Football Italia remembers Lazio idol Giorgio Chinaglia, a man who made dreams come true in the Italian capital.
It was 1974 and Giorgio Chinaglia, a tall, powerful forward with a formidable right foot, won Lazio their first of only two League titles. Nicknamed Giorgione – Big George – he was one of Serie A’s top strikers in the early 1970s and the first Serie B player to play for Italy. Direct and deceptively quick, Chinaglia was the master of the half-chance, a player capable of scoring goals out of nothing.
He was coveted by Milan who reputedly offered a world record £800,000 for his services, but Lazio President Umberto Lenzini knew that any sale would spark a riot in Rome. It was a wise move keeping hold of him. His 24 goals during the glorious 1973-74 season not only won the striker the Capocannoniere crown, but brought the biggest prize in Italian football to the Eternal City for the first time since 1942 when rivals Roma won it.
In 2000, as part of Lazio’s centenary celebrations, Chinaglia was named the greatest player in the club’s history. During his seven years in Rome he scored 98 goals, but will always be remembered for his heroics in 1974. His story is an extraordinary one. Born in the Tuscan marble town of Carrara, he actually grew up in Cardiff when his father emigrated to South Wales because of unemployment in post-war Italy.
Chinaglia was eight when he left Italy to join his parents. His first football club was Swansea Town who played in the old Second Division. He joined the Swans as an apprentice in 1962 and signed professional forms in 1965. But he never fitted into the hurly-burly of English football in the lower Divisions. Swansea were relegated to the Third Division the year he turned pro and when he left in 1966 he had made just six appearances.
He returned to Italy where his father fixed him up with Serie C club, Massese, based in Massa near Chinaglia’s hometown. A year later he was sold to another Serie C club, the Neapolitan outfit Internapoli. His impressive performances in his two years at Naples’ second club caught the eye of the big fish.
Following Italy’s 1966 World Cup debacle there was an outright ban on signing foreign players. The clubs had to buy Italian, which meant scouring the lower Divisions. Chinaglia, blessed with an impressive physique, had scored 25 goals in two seasons in Naples. Naturally, he became a target. It was Lazio who swooped first, signing him for £140,000 and it was the best money the club ever spent.
The Biancocelesti had just won promotion from Serie B and he made his first Serie A appearance as a substitute in the second game at Bologna. His full debut came the following week in Rome against reigning champions Milan. The day belonged to Chinaglia who hit the winner in Lazio’s 1-0 win. Receiving a long pass from defender Giuseppe Wilson, he beat Milan’s left-back Angelo Anquilletti before curving the ball around Fabio Cudicini. Thanks to the efforts of the club’s Argentine boss Juan Carlos Lorenzo, the man who coached a ruthless Argentina side in the 1966 World Cup, the forward quickly adapted to life in the top flight.
He was soon seen as one of Italy’s brightest prospects and made the 40-strong shortlist for the World Cup in Mexico in 1970. Chinaglia did not make the final 22, but nevertheless Coach Ferruccio Valcareggi took him to Mexico for the experience. The message was simple – it was only a matter of time before he played for the Azzurri.
But his early days at the Stadio Olimpico were not always happy. In 1970-71 the Biancocelesti were relegated to Serie B and Chinaglia had scored just seven goals. Lorenzo was sacked but it was under his successor Tommaso Maestrelli, ironically a former Roma player, that the man from Carrara really flourished. In the age of dour Catenaccio defensive plans, Maestrelli played an attacking system which revolved around Long John. The striker took Serie B by storm, firing 21 goals as Lazio clinched promotion by finishing second to Ternana.
The following season the newly promoted Roman side were the revelation of Serie A. Incredibly, on the last day of the championship they were joint leaders of Serie A. But they lost their final game at Napoli thanks to a goal six minutes from time. The fairytale disintegrated. Juventus were crowned champions.
For Chinaglia personally it was a triumphant year. He established himself not only as the leading Italian marksman, but as a regular in the Italian side, ousting Inter’s Roberto Boninsegna and Juve’s Pietro Anastasi to partner Luigi Riva. His finest hour in the blue of Italy came on a cold November night in 1973. The Azzurri came to Wembley to face England in a friendly, an emotional event for Chinaglia who grew up in Britain and who was spurned by English clubs. The Lazio striker set up Italy’s first ever win at Wembley, his 86th minute cross-cum-shot was tapped in by Fabio Capello.
And it was a Chinaglia goal that won Lazio Lo Scudetto the following year. They needed a win over relegated Foggia in their last home match to secure the title. With score at 0-0 Maestrelli’s men were awarded a penalty inside the last 10 minutes. Who would want the responsibility? The answer was Chinaglia, who never lacked self-confidence. He grabbed the ball and placed it on the spot and with 90,000 people holding their breath, kept his nerve to win Lazio the title. The club’s only previous honour was the Coppa Italia back in 1958. Now they were Italian champions.
The affable Maestrelli was something of a mentor and father figure for Chinaglia. The pair often dined together discussing tactics and players. It was even said that Chinaglia recommended players for Maestrelli to buy. During the 1974-75 season, as Lazio defended the title, Maestrelli stepped down because of ill health. He was diagnosed as having cancer and died the following year. It hit the forward badly.
Disillusioned with the way Lazio was being run post-Maestrelli – they suddenly went from champions to narrowly avoiding relegation in 1976 – Chinaglia joined the North American Soccer League, signing for New York Cosmos. His wife, Connie, was an American and she had returned to the United States. Chinaglia now wanted to join her. To appease the Lazio tifosi who idolised him, he took out a full-page advert in the Roman sports daily, Il Corriere dello Sport, to explain why he was leaving.
He had six phenomenal years in New York where he played alongside Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto. He was the NASL’s record scorer with 243 goals. He returned to Lazio in 1983 as President but failed to repeat his magic as they were relegated to Serie B in 1985.
Farewell Long John.