victory at San Siro in the Coppa Italia final of 2000

The complexity of his business interests and the breaking up of a successful team led to his status being called into question. The fans started to question his ambitions, as star player after star player was transferred elsewhere.

Three years after moving on from Lazio in November 2006, Cragnotti published his autobiography which was titled Un calcio al cuore (A Kick to the Heart). Co-written with Fabrizio Pennacchia, it told the tale of a man who went from small business interests in Brazil, to the heights of Serie A and European success, only to finish in a cell in Regina Coeli prison, where he was locked up for the corrupt handling of the Cirio agri-food company.

Lazio since the Cragnotti years have not been devoid of football success. Coppa Italia titles arrived in 2004, 2009 and more importantly in 2013 thanks to a 1-0 win over Roma. However, despite his ageing years, sullen features and greying hair, Cragnotti was still being chased by public prosecutors even up until recently.

In 2011, the public prosecutor asked that Cragnotti should serve 15 years in prison, and that eight years should also be imposed on his sons Andrea and Massimo, and daughter Elisabetta.

While the complexity of legal arguments continues to haunt the agri-business, these arguments were never the focus of this article. Like the Cirio group, which has in recent years gone on to restructure and thrive with its food product range, so Lazio continue to endure, some 15 years after  Cragnotti’s era as president came to an end.

Words by Damon Main: @TheAwaySection

Founder of www.theawaysection.com Damon is currently based in Scotland.  From his first football match in 1978 to more recent times, Damon somehow still manages to combine his sense of wanderlust with a camera and laptop.