Illustration: Sammy Moody

Giorgio Chinaglia, the volatile and enigmatic striker, was born in the Tuscan city of Carrara, to a father who soon left to find a job as a steelworker. At nine, Chinaglia joined him—in Cardiff. Life was not easy. They were so poor that Chinaglia had to steal milk left on nearby porches. (“I just borrowed it,” he’d say.) At school, kids mocked his burly stature; unable to reply in English, he chased them with a bat. When he began playing rugby, his dad furiously told him that Italians play football. Having entered the school teams, Chinaglia got an offer by Cardiff, but refused to do a trial and joined Swansea instead. There he spent four years getting kicked by hatchet men on muddy pitches in the local league. Back then, nobody could have known that this unruly misfit would once lead a violent gang of gun-carrying fascists to the top of Serie A.

Chinaglia was in many ways a horrible player. He had power and unshakeable confidence, but ran little and passed even less. A dreadful trainer, he often came late thanks to long nights of card games, drinking and gambling. According to Mario Risoli’s Arrivederci Swansea: The Giorgio Chinaglia Story, he skived the chores usually given to trainees, irking staff with pranks instead. When once told to paint a part of the stadium, he opened a can of paint and threw it onto the stand. He stole a tractor. He threw a pitchfork at someone. He fell out with manager Trevor Morris, whom, according to one story, he once attacked with an axe. (Chinaglia always denied it.) When Chinaglia left, after five senior games and one goal, president Glen David said he would never turn professional. So toxic had Chinaglia become that not even local Welsh clubs would touch him.

At nineteen, Chinaglia returned to Italy for military service. Players signed from abroad were barred from Serie A and Serie B for three years, so he joined Massese in Serie C. Once in the army, he moved to Internapoli for two fruitful years. “Thank God for the army,” he’d tell Sports Illustrated in 1979. “Otherwise I’d probably still be in Wales, slogging it out in the mud and drinking ale.”

Calcio suited him better. By 1969, he had done well enough to get signed by Lazio, who had just reached Serie A. He was still raw, however, and many thought he’d fail. Fiorentina striker Omar Sívori said he “expresses the elegance of an elephant who has been ordered to move in a China shop”. Chinaglia sure was an untypical Italian striker—but that did not have to be a bad thing.

Lazio had low expectations. Yet to win Serie A, they had not even challenged for the title beyond a brief spell in the 1930s, when Silvio Piola reigned. Their only trophy was a Coppa Italia in 1958. Short of cash, they had recently oscillated between Serie A and Serie B. Chinaglia would say that, when he arrived, the whole club was ‘a mess’.

Their new coach was Juan Carlos Lorenzo, an Argentine influenced by Helenio Herrera—both in terms of tactics and cynicism. Risoli writes that in his first spell at Lazio, from 1962 to 1964, Lorenzo had earned a six-month ban for running onto the field telling his players to kick their opponents. At the 1966 World Cup, Lorenzo managed the Argentina team that clashed so violently with England. Another time, after a defeat, he got so angry with his players that he set fire to their shirts and boots. A superstitious man, he insisted on sleeping in hotel room number seven, and if he saw a black cat en route to a game, he told the driver to change course. Even Chinaglia called him ‘a bit crazy’.

But Lorenzo got results. Lazio came eighth, and Chinaglia thrived. Lorenzo became his mentor, telling him where to run, what positions to take up. Bullying defenders used to smaller strikers, Chinaglia was not so much an elephant as a raging bull, crushing whatever stood in his way. One story claims his shot was so powerful that, in his first Lazio training session, he broke the crossbar. Many neutrals found him hard to love, watching him berate opponents and referees, but Lazio fans adored his willpower and charisma. They called him ‘Long John’ in a nod to John Charles. When Chinaglia scored, he’d be waving his arms, jumping and dancing; on occasions, he’d claim he couldn’t recall what had just happened. “When I score,” he said, according to The New York Times, “I don’t know what the hell’s going on.”

His complex nature surfaced when Lazio met Arsenal in the first round of the Inter Fairs Cup. In the first leg in Rome, Arsenal went 2-0 up, at which point their defender Sammy Nelson got stepped on and spat at. After a late Chinaglia double had salvaged a 2-2 draw, Lazio fans pelted Arsenal with missiles and oranges. To reduce the tension, the teams dined in a restaurant that same night. Lazio had given Arsenal leather purses as a gift, but at some point Arsenal began mocking them as ‘feminine’ and throwing them around. Suddenly a Lazio player threw a purse into an Arsenal player’s face, then grabbed his ear. That ignited a brawl that spilled out onto the street. Rather than calling for calm, Lorenzo is said to have encouraged his players to fight. According to Brian Glanville, the chaos ended only when Lazio fans turned up swinging crowbars, at which point the Arsenal players—wisely—fled.

One of the few to resist the melée had been Chinaglia. He had apparently stood by smoking a cigarette, staring into the distance. He would also stay calm during fights on the pitch—which were common, especially when Lazio played. “It was clear that he wasn’t afraid; the man would take incredible punishment just to set up a goal,” Glanville told Sports Illustrated. “It was more as if he were above it all.”

Lorenzo would not last long. Lazio limped to a 2-0 loss at Highbury, and later got relegated. The club hired Tommaso Maestrelli instead, a subtle man manager who extolled Total Football.

Chinaglia could have left for bigger teams, but chose to stay, soon becoming the first Serie B player in modern history to play for Italy. At first he missed Lorenzo, and was suspicious of Maestrelli. But Maestrelli soon won him over. In the Alps Cup, a small pre-season tournament in Basle between four Swiss and four Italian clubs, Chinaglia had tonsillitis. According to Risoli, Maestrelli responded by squeezing lemon into a glass and telling him to drink it. Galvanised by the vitamin boost, Chinaglia struck a hat-trick in a 4-1 win. Lazio later won the cup.

They also got promoted that season, partly thanks to the close bond between Maestrelli and Chinaglia. Chinaglia would often stay at Maestrelli’s house, and when he scored, he ran over to the bench to hug him. Aware of the affection Chinaglia craved, Maestrelli made him feel special, making sure never to sub him off. At training camps, they would take walks, Chinaglia weighing in on tactics, transfers and team selection; Maestrelli would pretend to listen, knowing Chinaglia would forget about it later. No coach would ever understand him better. Maestrelli and Chinaglia, it was said, were like father and son.

In 1972, Lazio prepared for their return to Serie A. When Chinaglia had arrived in 1969, they had also bought Guiseppe Wilson, a tough Anglo-Italian sweeper, from Internapoli. Two years later, they had recruited Luigi Martini, another forceful defender, and young winger Vincenzo D’Amico. Now they added box-to-box midfielder Luciano Re Cecconi, playmaker Mario Frustalupi and goalkeeper Felice Pulici. One of Calcio’s most unpopular teams had been born.

Lazio were already disliked over their links with fascism. Seen as Mussolini’s club, they had fans who relished violence. “They beat people up, attacked buses, slashed tyres,” wrote Paolo Sollier, the Perugia midfielder, according to John Foot’s Calcio. Sollier was also a communist and, in one game at Lazio, he left the pitch to deafening abuse. “I had been whistled every time I touched the ball…” he wrote. “I walked off with Sollier Boia [Sollier executioner] being screamed out by those shitty people, their hands in the bastard form of a fascist salute. I went into the tunnel without doing anything. If I had given a clenched fist salute, it would have merely drawn attention to their insults… once I was inside I was afraid… shivering… I wanted a rifle to kill the whole curva.”

Now Lazio had players who fitted the image. Some of them loved parachuting, seen as a far-right pastime. Several, including Martini and Chinaglia, said they’d vote for the Italian Social Movement, a neo-fascist party. Guy Chiappaventi, who wrote a book about the team called Pistole e palloni, would suggest they were too young to know the political implications, and that their stands were more about attitude. But decades later, when interviewed by Spanish documentary series Informe Robinson, many of the protagonists had not changed their views.

The squad also acquired a taste for guns. Martini would claim Chinaglia started it, turning up with a .44 magnum. Soon everyone was buying firearms. So many weapons did they amass that a pilot once blocked their entry to the plane. According to Foot, the captain would usually collect the guns in a bag and return them later. “Back then,” said D’Amico, “leaving your house without a gun was like going out without your mobile phone.”

While the players carried the guns round the city, they mostly used them during ritiro—the pre-match training camps favoured in Italy. Lazio would stay at L’Americana, a hotel seven kilometres outside the city, spending days in boredom. To kill time, they shot at birds, lampposts, rubbish bins. They also fired at a group of Roma fans who had turned up to keep them awake before the derby. No occasion was too small for a gun. One night, a player shot a light bulb because he was too lazy to turn it off.

Lazio started the season badly. They came last in their Coppa Italia group, behind Brindisi and Taranto, so even before Serie A had begun, many fans wanted Maestrelli out. His future seemed to hinge on the first three league games—against Inter, Fiorentina and Juventus. Somehow Lazio won one and drew two, then won four in a row. A plodding winter led to a golden Spring featuring eight straight wins. Suddenly, a side seen as relegation fodder were chasing the title.

Leading the charge was Chinaglia. He struck in many big games, once thundering home a thirty-yard missile that Milan goalkeeper Pierangelo Belli tried to tip to safety, only to break two fingers. Above all, Chinaglia loved the Rome derby. “In a stadium filled with sixty thousand Roman fans who hated his guts,” Roberto Lovati, a staff member, would tell Sports Illustrated, “Chinaglia was capable of scoring once to tie and again to win, each time running toward those packed stands—oranges, bricks, cushions being hurled at him; alone, fists in the air—shouting, ‘Look at me! I am Giorgio Chinaglia! I beat you!’”

This stirred up his private life. In the provinces, where Lazio fans live, Chinaglia was a deity, eating for free in restaurants and parking wherever he wanted. “They won’t book me,” he once told a friend. “I’m Giorgio Chinaglia.” Cocky and brash, he also fed the hacks. “On slow news days, the Rome papers would send reporters to my house just to get my comments on anything,” he’d tell Sports Illustrated. “The quotes were always on page one… the Pope, he was on page three.”

Closer to the city centre, however, where Roma fans reside, Chinaglia was harassed. “We went dancing one night and it ended in a fistfight,” said his wife, Connie Eruzione. “If George scored goals against Roma, I’d get pushed and elbowed in the street the next day.” At home, they were robbed, and got late calls threatening to kidnap Chinaglia. When he opened a menswear shop in the centre, Roma fans attacked it. That said, Chinaglia was not always a passive victim. One Saturday, when the Lazio players went to the cinema, a Roma fans insulted him. Chinaglia kept calm, waited until the lights were dimmed, then punched him in the face.

Lazio lost out on the title that season. On the last day, they fell at Napoli as Juventus won it late at Roma. Some accused Roma—led by Herrera—of losing on purpose to derail Lazio, but Lazio had average little more than a goal per game and had no one else to blame. Chinaglia had suffered a drought late on. Some felt that, had he not gone off the boil, they would have won the scudetto.

Chinaglia saw it differently. If he played badly, it was because his team-mates did not pass to him. According to French magazine So Foot, he once took a kick-off by smashing the ball into the other half and chasing after it. “You see,” he told his team-mates. “This is how you launch the ball to your centre forward.” He could be angry even after wins, because he had not scored. After one victory against Milan, he rebuked match winner Re Cecconi for not giving him the ball.

Chinaglia also grew irate when team-mates erred. In a game against Inter, he kicked D’Amico up the backside for not pressing Sandro Mazzola. Many agreed with defender Franco Nanni, who said Chinaglia was lovely off the pitch but ‘unbearable’ on it. “For instance, if one of our players scored an own goal, I would go up to him, console him and encourage him,” Martini said, according to Risoli. “Giorgio would want to punch him and shout, ‘What did you do that for?’ It’s like soldiers in a war. If one of your men is shot, you don’t go up to him and say, ‘You should have avoided the bullets’.”

A strong character, Martini refused to oblige Chinaglia. In 1973, after Lazio had survived a scare against Sion in the UEFA Cup, the two started a row that led to Martini chasing Chinaglia with a broken bottle. The squad split into two clans. One was led by Chinaglia and Wilson, the other by Martini and Re Cecconi. So deep did the division run that the actual dressing room got split in half too, and whoever entered the other zone risked his health. Once, Pulici walked in after some extra practice, thinking everyone had left, only to see Martini standing in the wrong room drying his hair. “You can’t be here!” Pulici snapped, and pulled the plug out. Martini then grabbed a water bottle, smashed it against a window and pushed the jagged part towards Pulici’s throat. After a few tense seconds, Martini walked out.

The hostility shone through in training. On Thursdays, Lazio would play internal matches that were so intense they could last until dark. Maestrelli tried to end them in a draw, or when Chinaglia had just scored, so as to leave him on a high note. Foot writes that some players wore shin pads in these games, but not in Serie A. “The practice matches were taken very seriously,” said Martini, according to Risoli. “We used to have more injuries in those games than we did in a proper match.”

Come Sunday, however, Lazio became a team that fought for each other, channelling their aggression towards their opponents.

One extreme example came when they faced Ipswich in the UEFA Cup that season. Led by Sir Bobby Robson, Ipswich won 4-0 in the first leg at home, Trevor Whymark scoring all four. Towards the end, a frustrated Lazio side injured three of their players.

Tension filled the air for the return leg. In the build-up, Roma fans visited the Ipswich camp and presented Whymark with a golden plate as thanks for his four goals. The next day, several Italian papers ran the story. Lazio fans and players were incensed. Once the game started, a long ball was played up to Whymark, who got smacked in the head. Lazio stormed into an early 2-0 lead, but then an Ipswich player handled the ball on the goal line, only for referee Leo van der Kroft to ignore wild calls for a penalty. With twenty minutes left, he made matters worse by awarding Ipswich a debatable penalty. The stadium was spitting fire now. Lazio harangued the officials, and moved the ball four times from the spot before the penalty could be taken. After the goal, police had to enter the pitch to separate the players. Colin Viljoen, the scorer, got punched and kicked.

At that point,  Lazio let out their anger. Colin Harper would suffer strained knee ligaments, and Brian Hamilton described a Chinaglia challenge that ‘nearly broke me in half’. Lazio scored twice more, but a late Ipswich goal killed the contest. That acted as a final insult to the Italians.

On the final whistle, Ipswich darted to the dressing room and locked the door. En route, goalkeeper David Best was caught and beaten up by Wilson. Police fired tear gas into the crowd. Van der Kroft had to escape into a hidden tunnel. Outside, Lazio fans attacked an ambulance thinking Van der Kroft was inside—instead it only contained fellow injured fans. “We didn’t know what was going on outside,” Hamilton told The Blizzard. “We just knew it was bad.”

After more than an hour, Ipswich came out and were escorted away by police. When they got back to their hotel, Lazio fans were waiting outside. The players made off to a restaurant, not to return until 3am.

UEFA later hit with Lazio a three-year ban from European football; an appeal later reduced it to one. “Believe me, it was not football,” said Robson. “It was war.”

Back in Serie A, Lazio launched another unlikely title tilt. Their Dutch style was stunning catenaccio-based opponents, with Chinaglia flying. Backed by a menacing crowd, Lazio lost one home game all season. Once, when 2-1 down to Verona, Maestrelli ditched the half-time team-talk and told the players to go straight back out. As they took up their positions, the fans were confused. “But then they started cheering, going crazy,” Chinaglia would tell The Blizzard. “So the Verona team came out on the field saying, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ In six minutes we had scored two goals.” Lazio won 4-2.

On the penultimate day, Lazio knew they’d win the title if they beat Foggia at home. They were anxious, the fans edgy. In the second half, however, they got a penalty that Chinaglia scored. When the whistle went, delirious fans invaded the pitch. Chinaglia had hit twenty-four league goals, becoming the first Lazio player to become Serie A top scorer since Piola in 1943. Yet this was above all a masterpiece by Maestrelli, the only man everyone in the squad respected, who had taken Chinaglia under his wing and turned a bunch of mad men into a cohesive unit. “The triumph belonged to him,” said Martini.

The next season proved harder. Chinaglia was booed at every away ground, having told Italy coach Ferruccio Valcareggi to ‘fuck off’ when taken off against Haiti at the 1974 World Cup. The Lazio players had also come to notice that Maestrelli kept standing strangely close to the radiator in the dressing room. He was suffering chills. In March they found out why: he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Distraught, they lost their next game 5-1.

The team was starting to unravel. Come summer, the ill Maestrelli had been replaced by Giulio Corsini; Frustalupi was sold, as was Nanni. Chinaglia wanted to join New York Cosmos, and had even moved his family stateside, but the Lazio board refused to let him go. Without his family or Maestrelli, he grew weary and fell out with Corsini, who was sacked after three months. A miracle then seemed on the cards as Maestrelli returned to the job. But the players could see he was not the same. “We were all affected by Maestrelli, but Giorgio above all,” said Pulici, according to Risoli. “He was basically Giorgio’s father, inside football and out. Although he came back as coach, we all knew he had lost the fight for his life.”

Their form plummeted. Late in the season, Chinaglia eventually left for New York. At that point Lazio were battling relegation with three games left. They survived only on goal difference.

Towards the end of the year, Maestrelli became more recluse as the cancer got to him. He stayed at a clinic overlooking the Lazio training ground, so he could see his old team play. He died in December 1976. At his funeral, a devastated Chinaglia came back to carry his coffin.

Just a month later, Re Cecconi entered a jewellery shop and decided to play a prank. Putting his hands in his pocket, he shouted ‘Stop! This is a robbery!’ The shopkeeper pulled out a gun and shot him. As Re Cecconi fell to the floor, he muttered: ‘It’s a joke, it’s a joke…’ Less than an hour later, he was dead.

That Lazio squad would never fight for the title again. In 1980, they were relegated as part of the Totonero betting scandal. Wilson was also banned for three years. Out of the players who became champions, according to Foot, only D’Amico went on to have a long and successful career in Italy. When Frustalupi died in a car crash in 1990, people started to say that the Lazio team was cursed.

As for Chinaglia, he returned as Lazio president in the 1983, overseeing a short-lived spell in which the club slid back into Serie B. In 2006, writes Foot, he was accused of extortion and investigated for money laundering. Yet Lazio fans continued to love Chinaglia. In a poll in 2000, they voted him their best ever player. When he died of a heart attack in 2012, aged sixty-five, the tributes flowed. He was buried in his beloved Rome, next to Maestrelli, the man he called his dad.