“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
We could begin our story with these famous words to describe what happened in 1974 in the Serie A. This is the tale of Lazio winning their first Scudetto ever, a story of fights, quarrels, and kicks during training sessions. A story of weapons inside the changing rooms and internal tensions. And of a miracle that repeated itself every Sunday on the field, when those tensions turned into a desire to win.
Those were the Anni di piombo (“Years of Lead”), a period when Italy was torn apart by terrorism, bombings, and street riots. Football acted as a social release valve.
Lazio were facing their second season in the Serie A after being promoted from the second division. Their best player was center-forward Giorgio Chinaglia, called Bisonte (“Buffalo”) for his powerful physique. He was a short-tempered, irascible, irrational character famous for his unruly life.
The backbone of the team featured goalkeeper Felice Pulici, center-back Giuseppe Wilson, and midfielder Mario Frustalupi, leading a roster of mostly average players. Lazio were divided into two opposing factions: On one side were Chinaglia, Wilson, and Pulici alongside Giancarlo Oddi and Mario Facco. On the other side, Frustalupi stood with Luigi Martini, Luciano Re Cecconi, Renzo Garlaschelli, and Franco Nanni: Two rival factions so bitter at each other that they had come to use two different changing rooms.
Practice matches regularly turned into real battles and sometimes ended in a fight. It is said that those games could last even two hours, and couldn’t end until Chinaglia’s side managed to at least equalize – otherwise the Bisonte would have been nervous for the rest of the week.
It was not unusual to see guns in the lockers rooms. During retreats and training camps, shooting targets was a common pastime. In a football without cameras, without agents and without resonance off the pitch everything was possible.
So how is it possible that such a tense climate never led to the team exploding? Everyone agrees that the great architect of Lazio’s success was coach Tommaso Maestrelli.
Maestrelli was a man of recognized human qualities and sensitivity. He knew how to bring together such difficult and controversial personalities and make them come together every Sunday on the pitch to win. Players saw him as a second father. That’s why their locker room fights would suddenly disappear on Sundays and the tension transformed into competitive fury against the opponents.
Whenever Maestrelli would see two of his players arguing during a campionato game, he would prevent them from coming to the locker room at half time and rather force them to stay on the pitch and sort out their issues. The two would invariably restart playing well.
Lazio would play and win. The Biancocelesti were the first team to play with an-all out disposition to feature dynamic roles, anticipating Johann Cruijff’s great Ajax.
Win after win, Lazio came to the decisive home match against Juventus with a one-point lead over the Bianconeri in the table. The whole city was on fire for the event and the Stadio Olimpico was packed with 76000 screaming supporters. Lazio were also on fire and scored twice with Garlaschelli and Chinaglia in the first half.
A few minutes, however, the referee awarded Juventus a controversial penalty for a foul which clearly appeared to have happened out of the box. Goalkeeper Pulici saved Antonello Cuccureddu’s shot, yet the referee awarded the Bianconeri a second penalty – which was converted by Pietro Anastasi, turning the stadium into an erupting volcano. Chinaglia would eventually set the score at 3-1 burying the spot as a third penalty was conceded – this time in Lazio’s favor.
The Biancocelesti had to wait for the penultimate league round to see their triumph certified as they beat Foggia with a lone goal by – guess who? – Giorgio Chinaglia, completing the incredible fairytale of a team who would win the Scudetto only two years after their promotion to the Serie A. Lazio couldn’t take part to the following season’s European Cup as they were banned from the competition due to the riot and clashes happened in a UEFA Cup game against Ipswich Town – just to re-stress what kind of gang we are talking about.
Lazio’s epoch was indeed short-lived and fate was averse to many of their sensational triumph’s characters. Tommaso Maestrelli died only two years later of a serious illness. Luciano Re Cecconi also died a few months later as he was shot by a jewelry shopkeeper in unclear circumstances. It was rumored that Re Cecconi had entered the store with some friends and staged a prank armed robbery. The jeweler allegedly shot him in self-defense, but not even the subsequent trial managed to shed some light on the event.
Re Cecconi’s inexplicable death inspired multiple books and songs as the so-called Angelo Biondo (“Blonde Angel”) was known for being a quiet and reserved person.
Giorgio Chinaglia’s story was different. Born from a very poor family that emigrated to Wales when he was a child, he had started to play football despite his teacher’s attempts to get him into rugby. Chinaglia was as skillful on the playing field as restless out of it. His club Swansea Town’s President foresaw a great future as a footballer for him and sold him to Massese in the Italian Serie C.
Chinaglia never forgot his indigent years as a child and started to score regularly, to the point of being noticed by Lazio – where he became an international star. Later in his career, he became the first Italian player to join a U.S.A. league as he signed for the famed New York Cosmos.
As he was married to an American woman, he spent the rest of his life in the U.S. and progressively shied away from Italian matters – except for an attempt to buy his beloved Lazio in 2006 which sparked controversies and allegations of money laundering and ties with organized crime.
It was the last jolt in the stormy life of a character who belonged to an era of football so far from the modern age that it’s even difficult to imagine it.