Continuing Football Italiano’s build-up to the World Cup next summer, Lessons in Calcio today remembers a true maverick genius.
There are many words to describe Giorgio Chinaglia. Conventional is not one of them. From humble beginnings to world superstar, Chinaglia’s story has it all. He was a maverick in every sense of the word, a true footballing celebrity. But behind all the glitz and the glamour was an outstanding footballer with exceptional ability, who, during a 19 year career spanning three different countries, became a true legend of the game.
Born in Carrara, Tuscany in 1947, Chinaglia’s family moved to Cardiff in South Wales when he was seven-years-old, escaping the raging unemployment in Italy. Early life was tough for Chinaglia. “All four of us lived in one room,” he recalls, “my father was an ironworker and it was tough. I used to take the milk left on people’s porches and drink it for breakfast.” Eventually, his father managed to buy an Italian restaurant in Cardiff. It was around this time at the age of 13 that Chinaglia started to catch the eye playing for Cardiff Schools, leading to him being offered an apprenticeship with Swansea Town, then in the third tier of the Football League. Two years later he made his full league debut in a League Cup tie against Rotherham, and towards the end of the season, Chinaglia signed professional terms. The following season he made just three appearances for Swansea but still managed a solitary goal. Chinaglia’s attitude to Swansea and the British weather had begun deteriorating rapidly. He would regularly miss training and had started drinking, gambling and womanising, a signpost to the future. The family moved back to Italy and Chinaglia joined them after his release from Swansea on a free transfer with the small matter of military service to attend to. Fortunately, Chinaglia credits this period of his life with getting his career back on track: “Otherwise, I’d probably still be in Wales, slogging it out in the mud and drinking ale. The Italian army has a special regiment for soccer players, so all I did in the service was to train all day, and when my club had a game, get a pass.”
As he had played professionally outside of Italy, Chinaglia was unable to play in Serie A, so his father arranged a trial with local club Massese in Serie C. In 32 appearances he netted five times. His stock was rising. The following season he joined another Serie C club, Internapoli in Naples. In two seasons there he scored 24 times in 66 games. Then came his big break with a move to the capital to join Lazio. Chinaglia was the classic centre forward, strong in possession, a fantastic header of the ball, with a right foot shot that could despatch the ball like a cruise missile. He was an intelligent, courageous player who knew how to be in the right place at the right time, not afraid to go in where it hurts, a true bomber in every sense of the word. It was the birth of a Lazio legend and for seven years he was adored by the tifosi of the Curva Nord, most notably for a goal he scored in the Rome derby in 1974. After netting the winner, the big striker taunted the Giallorossi fans in the Curva Sud. It was vintage typical Chinaglia. His early form for Lazio put him on the radar of Azzurri coach Ferruccio Valcareggi, and for the 1970 World Cup, Chinaglia travelled with the squad but was not part of the final 22 for the championships. The next four years were to be the best of Chinaglia’s career with Lazio set to enter the most successful period in their history with Chinaglia firmly established in the squad. After missing out on the 1973 championship by just two points, Chinaglia’s 24 goals helped the Biancocelesti to their first Scudetto the following season. Fittingly, it was Chinaglia’s penalty kick in the final home match of the campaign against Foggia that secured the title. He would end the season as the Capocannoniere.
Unfortunately for Chinaglia, Lazio were not permitted to play in the European Cup the following season due to incidents in a UEFA Cup match against Ipswich Town during the previous campaign. The consolation for Chinaglia was his selection to play for Italy at the World Cup finals in West Germany. It would end controversially however, when after being substituted against Haiti, he argued with coach Valcareggi before making an obscene gesture and storming back to the changing rooms, smashing water bottles along the way. It signaled the end of Chinaglia’s international career, his record reading 14 caps and four goals. In 209 appearances for the Biancocelesti, Chinaglia netted 98 times. As his career at Lazio drew to a close, the club was hit by a double tragedy with the sudden deaths of midfielder Luciano Re Cecconi and Scudetto-winning Coach Tommaso Maestrelli. It was a sad end to a fantastic era for the club from the Eternal City. Chinaglia though remains revered by the Lazio tifosi.
The next chapter in his extraordinary career took him to the United States to play in the newly-formed and lucrative North American Soccer League (NASL) with the New York Cosmos. It was a real coup for the league as here was a player at the height of his powers playing alongside other legends such as Pele, Johan Cruyff and George Best. It was a marriage made in heaven. Chinaglia’s extrovert personality mixed with the razzmatazz of New York life seemed to bring the best out of him. He had an incredible scoring record with the Cosmos. In 254 games for the club, he rattled home an astonishing 242 goals. He topped the scoring charts on four occasions and was the league’s all-time top goalscorer. During his time in the States, Chinaglia also scored one of the greatest goals of his career. It was a goal that defied all logic that such a big man could control the ball, turn and then execute a shot so accurately. It was a truly stupendous strike, an iconic moment in football.
In 1979, Chinaglia became a naturalized American citizen but controversy was never far away from the big man. He had completely split the Italian-American community. While some were glad to have him playing in America, others thought him disloyal to his homeland. This famously came to a head when during a Cosmos game, a supporter hired a plane to fly over the stadium. Attached was a banner that read “Giorgio stinks!” It was pure theatre and it was pure Chinaglia. In 1983 he called time on his playing career after helping the Cosmos to four league titles. That same year he returned to Lazio to become president of the club. However, two years later, the club was relegated to Serie B and docked nine points for their part in a corruption scandal. In 1984, Chinaglia purchased a majority stake in the Cosmos, but later that same year, the NASL folded. Chinaglia attempted to operate the club as an independent team but failed. The party was over.
In 2000 he was inducted into the United States National Soccer hall of fame. And at Lazio’s centenary celebrations, he was voted the greatest player in the club’s history. Chinaglia’s links with the Cosmos were not easily severed however, and in 2002 he attempted to revive the club’s franchise with his business partner, but sadly to no avail, before a final attempt to do the same in 2006 again proved unsuccessful. It was time to move on. Of more serious concern for Chinaglia in 2006, was a warrant issued for his arrest along with seven others, in regard to allegations of attempting to purchase Lazio using laundered funds. Yet Chinaglia was never arrested and is currently believed to be in hiding in the USA, a sad end to a rollercoaster career inside and outside the game. Nevertheless, it is Chinaglia the player we prefer to remember, the robust rampaging centre forward who is still adored in one half of the Eternal City. His swashbuckling style and intelligent eye for goal made him one of the game’s greats. A career bristling with brilliance, controversy and courage elevate Chinaglia into Calcio’s own hall of fame.
Past Lessons in Calcio
Alessandro Del Piero