It started with a bang. A brisk December afternoon in 1969 was interrupted when a bomb rocked the Banca Nationale dell Agricoltura in Milan, which left 17 dead and over 80 injured. Further explosive devices were found at the city’s trade fair and central train station, whilst explosions wreaked havoc in the capital, Rome.
This coordinated attack brought an end to the resurgence of Italy from the dark remains of World War Two. The death of leader Benito Mussolini had left Italy occupied and counting the cost of its pact with the Axis powers. This, however, heralded a new era on Lo Stivale, as the USA looked to forge relationships with countries within the shadow of the Iron Curtain.
Industrialisation soared as a combination of a large and cheap labour force saw dramatic economic growth. Italy was thrust from a predominantly rural country into an industrialised power. Cheap housing was erected on the outskirts of cities as families descended, looking for a better future. Houses, cars and rafts of domestic goods were suddenly available.
For Italians the world had opened up for them, but the rapid growth would soon cause problems up and down the country. Trade unions suddenly wielded insurmountable power across the country as workers demanded better pay and conditions.
Things came to a head in what was known as the ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969 when strikes and walkouts threatened to grind the country to a halt. Extreme left and right wing political parties saw a way to influence the population to meet their aims. Certain sections from both sides of the political spectrum had anarchistic tendencies, and splinter groups set out to cause chaos and destruction in a time known as the the ‘Years of Lead’ – named in response to the number of bullets that would riddle Italy over the next decade.
A constant throughout that time, however, was football, and it is no surprise that one of the most brutal eras in the nation’s history gave rise to a team of gun-toting anarchists reviled across the land as much as they were revered by their faithful on the Curva Nord of the Stadio Olimpico. It was rumoured that Lazio was fascist leader Mussolini’s team, although it is open to debate whether some of the fans’ extreme right-wing leanings were born during his regime’s reign.
These fans came predominantly from the surrounding areas of Rome, in contrast to their Giallorossi rivals who hailed from the capital itself. AS Roma was formed in 1927 when three clubs were merged under pressure from the Fascist Party. Lazio were the only team to resist, despite having a longer history than their city rivals, and, as a result, i Biancocelesti had fewer fans in the capital.
This outsider reputation came to the fore when a ragtag bunch of misfits were held together by former Roma player Tomasso Maestrelli as the coach and spearheaded by a man known as ‘Long John’, who learnt his trade in the valleys of South Wales. For three wild years in the 1970s, Lazio crashed the Serie A party and left an impression that would never be forgotten.
Read | From Swansea reject to Lazio legend: the story of Giorgio Chinaglia
Giorgio Chinaglia was born in Tuscany during Italy’s early post-war economic struggles. His parents emigrated to Wales when his father secured a job in the thriving steel-producing city of Swansea. Giorgio was raised by his grandmother while his parents settled into their new surroundings, and when the call came he set off alone, aged only eight, with his parents’ address sewn into his jumper.
His father opened a local restaurant as Chinaglia’s considerable footballing ability brought him to the attention of local sides. He signed with the club of his adopted home, Swansea Town, after two seasons with the youth team.
His laissez-faire attitude and poor discipline went against him, however, and he was released after two years with very little fanfare, several clashes with coaches, and teammates left many glad to see the back of him. He raged that they would one day “beg for his autograph”. In 1966 he returned to Italy to complete his national service and, whilst there, joined up with Serie C side Massese before making a move to Internapoli, where his 26 goals in 66 games caught the attention of Lazio.
It was during his time at Internapoli that he struck up a friendship with teammate Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Wilson, who also had some experience of the United Kingdom having been born in Darlington before moving back to Italy with his parents. The pair were both signed by a struggling Lazio who found themselves relegated to Serie B in their first season at the club. They returned to the top flight the following year as Maestrelli coaxed brilliance out of Chinaglia with Wilson steadfast in defence. So began the club’s most successful period.
The rise to the top of Italian football wasn’t a straightforward one, Chinaglia was a hot head and just as likely to berate the referee as he was his teammates. Fans and Maestrelli took him to their hearts, though, giving him the nickname Long John after John Charles, who had made the journey from Wales to Italy a decade earlier.
Maestrelli was a father figure to Chinaglia, letting him stay at his home, with the striker often turning to him to celebrate his goals with. His strong, direct approach brought the Lazio fans to their feet and, despite being weak in the air, he more than made up for it with his powerful and accurate shooting.
With Chinaglia’s goals and Wilson’s ‘thou shall not pass’ approach to defending, they were the bedrock of the side. Both departments were joined up by the metronomic Luciano Re Cecconi in midfield. Managed by Maestrelli at Foggia, he was the perfect component of this high-energy side. The son of a farmer left Foggia after winning Serie B and moved with his former manager to Rome in 1972. His shock of fair hair earned him the nickname I’Angelo Biondo, and an ability to turn defence into attack made him the fulcrum of the side.
Despite the results on the pitch, off it, things couldn’t have been more different. The squad was divided into two factions, one led by Chinaglia and Wilson. They even had two separate changing rooms, and Re Cecconi flitted between both groups. who would often clash over political ideals.
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Chinaglia was disliked across calcio after he declared he would vote for the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano in the upcoming elections. With Rome already a heady cocktail of political anger, the striker resorted to carrying a 44 Magnum with him after rival fans ransacked his clothes shop that had opened in the city.
Guns were a prevalent theme at the club. Gun ownership itself had trebled during the Years of Lead, with Re Cecconi the only member of the squad not to carry one – more interested in football and practical jokes than the goings on around him. The team would prepare for games in a hotel on the edge of the city, and boredom would evidently set in for the highly-strung squad who devised a shooting range at the hotel to pass the time.
Pistols, rifles, M16s and even an elephant gun were brought to the roteiro. Nothing was off limits; lampposts, birds and light bulbs were targets, Sergio Petrelli allegedly shot the light in his room as he couldn’t be bothered to get up to switch it off. A nearby special needs school returned a bullet to the team hotel after digging it out of a wardrobe following one such session.
Another pastime enjoyed by the team was skydiving, something which Re Cecconi particularly enjoyed. This only added fuel to the fire to the supposed fascist tendencies at the club, an activity that was closely associated with the far-right parties. The Lazio fans revelled in this, though, as most of the other Italian clubs’ fans were left-wing. More players joined Chinaglia in backing the MSI, with Wilson, Petrelli and Luigi Martini all speaking out in its favour despite calls for the party to be banned as its fascist doctrine contravened the national constitution.
On the pitch, Lazio pushed Juventus all the way in the 1972/73 title race with virtually the same side that won promotion from Serie B. The Biancocelesti eventually finished third, and with it sealed a place in the UEFA Cup the following year, going unbeaten at home and conceding a mere 16 goals in 30 games. Their previous sojourn into European competition came three years earlier when they drew Arsenal in the first round of the old Fairs Cup.
A ceremonial meal in Rome descended into chaos when Lazio players took offence to the Arsenal side’s lack of gratitude towards the apparently “effeminate” leather purses the Italians had gifted them. It took one being thrust into the face of Arsenal’s Bob McNab for the fuse to be lit. Food was thrown and tables knocked over with Arsenal’s Frank McLintock describing it as like “something out of the wild-west”, as both sets of players bundled out of the restaurant and into the street.
With the stakes being raised, Maestrelli had to make some changes to training. The final session before match day would see an intra-squad game in which the coach had to make a certain stipulation to his players. In an era when most players neglected to wear shin pads during games, Maestrelli insisted on his warring players donning the protection during these training games due to the gusto with which the squad approached them. The coach would always attempt to end these games in draws to avoid further recriminations, yet they tended to continue until Chinaglia’s side had either drawn level or won.
Bombings and shootings had escalated in Italy by 1973 as the terrorist attacks from both sides of the political divide reached its zenith. For Lazio, it would be a season for the ages as this bullish, free-flowing side set about capturing their maiden Scudetto. Wilson was imperious as a sweeper and would go four seasons without missing a game for i Biancocelesti. Maestrelli implemented his own version of Total Football, with constant running, pressing and harrying keys to his tactics.
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All was not going to plan, however, in a game against Hellas Verona at the Stadio Olimpico when the home team ended the first half trailing 2-1. As the players stormed off the pitch at the interval, Maestrelli knew that should they get into the changing rooms, all hell would break loose. He stood in front of the door and said, “Back on the pitch.” With these four words, his team turned and went straight back out into their positions.
The Lazio Tifosi erupted on seeing their team’s immediate return to the pitch, and by the time the Verona side had joined them, the cacophony of sound inside the Olimpico had reached fever pitch. Lazio responded with three unanswered goals as Verona crumbled.
Lazio were flying and their city rivals looked on as Chinaglia, the man they dubbed a hunchback, helped his side to the league double, the Romanisti still baying for his blood after he raised his middle finger to them in an earlier Coppa Italia match.
Never far from the headlines, Lazio found themselves front and centre once more when they were drawn against Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town in the second round of the UEFA Cup. The Suffolk side had knocked Real Madrid out in the previous round and welcomed the leaders of Serie A to Portman Road full of confidence. That confidence was evident when Ipswich ran away with the first leg as they humbled their Italian opponents 4-0, the return game in Rome seen as something of a formality.
Upon their arrival in the Eternal City, the Ipswich side was visited by, unbeknownst to them, Roma Ultras who lavished gifts and praise on the English side for the first leg destruction of their bitter rivals. Photographs appeared in the newspapers, with Chinaglia and his side incensed and ready for war by the time kick off came around. Lazio flew out of the blocks and roared into a 2-0 lead inside the first 20 minutes. It could have been three when a shot appeared to be handled on the line, but the referee waved the Lazio appeals away.
It was only when Ipswich were awarded a penalty of their own that the game reached its boiling point. The Lazio players erupted in fury and fans descended onto the pitch as the officials struggled to get the game back under control. Penalty taker Colin Viljoen had to place the ball on the spot four times as Lazio players continually kicked it away. Eventually, Viljoen tucked the penalty away and the Ipswich players hurried back to their own half. Trevor Whymark churlishly celebrated and was chased back into his own 18-yard box by five Italians.
Lazio won 4-2 but went down 6-4 on aggregate. The drama, however, was far from over. Fans rioted in the stands as Lazio players were furious with the referee, with some suggesting the official was drunk. The Ipswich players barricaded themselves into the changing rooms as police attempted to keep the baying mob away with tear gas. Chinaglia was an unexpected peacemaker in all of this, pulling his teammates away from Ipswich’s changing room.
The upshot of this saw Lazio banned from European competition for three years, reduced to one on appeal, as UEFA obviously considered the previous altercation with Arsenal from three years earlier. The early European exit left Lazio to concentrate on the biggest prize on offer: the Scudetto. The title was secured in the penultimate game of the season thanks to a Chinaglia winner.
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That summer, Chinaglia’s burgeoning international career ground to a halt when he was substituted – unfairly in his opinion – for Italy during the 1974 World Cup game with Haiti. Dino Zoff had seen his record of not conceding in 1,143 minutes end as the Haitians took a shock lead only for Italy to strike back twice.
Chinaglia missed a shot when perhaps passing was the better option so coach Ferruccio Valcareggi unceremoniously substituted the Lazio hitman, much to his annoyance. This resulted in the fiery Chinaglia gesturing to the bench, uttering vaffanculo to his manager, and proceeding to smash up the changing room.
Lazio’s form soon evaporated, however, as several injuries took hold and midfielder Mario Frustalupi was sold to Cesena. The usually stoic defence suddenly began leaking goals as they slid down the table. Due to the European ban, they also missed out on a first tilt at the European Cup. With the side being dragged into a relegation battle, they were further shaken by the news that Maestrelli had terminal stomach cancer.
Maestrelli stood down as manager the following season to receive treatment as Lazio once more stared relegation in the face. With three matches remaining, Chinaglia did the unthinkable and walked out on the club. With rising fears over he and his wife’s safety, they fled to her home country of America where Chinaglia joined Franz Beckenbauer and Pelé at the New York Cosmos in the nascent NASL.
Lazio, meanwhile, avoided relegation on goal difference, Maestrelli succumbed to his cancer battle six months later at the age of 54. A heartbroken Chinaglia returned to help carry the coffin of his mentor and friend.
In January, further tragedy struck when Luca Re Cecconi was caught up in a misjudged prank at a city centre jeweller. A cold morning saw the Lazio midfielder out and about in his local neighbourhood with teammate Pietro Ghedin and a mutual friend. They decided to quell their boredom by playing a prank on local jeweller Bruno Tabocchini. With coats and hoods up, the trio bounded into the shop with one of them shouting “this is a stick up”. The antsy jeweller had previously been targeted by burglars looking to fund the political terrorism that had swept the nation and reached for a gun.
Ghedin thrust his hands into the air but Re Cecconi failed to see the gun. Tabocchini fired a shot into his chest and I’Angelo Biondo fell to the floor. His heart was pierced and, as he lay in a pool of blood, murmured “it was just a joke”. He succumbed to his injuries in hospital 48 days after the funeral of his manager, aged just 28.
The joint tragedies brought the era to an end, one that lasted a mere three years. How Maestrelli managed to keep this team of rebels on track may never be known, although one thing is certain: in Chinaglia he knew he had a difference maker. A rebel whose desire to prove himself stemmed from a tough upbringing that left him feeling like an outsider in his own country.
Some 25 years later, Lazio would win their second title thanks to the riches of Sergio Cragnotti, but no amount of title wins will ever detract from the first, won by a team of gun-toting misfits that world football will never witness again.
By Matthew Evans @Matt_The_Met