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Farewell Long John - Chinaglia remembered

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By Luca Cetta

Thursday 05 April 2012

Long before Alessandro Nesta, Juan Sebastian Veron and that agonising yet ultimately memorable wait for news from Perugia in 2000, Lazio fans had another generation of heroes to worship. The class of 1973/74 led the capital club to their first Scudetto with players such as Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Wilson, Luciano Re Cecconi and Vincenzo D’Amico standouts. Yet one man shone above the rest – Giorgio Chinaglia. A great player and character, he died of a heart attack on Sunday at the age of 65.

From his start at Swansea City to the culmination of his career with the New York Cosmos, stories have been told of Chinaglia the lethal striker, the man whose 24 goals in 30 games propelled Lazio toward glory. There was Chinaglia the rebel and troublemaker - as ultimately seen in 1974 in West Germany – as well as the spiritual group leader and pupil to the Mister.

Born in 1947 near Carrara in Tuscany, Chinaglia’s early life and start in football was centred in Wales. His father opened a restaurant there and Giorgio had a spell with Swansea, where he was told he “will never become a professional.” Chinaglia’s bust-ups and hatred of training meant he returned to Italy in 1966 to complete military service – which he credits with curing his indiscipline – and he featured for Serie C clubs Massese and Internapoli until a switch to Lazio in 1969.

When Lazio were relegated at the end of 1970/71 they appointed Tommaso Maestrelli. Chinaglia recently said of his mentor: “He was the main guy...and he had the right ideas for the right situations; the right tactics, the right people around him and the right attitude.” Chinaglia was closer to Maestrelli – even staying at his house on occasion - than his teammates and was one of the pallbearers at his funeral in 1976.

Lazio’s squad was so divided they changed in two separate rooms and often training matches were ultra-competitive. But on the pitch they banded together under Maestrelli’s leadership and Chinaglia was at the forefront. Having earned an immediate return to Serie A, Lazio finished third in 1972/73, only losing the Scudetto on the final day. They came back the following season and Long John (named so after Welsh legend John Charles) was at the top of his game. Chinaglia cemented his position as a fan idol as he ended capocannoniere, putting a final stamp on the season by scoring the winner to seal the Scudetto.

A lethal finisher, Chinaglia ended his Lazio career having netted 122 times in 246 games. He was strong on the ball, intelligent without it and also an intimidating presence, bullying defenders, referees and teammates alike. He once kicked D’Amico up the backside after an on-field dispute. Yet when the volatile Lazio team clashed with Ipswich during and after their 1973/74 UEFA Cup match, Sir Bobby Robson remarked: “The only Lazio player who acted with any sort of restraint, and came to my men’s assistance, was Chinaglia.”

For Italy he featured just 14 times – infamously featuring at the 1974 World Cup - scoring four times. The height of his Azzurri career came in 1973 when Italy defeated England for the first time at Wembley Stadium. It was Chinaglia who crossed for Fabio Capello to net the only goal.

As Italy recovered from a goal down to lead 2-1 over Haiti in their West German opener, Chinaglia – who had struggled throughout – was substituted and proceeded to make a clear, obscene gesture toward Coach Ferruccio Valcareggi. He went crazy in the dressing room and mentor Maestrelli had to be called in to calm Giorgione down. He was left out against Argentina but started the crucial final Group match versus Poland. Chinaglia was subbed off at half-time as Italy lost 2-1. He was made a scapegoat for the troubling campaign and booed at every ground he visited throughout 1974/75.

Chinaglia left Lazio in 1976 at the age of 29 and moved to the burgeoning North American Soccer League and the Cosmos. There he hooked up with Pele and Franz Beckenbauer and by the end of his eight-year stint ended the league’s all-time leading scorer. Ever brash, he stated: “I am a finisher. That means when I finish with the ball, it is in the back of the net.”

When questioned by Pele about his frequent shooting, he reportedly brought the legend to tears, retorting: “I said, ‘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’. Pele was the best player in the history of soccer but that wasn’t going to stop me giving him a piece of my mind.”

In 2000, Chinaglia was voted Lazio’s greatest ever player and elected to the NASL hall of fame, testament to his influence and supreme ability. Remaining in the spotlight after his playing career, he had a spell as Lazio President during the 1980s and featured in the American media right until his final days. Lazio, Italy and football has not only lost an immense player, but one of its most charismatic individuals.

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