EVEN A CASUAL follower of Italian football is likely to know the story of John Charles, the Welsh centre-forward who became a Juventus legend in the early 1960s. Equally comfortable at centre-half, il Gigante Buono starred alongside Omar Sívori and Giampiero Boniperti in three Serie A title wins. Yet he is not the only attacker to have made the journey from Swansea to Serie A. A few years later, a man nicknamed “Long John” in reference to Charles would become one of Lazio’s most iconic players.
Giorgio Chinaglia was born in Tuscany, but poor economic conditions in post-war Italy saw his parents emigrate to Wales when Chinaglia was a boy. In the excellent book Calcio, John Foot tells the tale of how a six-year-old Giorgio was sent, alone, to join his parents in Wales with his destination sewn into his jumper. Chinaglia would later revel in his tough upbringing, wearing as a badge of honour the cramped living conditions of his youth, and the hardiness of his father. Such a background, alongside his goals, would only endear him to Lazio’s tifosi.
He started his playing career at Swansea, who considered him not good enough to make a career in football and released him. He returned to Italy to complete his national service, and began playing for a couple of smaller clubs. It was in 1969 that he landed his big break: he signed for Lazio, alongside fellow British-Italian Pino Wilson, from the now-defunct Internapoli.
Life in Rome did not begin smoothly. Within two years Chinaglia and his new teammates were playing in Serie B after relegation in the 1970-71 season. Not that this was a major shock; Lazio’s only major honour before the 1970s was a solitary Coppa Italia in 1958. City rivals Roma had only won Serie A once before this period, with the Italian game’s power firmly centred in the industrial North.
Lazio returned to Serie A after just one season, and were about to embark on their most successful period. Between 1972 and 1974 the team finished first, second and third in Serie A, winning the title in 1974 with Chinaglia contributing 24 goals. By this time, he had also developed a habit of scoring in the Rome derby.
On the pitch, as in life, Chinaglia was a hot-headed, controversial figure. He would frequently fight during games – occasionally with his own teammates – and would react angrily when not given the ball. But it was off the field that he would become an even more divisive figure.
The 1970s in Italy were gli anni di piombo, an intense political period where the fault-lines between the left and right were ever-widening. As late as 1976, the Italian Communist Party gained more than a third of the vote in a general election, whilst a party led by a former Mussolini henchman also sought political leadership.
In more recent times, the right-wing sentiments of Lazio’s ultra have become well known, with Paolo Di Canio’s infamous fascist salute in the Rome derby drawing attention to the politics of Rome’s football clubs. In the 1970s things were no different, and Chinaglia himself allegedly gave a fascist salute of his own to Lazio’s fans. He also expressed support for the far-right party led by one of Mussolini’s men.
Quite how ideologically-involved Chinaglia was is open to debate; what is clear is that he courted controversy and enjoyed riling opponents, whether sporting or otherwise. This was not, however, a time when politics in Italy was merely discussed. Terrorist groups such as the left-wing Brigate Rosse and the right-wing Squadre d’Azione Mussolini were well known, and a very real presence in Italian civic life. In 1978, the Brigate Rosse would kidnap and murder Aldo Moro, the country’s former Prime Minister.
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Life in Rome became difficult for Chinaglia; he famously owned a gun, though he claimed this was not for self-defence, and it is known that many of his Lazio teammates also possessed firearms. Still, the controversy that Chinaglia had enjoyed started to catch up with him, and threats of kidnapping by terrorist groups started to surface. His family moved to the US in the mid-1970s, with Giorgio himself briefly embroiled in a battle to leave Lazio, before eventually joining them in America in 1976. Aged 29, he would never play in Serie A again. But his career was far from over.
Joining New York Cosmos, he became a pioneer of the North American Soccer League, America’s first major foray into football. In New York he played alongside Pelé, Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer, as the Cosmos became the major name in US soccer.
The NASL had begun attracting ageing stars, but this was not merely a lucrative retirement camp for Chinaglia. In seven seasons with the Cosmos, he would score almost 200 goals in official league matches (and almost 400 overall), finishing as top scorer at the club in each season. As self-centred as in his time at Lazio, he criticised Pelé for not passing to him, and for the Brazilian’s lack of effort. Chinaglia joined the NASL Hall of Fame in 2000 and remains a legend of football in the US; when the New York Cosmos were recently revived, the club retired the number 9 shirt in his honour.
Despite his many years in Wales and the USA, Chinaglia stated that he had always felt Italian, but his career for the Azzurri was a huge disappointment. After scoring on his debut, and being instrumental in Italy’s first win over England at Wembley – setting up a goal for Fabio Capello – he made the squad for the 1974 World Cup.
Rarely used, he argued with Italy coach Feruccio Valcareggi when substituted in the group stage, with Italy enduring a poor World Cup. At home, Chinaglia – arrogant, outspoken, the symbol of an unpopular Lazio side – was an easy scapegoat. His international career ended in 1975, just three years after it had begun and only 14 games and four goals later.
At the end of his football career, Chinaglia pursued careers in politics and business. He was Lazio president and New York Cosmos owner in the mid-1980s, but his ventures were frequently marred by criminal investigations. In 2004 he returned to Italy in an attempt to take over Foggia, a club then in Serie C after a glorious period in Serie A in the early 1990s under Zdeněk Zeman. The takeover failed, Chinaglia was accused of money-laundering, and he returned to the US.
He was not finished yet; two years later, Lazio’s ultra were locked in a power struggle with club president Claudio Lotito. In charge since 2004, Lotito had sought to dramatically decrease the power of the club’s hardcore fan-base, and the ultra attempted an ambitious takeover of their own. They needed a figurehead, and Chinaglia stepped forward, only for money-laundering allegations to re-surface, this time with suspected links to a branch of the mafia. Under investigation by the Italian authorities, he again fled to the US and, uncertain about whether he remained a wanted man at home, he would never return to Italy. Chinaglia passed away aged 65 in 2012.
Giorgio Chinaglia belongs to an Italy that no longer exists; a time when the Iron Curtain touched the country’s eastern border, when political ideologies fought a vicious battle, when terrorism was part of Italian life. He was a man who enjoyed the lifestyle offered by living in New York City but who never settled for a well-paid, easy life on the pitch. He was a prolific goalscorer who scored over a hundred goals for Lazio but only four for Italy.
The son of a humble metal worker, he would develop a habit for talking of himself in the third-person. He was a proud Italian who spent most of his life living elsewhere. He was a man who left Lazio as the club fought a battle against relegation, but who was voted the club’s greatest ever player in their centenary celebrations. In a time before sculpted torsos and extreme athletic professionalism, Chinaglia was a true football rockstar.
By Ross Highfield @MrRHighfield