As featured on Guardian Sport
Sven Göran-Eriksson scratched his forehead in the sultry Roman air. Stepping out from the shadows of his bench he was a man engulfed in sapping heat and uncertainty as his Lazio side awaited two starkly contrasting fates. One was a scudetto; their first since 1974, to seal a treble. The alternative was only winning the Supercoppa and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Two pieces of silverware should be a success for any season but the way in which they would have missed out on the league title would scarcely be worth thinking about.
It was the last day of the 1998/99 season and Lazio had narrowly defeated Parma at the Stadio Olimpico thanks to a Marcelo Salas double. Despite the victory, the title was out of their hands as Milan led Perugia with minutes to spare. All they could do was wait.
The wait was futile. Before long the Stadio Olimpico was overshadowed by the dark spectre of second place. Milan had held on to their lead and clinched the title in their centenary year, sparking appropriately wild celebrations among the Milanisti. Sergio Cragnotti was sick. The Lazio owner and head of the food conglomerate Cirio had poured time and money into the club and had seen his team fall just short. To rub salt into the wounds, the season’s underwhelming end was compounded by the sale of Christian Vieri.
Vieri had been bought by Cragnotti for around £16m after an excellent year with Atlético Madrid and a 1998 World Cup in which he finished joint-second top scorer. As ever Vieri was unable to stay in the same place for more than one season, moving on following Lazio’s failed title charge, with Internazionale forking out around £30m, including Diego Simeone, for his signature.
If the money received was seen as compensation enough to allay any fears Cragnotti might have had, it had an adverse impact elsewhere in Italian society. The 25-year-old fan Elio Di Cristofalo was unable to comprehend the transfer, throwing himself under a train having left a suicide note that said: “Addio … I don’t even know why I am still alive. Lazio have sold Vieri for £30m. All that money for a footballer, but money is not everything in life.”
The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano declared the transfer “an offence against poor people”. There was serious unrest in the air at the state of football as a force of something other than mere entertainment. Italians appeared to be asking internal questions about calcio, a game they deemed beautiful but whose aspirations seemed to be well beyond that of the fans who followed it.
Cragnotti persevered regardless, spending big money on new players in an attempt to dull harsh recent memories of near misses. With tenacious defensive midfielder Simeone having already arrived, he was joined by fellow Argentines from Parma, Juan Sebastián Verón and Néstor Sensini. Verón had played under Eriksson at Sampdoria and the playmaker would settle neatly into a midfield that already contained Pavel Nedvěd, Dejan Stanković, Matías Almeyda and Sérgio Conceição. Eriksson would also see his striking options enhanced by the signing of ageing maverick Fabrizio Ravanelli and Simone Inzaghi, younger brother of Pippo.
With the squad reinforced Vieri’s absence was felt less. More importantly, the new blood had no recollection of Lazio’s traumatic finish the season before, reinvigorating a club that mere months ago had seen its best chance of a much-coveted league title in years slip from its grasp tantalisingly. Whatever tension did remain, there was an early opportunity to release it by contesting the European Super Cup with Manchester United.
In the 35th minute of a clash with Europe’s newly crowned kings, Salas latched on to a flick-on following a long ball from Giuseppe Pancaro. Controlling the ball on his chest, he fired beneath Raimond van der Gouw, scoring the only goal of the game to seal the trophy for Lazio. Following the match further assurance was extolled by none other than Sir Alex Ferguson, who praised Lazio, saying: “I think they will win Serie A this year.”
Starting the new season by collecting such a prestigious trophy and such weighty compliments seemed to be just the tonic as Lazio went undefeated in their opening four league matches, winning three, as they approached a match with Milan. What many expected to be an entertaining yet close, competitive affair was, in fact, a shoot-out of old western proportions. Both teams took it in turns to possess the upper hand. Verón started by putting Lazio ahead with a right-footed drive before George Weah levelled the scores after an excellent run and cross from Serginho.
Two of Lazio’s most intimidating presences combined for their second, with Simeone on the end of a whipped Siniša Mihajlović corner. Salas was then on hand to provide one of his trademark bullet headers to make it 3-1 but, before the half-time break, Andriy Shevchenko – Milan’s expensive star signing – rounded Luca Marchegiani and pulled the score back to 3-2.
After a first-half of excessive attacking inspiration, the second saw Lazio show signs that they weren’t quite mentally prepared for another title race. First, Marchegiani brought down Weah for Shevchenko to tuck home a penalty equaliser. Then the Ukrainian fired home to put his team in to the lead for the first time. With Lazio on the brink of throwing away a potentially critical three points, Salas was on hand once again, converting into the roof of the net from a Verón pass. The battle between the title rivals finished 4-4. It was a match at odds with the traditional Italian stereotype of safety-first football.
One stereotype that was proving harder to shake was Lazio’s severely right-wing image, promulgated by the behaviour of their fans. When the team met Bari some fans unveiled a large banner that read: ‘Onore Alla Tigre Arkan’ (‘Honour to the Tiger Arkan’), in celebration of the recently assassinated Serbian war criminal, Željko Ražnatović.
In their next home game, against Parma, opposition players Lilian Thuram, Ousmane Dabo and Saliou Lassissi were racially abused. The football might have been more entertaining, but off the pitch the disgusting behaviour of certain supporters continued to besmirch the club in the eyes of many. Cragnotti distanced himself from such behaviour, publicly attacking those responsible, but the damage was done.
Lazio continued to plug away in the league but defeat to Verona left them nine points behind Carlo Ancelotti’s Juventus entering late March. With just eight games left it was hard to see how Cragnotti and Sven’s men could pull back such a hefty margin. Then, things began to turn. A Shevchenko double put paid to Juve in San Siro as they dropped three points at Milan. The next day, Lazio squared up to city rivals Roma.
Having lost the first Derby della Capitale 4-1 earlier in the season, there was a genuine reason for concern as Lazio approached the return fixture, especially as it came on the back of that shock defeat to Verona. The early signs were not promising, as Vincenzo Montella struck within three minutes to give Roma the lead. The sight of Montella’s famed aeroplane celebration had become familiar to Lazio fans; he had scored twice against them earlier in the season.
The rest of the first-half was tempestuous and combustible. Nedvěd was left seething when he was denied a clear penalty, before he prodded home an equaliser. Minutes later, Verón curled home a stunning free-kick to put Lazio in front. Refinement had triumphed over savagery, but only for a brief moment.
Roma’s Brazilian right-back Cafu was stretchered off, having been lunged at by two Lazio players; Vincent Candela lashed out at Conceição’s nether regions; Almeyda grabbed Marco Delvecchio by the face and Francesco Totti nearly headed into an empty net while Marchegiani was decked following a goalmouth collision. Lazio survived the violent trials of the first-half before holding out in a tense second period to claim a crucial win, narrowing Juventus’ lead to six points.
One week later Lazio had the chance to cut that lead even further as they met their fellow contenders at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Both Eriksson and Ancelotti appeared somewhat pensive, as if the realisation of the match’s importance had suddenly dawned on them. Despite the best efforts of Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids and Alessandro Del Piero, Juventus were unable to breach the Lazio defence. Juve centre-half Ciro Ferrara was then sent off before Simeone stole in to score a valuable match-winning header.
Both teams won their next matches but Lazio were then undone by a last-gasp Gabriel Batistuta free-kick in Florence, drawing 3-3 away to Fiorentina. Again the pendulum had swung in favour of Juventus, though this time there was a portentous aura that suggested Lazio’s late flagging was the ultimate death knell for their Scudetto hopes.
With three fixtures remaining Juventus had a five-point advantage. It was mathematically possible but illogical. The Bianconeri were Italian football’s canny old masters, renowned for their ability to grind out wins and championships by any means necessary. Their historic superiority was evidenced in their vast collection of Serie A titles: they had 25; Lazio had one.
The odds were stacked against the Biancocelesti but, true to the form of a remarkably unpredictable season, Juventus conspired to lose to Verona. The 2-0 loss in the Bentegodi was a stunning result, one that declared the title race back open. Lazio desperately attempted to claw themselves back to within touching distance, but Cragnotti was soon to be sickened once again.
In the penultimate round of fixtures, Juventus led Parma 1-0 at home going into injury time. That is until Fabio Cannavaro stepped up to head home an apparent equaliser. However, the referee that day, Massimo De Santis, had other ideas and disallowed the goal on grounds that were at the least shaky and at worst drew allegations of corruption. Such allegations were not new to Italian football or Juventus. The club’s roll call is imperious but much of the silverware is dulled by a greyish hue, tinged by possible illegitimacies.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and with its benefit we now know about the murky workings of Luciano Moggi, the Juventus general manager at the time. Even before 2006’s Calciopoli scandal the doubts lingered and Cannavaro’s ghost goal was another stick to beat Juventus with. Cragnotti protested, arguing that “our football has to be completely rebuilt. Everybody saw what happened in Turin, and no one is able to explain why that goal wasn’t allowed. I don’t know [why the referee disallowed it]. Lazio deserve the league title, both morally and for [our] football.”
Sucker-punched by the controversy and two points behind, any hope was tainted by the fact that Juventus faced Perugia on the final day. As far as Lazio fans were concerned, the Grifoni were a useless bet for any favours. They still remembered listening on radios as Perugia succumbed to Milan the year before. Even worse, Perugia were safe from relegation. There was no feasible way Cragnotti, Sven and those fans wearing sky blue in the stands would be celebrating that weekend.
Overcoming Reggina 3-0, Lazio fans turned forlornly to the Stadio Renato Curi, pleading looks all-round. Juventus’s match with Perugia had been delayed 80 minutes due to rain but the show eventually went on and, at the start of the second half, Perugia scored. A hopeful ball into the box wasn’t cleared properly and fell to 33-year-old centre-back Alessandro Calori, who controlled with his chest and knee before volleying into the bottom left corner. Juventus, try as they might, couldn’t level. Somehow, improbably, the Scudetto was Lazio’s.
It was the quintessential way to end the season, chaotic as it had been. Lazio fans swarmed onto the pitch at the Stadio Olimpico, opening a valve of emotional energy that had been pent up for 12 months and ending a wait that had lasted over a quarter of a century. Finally, Eriksson could puff out his cheeks and smile.
Lazio also secured the Coppa Italia as the club won their first and last league and cup double. But, before long, the ramifications of Cragnotti’s spending would be brought home. Eriksson accepted the England national team job in 2001, Alessandro Nesta departed for Milan, Verón began an ill-fated sojourn in England with Manchester United and Nedvěd left for Juventus. The rest of that team, including Simeone and Salas, was pilfered or had already peaked.
That victory on the final day could not be repeated in the proceeding years but it was, and is, iconic. It was the story of a team that was not supposed to triumph, but did so anyway and ended a painfully long wait in the process.
By Blair Newman @TheBlairNewman