Giorgio Chinaglia: Lazio’s unsaintly champion

In May 2017 during an official visit to Rome, Donald Trump’s eldest daughter Ivanka was in the famous Ristorante Da Sabatino. Just above an image of the capuchin monk and saint Padre Pio, Ivanka spotted an image of a young man clad in pale blue, both arms outstretched in a cruciform pose. The American President’s daughter asked the owner of the restaurant “Which saint is that?” to which the owner replied: “He is not a saint, but a great champion of Lazio.”  The man in the picture was former Italy and SS Lazio striker Giorgio Chinaglia.

Chinaglia’s remarkable story is not nearly as widely known as it should be. So here, for the benefit of Ivanka and anyone else who might be interested, is the story of a man who most definitely was not a saint.

Although born in Carrara in Tuscany in 1947, Chinaglia was raised in the Welsh capital of Cardiff, where his father Mario had found work in a steel factory. Later, Mario opened an Italian restaurant where his son would work as a dishwasher and waiter in the evenings, work which the young Chinaglia hated. Fortunately football offered an escape for Giorgio, who certainly hadn’t entertained the idea of playing Rugby after being told by his father that “only ugly people” played the game many consider to be the national sport of Wales. Tall, strong and with a ferocious shot, Chinaglia was a natural centre forward and before long professional clubs began to take interest.

Chinaglia was offered a trial with Cardiff City but in an early example of the arrogance that would characterise much of his career he refused to take part, signing instead for Swansea Town (as it was then) in 1962. Chinaglia was taken on as an apprentice at the age of 15 and by his own admission, he let it go to his head. He lost interest in training and refused to clean the senior player’s boots like the other apprentices. He made only six senior appearances for the Swans, scoring one goal. It is rumoured that in an effort to get his son more playing time in the first team, Mario turned up at manager Billy Lucas’ office brandishing an axe, although Giorgio has always denied it.

Opportunities for Chinaglia seemed to be running out in Britain but fortuitously he had to return to Italy in 1966 to do his national service, saving his football career in the process: Otherwise, I’d probably still be in Wales,” he reflected “slogging it out in the mud and drinking ale. The Italian army has a special regiment for soccer players, so all I did in the service was to train all day, and when my club had a game, get a pass.

As Chinaglia had played professionally abroad, he was banned from playing for a Serie A team for three years, years which he spent at Massese in Tuscany and then Internapoli, both in Serie C1. The young striker found it difficult to adapt to the Italian practice of going in ritiro during pre-season, that is the whole team going away together to train, rooming together and keeping to a strict curfew. Chinaglia was by now more accustomed to the British form of team-building over a few pints and instead left ritiro and returned to Wales. Internapoli had to buy him a car to tempt him back to Italy.

Tall and slightly hunch-backed, Chinaglia was initially regarded with scepticism in Italy as he lacked the elegance prized in professional players. The legendary Omar Sivori even compared him to an elephant in a china shop. He was perceived as typically British: physical and direct, but technically lacking. Nevertheless, Chinaglia was a revelation in Serie C1, earning the nickname Long John on account of his size and British upbringing, as well as comparisons with Wales and Juventus legend John Charles.

In 1969, when his three year exile was up, Chinaglia signed for SS Lazio. In his first season with the Biancoceleste, Chinaglia scored 12 goals, but in his second he scored only nine as the club slipped into Serie B. Chinaglia remained with Lazio in the second tier, however, scoring 21 goals under new coach Tommaso Maestrelli as the club earned an immediate return to the top flight. In the process Chinaglia won the Serie B Capocannoniere and the honour of being the first player of the modern age to be called up for the Azzurri while playing in the second tier of Italian football.

But beyond their success under Maestrelli, this Lazio side was also one that reflected Italy in the 1970s: young, energetic but also deeply divided and unpredictable. While the country at large was engulfed in political violence between the extreme right and extreme left —  known as the “years of lead” — the Lazio dressing room was divided to the extent that the two factions would get changed separately. One faction was led by Chinaglia and another Britalian, the Darlington born centre back Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Wilson, and the other by the midfielder Luciano Re Cecconi with fullback Luigi Martini. Apparently the squad was divided merely by clashes of personality rather than political ideology, although Chinaglia had expressed support for the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the heirs to Italy’s fascist party.

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Training matches between the two halves of the squad were reportedly ferocious and, in-keeping with both the atmosphere of ultra-masculinity and the wider climate of violence, most of the squad purchased handguns which they regularly brought to training. While many of his colleagues carried the Walther P38, Chinaglia, never to be out done, went for a Colt 44 Magnum of the kind used by Clint Eastwood in the film Dirty Harry. As the goalkeeper Felice Pulci would later recall:

I remember our travels by aeroplane: before we sat down we had to hand our pistols over to the captain. The cabin was like an armoury.

The setup at Lazio would, in any normal circumstances, be a recipe for disaster. But the intensity of the rivalry between the two camps seemed to drive the team on to greater things. In their first season back in Serie A, Maestrelli’s men narrowly missed out on the Scudetto losing to Napoli on the final day to finish two points behind Juventus and one point behind Milan.

Chinaglia was by this time a favourite of Lazio’s supporters and a fixture of Rome’s party scene. He was a regular at the recently opened Jackie O’s nightclub frequented by local and international stars including Marcello Mastroianni, Liz Taylor and Gerard Depardieu. He even released a record at one stage titled ‘(I’m) Football Crazy’.

On the international stage, Chinaglia had also begun making waves. In November 1973, Italy faced England at Wembley having beaten them for the first time in their history only five months earlier in Turin. Nevertheless, the English papers demanded victory, describing the Italians as a team of waiters; a reference to the make-up of the Italian support in London and to Chinaglia’s background. This dig at his early days in growing up in Wales must have infuriated the Lazio man and thus it was poetic revenge when, in the 86th minute of the match, it was Chinaglia who beat Bobby Moore and fired in a cross for Fabio Capello to tap home. It was the first time Italy had beaten England at Wembley.

The season got better and better from there. In the first Derby della Capitale, after scoring the final goal in a 2-1 victory, Chinaglia celebrated under the Curva Sud where the Roma ultras were situated. In the months that followed, Lazio’s forward received so many threats from incensed Roma supporters that he took to carrying his Magnum with him everywhere he went.

Any professional would be excused for letting this put them off their game, but not Chinaglia. On the contrary, it seems that he revelled in the intense atmosphere around him. In the return fixture, with the game tied at 1-1, Lazio won a penalty to be taken under the Curva Sud. Chinaglia didn’t hesitate as he dispatched the spot-kick before running to celebrate in front of the Roma ultras who wanted him dead, pointing his index finger at them as oranges, bricks and debris rained down from the stands.   

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It was Chinaglia from the spot once more who would score the winning goal against Foggia in a tight 1-0 victory to confirm Lazio as Champions of Italy for the first time in their history with a game to spare. He ended the season as capocannoniere with 24 goals, an outstanding figure considering that teams in Serie A only played 30 games in those days.

With the World Cup taking place in West Germany that summer, and Italy among the favourites after finishing runners up in the 1970 World Cup, the scene appeared to be set for Long John to crown an incredible season with the greatest success of all. But it was not to be.  

Following a subdued and nervous performance against Haiti in Italy’s opening game, Chinaglia was substituted off with 15 minutes to go. Chinaglia was not impressed, making it clear to Italian CT Ferruccio Valcareggi that he would be playing from start to finish or not at all.

He was granted his wish and told that he would not be playing in the second group game. Of course, this only infuriated Chinaglia further, who attacked the coaching staff in the press and suggested that if he wasn’t required he could return to Italy. In the end, Maestrelli was asked to travel to Germany, believed to be one of the few people who could manage Chinaglia. A fragile peace was brokered, but it was ultimately in vein as Italy lost their final group game to Poland and were narrowly edged out of the tournament on goal difference.

Things also started to go awry back at Lazio. Having started their title defence well, Maestrelli was forced to step down as coach after being diagnosed with cancer and the club finished fourth. Lazio spent the majority of the following season fending off relegation and things were so dire that a recovering Maestrelli briefly returned to the club long enough to keep them up.

In the meantime, Chinaglia seemed to be running out of road in Italy in much the same way he had in Wales. By now the striker was widely loathed by Roma fans, supporters of Italy’s left-leaning clubs such as Perugia and Livorno and, after the World Cup debacle, a significant portion of Azzurri supporters. He was regularly subject to threats and abuse on the streets of Rome and whistled in most Italian stadia.

Meanwhile, his wife, the Italian american Connie Eruzione, had moved back to the states with their children. Against this backdrop, Chinaglia’s next step, as unusual as it was for many Italian footballers in their prime, was perfectly logical: he walked into the office of the President of the New York Cosmos and told Clive Toye that he could either sign him or he would buy his own American club and play for them.

Chinaglia was duly signed to the North American Soccer League side where he played in an all-star squad alongside Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer. If anyone expected this exalted company to make Chinaglia more humble, they were sorely mistaken. Pelé and Der Kaiser might have been legends of the game, but they were past their best: Chinaglia was still in his prime.  

When Pelé had a poor run of form, Chinaglia didn’t hesitate to give him a piece of his mind. The Brazilian responded by accusing Chinaglia of being greedy and shooting all the time. Chinaglia responded: “Yes, I shoot all the time because that is what they pay me for. I am Chinaglia, the one and only. You shouldn’t be standing next to me. You should be on the left side and then you will do better with more assists”.

Legend has it that Pelé, unaccustomed to being spoken to in this way, left the dressing room in tears.

Everything Chinaglia did was designed to convey that he was the boss: he always wore a silk dressing gown in the changing room, never a towel, and kept a bottle of Chivas Regal in his locker. On the pitch his stats spoke for themselves: he scored 231 goals in 234 appearances at the Cosmos, including 34 goals in 30 games in the 1978 season, before eventually hanging up his boots in 1983.

Following his retirement, Chinaglia returned to his beloved SS Lazio as Chairman but, perhaps unsurprisingly, his uncompromising style was not as well suited to the role of club management. Chinaglia departed in 1986 with the club in financial difficulties and relegated once more to Serie B.

Another attempt to take over the club was aborted in 2006 amid allegations of money laundering. Indeed, Chinaglia, who remained in the US for the rest of his life, was still sought for questioning by the Italian authorities when he died at his home in Florida in 2012.

So there we have it Ivanka, if you’re still reading Giorgio Chinaglia was an outspoken and controversial figure adored by his fans but despised by his enemies. A vain man whose undoubted success was driven by a need to prove the doubters wrong and whose business dealings were blighted by accusations of wrongdoing. Sound like anyone you know?

Words by Ricci Potts: @sttopr