The date was May 18, 2000 and the new millennium was in full force: the Olsen Brothers had recently won the Eurovision Song Contest for Denmark, Britney Spears had just released her bestselling second studio album ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’ and Ridley Scott’s Roman epic ‘Gladiator’ had been awarded ‘Best Picture’ at the 73rd Academy Awards.
Meanwhile, on the Italian peninsula, another Roman epic was unfolding as Lazio secured a historic domestic double in the space of a week. On May 14, the Biancoceleste beat Reggina 3-0 which, coupled with Juventus’ 1-0 final day defeat to Perugia, ensured Lazio won only the second Scudetto in their history. Four days later, they lifted the Coppa Italia after completing a 2-1 aggregate victory over Inter.
Ask any Laziale of a certain age and their fondest memory will be of this triumph. Even those with little recall can claim a sense of borrowed nostalgia having heard shared tales of the team often dubbed ‘the greatest never to win the Champions League’.
To give the story some context, Lazio had come close to winning the Scudetto the previous season, finishing just one point behind winner’s AC Milan and 13 points clear of third placed Fiorentina. Despite this setback, Coach Sven-Göran Eriksson had instilled a winning mentality in the squad, guiding them to both the Supercoppa Italiana and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.
Looking to build on this success, Eriksson was proactive in the transfer market. Christian Vieri left the club to join Inter for a record-breaking fee of €46 million, but it was the Swede’s acquisitions that would have the greatest impact upon Lazio’s season. The signings of Juan Sebastian Veron from Parma, Fabrizio Ravanelli from Marseille, Simone Inzaghi from Piacenza and Diego Simeone from Inter, were a demonstration of Lazio’s huge pulling power at the turn of the century, bankrolled by one of Italy’s most powerful businessmen, Sergio Cragnotti.
Lazio’s had some world class talent in their squad for the 1999/00 season. In goal, the ever-reliable Luca Marchegiani – who became known as one of the Biancoceleste’s greatest ever goalkeepers after joining in 1993 before leaving a decade later – set the standard in terms of performance levels and professionalism. Known for his leadership, he was a man around whom solid defensive foundations could be built.
Lazio’s defensive cast featured the likes of Siniša Mihajlović, Giuseppe Pancaro, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Negro and Giuseppe Favalli, with supporting roles provided by Roberto Sensini and Fernando Couto. Renowned for his free-kicks and corners, Mihajlović also added a strong defensive presence. Alongside him was Alessandro Nesta, considered one of the best central defenders of all-time.
In the full-back positions, Eriksson rotated Negro, Favalli and Pancaro and each brought something different to the team. Negro was tenacious and determined, Favalli was versatile and could provide cover for other defensive positions while Pancaro was hard-working and effective in the air.
Lazio’s midfield was the most star-studded area of the squad. The three mainstays were Pavel Nedved, Juan Sebastián Verón (the team’s most capped player that season) and Sérgio Conceição. The other place was shared between Diego Simeone and Matías Almeyda. Veron netted eight goals in the season, whilst Simeone and Nedved chipped in with five apiece. These were some of the most influential midfielders of their generation, with Veron considered an all-time great and Pavel Nedved a future Ballon D’Or winner (Juventus 2003).
Five gifted forwards played a part in Lazio’s Scudetto triumph. Marcelo Salas was the club’s top-scorer, with 12 goals in 28 appearances. However, the supporting cast of Alen Bokšić, Inzaghi, Ravanelli, Roberto Mancini and Attilio Lombardo all made valuable contributions. Indeed, the distribution of goals around the attack, midfield and defence demonstrated the efficiency of the team.
Lazio’s Scudetto-winning season began with a foreshadowing victory over arguably the greatest ever Manchester United side. Eriksson’s men were underdogs when they met the Champions League holders, but a 35th-minute goal from Marcelo Salas was enough to edge a tight game as Lazio lifted the 1999 European Super Cup.
Over the course of the 1999/00 Serie A season, Lazio lost just four games, all of which were away from home. They began the season at the Stadio Olimpico just three days after their Super Cup triumph, narrowly beating Cagliari 2-1 with goals from Veron and Inzaghi. This was the catalyst for a nine-game unbeaten start to the season for Eriksson’s men.
That run included a notable 4-4 draw at home to reigning Serie A champions AC Milan. The visitors went 1-0 up through Shevchenko after 12 minutes, before Veron promptly equalised. Milan took the lead again via a Mihajlović own goal just after the half hour mark before a quick-fire double from Simeone and Salas put Lazio 3-2 up with just 40 minutes gone. The Rossoneri’s equaliser just before half-time meant Lazio had conceded more goals in 45 minutes than they had in their opening four games.
Shevchenko completed his hat-trick in the 69th minute before a quick reply from Salas once again levelled the scores at 4-4. This game was an early indication of the team’s character and desire to fight to the very end.
On Match Day 10, however, cracks began to show in the worst possible way as Lazio suffered their heaviest defeat of the season, losing 4-1 to their eternal rivals Roma. This was a hard pill to swallow for Laziali and there were concerns such a defeat could derail their team’s positive start.
After defeat to Roma, Lazio held title rivals Juventus to a 0-0 draw at home, the first of four consecutive clean sheets, the other being a trio of 2-0 victories against Perugia, Fiorentina and Piacenza. Those wins were followed by a shock 2-0 defeat at Venezia, a side who would be relegated come May.
Again, that defeat threatened to damage the Biancoceleste’s title charge. A subsequent run of three draws in six unbeaten games followed by a 2-1 defeat to Milan at the San Siro raised question marks around Eriksson’s side’s ability to sustain a title challenge.
Three weeks later, this theory was reinforced as the Aquile slumped to another shock defeat, this time away to Verona. On the same day, Juventus extended their unbeaten run to 22 consecutive games. This left Lazio nine points adrift of the Bianconeri. The title race appeared to be over.
With eight games remaining, however, Lazio were given a glimmer of hope as they came from behind to earn a 2-1 derby win against Roma, whilst Juve’s unbeaten run was halted by AC Milan.
This morale-boosting triumph came at the perfect time for Eriksson’s side, who travelled to Turin to face their title rivals knowing a win would cut the gap at the top to three points. Juve were unbeaten at home but in a game of fine margins, the visitors emerged victorious thanks to a 67th-minute header from Diego Simeone.
Typicallly, Juventus bounced back with three wins on the trot, whilst Lazio won two and drew 3-3 away at Fiorentina. With three games remaining, Lazio sat on 63 points, five behind the leaders.
What happened next was an incredible testament to Lazio’s resolve and determination as well as a calamitous collapse on Juventus’ part. Eriksson’s men won at home to Venezia and away at Bologna, while the pace setters were defeated 2-0 by Hellas Verona, before narrowly beating Parma 1-0.
This meant Juve went into the final day of the season two points ahead of Lazio needing a victory at mid-table Perugia to guarantee the title. With destiny out of their hands, the Biancoceleste lived up to their part of the bargain, dispatching Reggina 3-0 at home thanks to goals from Inzaghi, Veron and Simeone. Meanwhile, after a significant delay in Perugia due to torrential rain – which almost saw the game called off – the unthinkable happened as the Umbrian side beat Juve 1-0.
Perugia’s scorer on the day, 33-year-old Alessandro Calori, earned himself honorary cult status in the blue half of Rome as Lazio were crowned Serie A champions for the first time since 1974. As news of Juve’s defeat filtered through to the Olimpico, thousands of delirious fans flooded the pitch to celebrate with their idols.
Four days later, Lazio triumphed in the Coppa Italia final, following up a 2-1 first leg victory against Inter with a 0-0 draw at San Siro. Lazio had won their third competition of the season. In Europe, however, Eriksson’s team fell short after a shock defeat against Valencia in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
To this day, Lazio fans have never enjoyed a team like the one of 1999/00. In the following years, the Cragnotti era began to crumble under the weight of financial scandal. And while current President Claudio Lotito has balanced the books, there has been little on-field success. But to Laziali around the world, the Scudetto-winning team of 2000 will be remembered as one of the greatest sides in the club’s 118-year history.
Words by Sam Wilson: @snhw_