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Frank Lopapa On April - 6 - 2012

Legends of Calcio: Remembering Giorgio Chinaglia

Last Sunday afternoon, calcio lost one of its most colorful and controversial characters in Giorgio Chinaglia. While most (including myself) tend to associate ‘Long John’ with his whirlwind stint with the New York Cosmos, the Tuscan-born striker enjoyed several fine years with Lazio, including winning both the scudetto and capocannoniere in the 1973-74 season. He finished out his career in the United States, playing alongside all-time greats such as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer for the New York Cosmos, where he would spend six seasons. Chinaglia’s life undoubtedly was a rags-to-riches story; from growing up poor in Italy and Wales to becoming an Italian international, world-class striker, celebrity, and an ambassador for the game in the United States.

Giorgio was born January 24, 1947 in Carrara, a town in the north of Tuscany. He and his family, like many others in the post-war years, left Italy in 1955 and settled in Cardiff as his father looked for work. When he was 17, Chinaglia signed for Swansea in 1964, however he only played six first-team games in his two seasons at the club, eventually falling out with the manager and being released on a free, having scored a single goal.

Chinaglia and his family moved back to Carrara, where he signed for local Serie C side Massese, and in his first and only season he scored five times in 32 matches. The next season saw him move to Internapoli, also in the third division, where he found more success as a striker, netting a respectable 24 times in 66 matches. His big break finally came when Lazio signed him in 1969 ahead of their return to Serie A. The Roman outfit managed only two seasons in the top flight, eventually being relegated, missing out on salvation by only 3 points in the 1970-71 season. Chinaglia would stay with the club during their season in Serie B, playing an important role in their second place finish and thus a return to the first division.

Lazio would finish in a surprising third place in the 1972-73 season, only two points behind winners Juventus; their finish would prove to be good enough to qualify for the UEFA Cup. The next season would prove to be Chnaglia’s brightest moment in Italy, as hed led Lazio to its first ever scudetto as they edged out Juventus by only two points; Chinaglia would also lead the league in scoring, finding the net 24 times in 30 matches and he would also score a pair of hattricks for Lazio in their short UEFA Cup campaign.

His form during that season would lead Chinaglia to be called up for Italy in their World Cup campaign, however, it would not end as sweetly as his club season had. The Azzurri would exit in the first round, losing 2-1 to Poland in the decisive match. Chinaglia became a figure of ridicule both among his teammates, manager, and the press; during Italy’s labored 3-1 win against Haiti, Chinaglia would lash out at manager Ferrucio Valcareggi upon being substituted, swearing at him and flashing an obscene gesture as he stormed straight into the locker-room. As a result of his behavior, Chinaglia would never be called up to the national side again, finishing his international career with only 14 caps and four goals.

His final two seasons with Lazio would prove to not be as successful; while he had a decent season in 1974-75 with the club, his final year would be one fraught with difficulty, as Lazio barely escaped relegation and Chinaglia would only score eight times in the league. Still, however, he has proven to be one of Lazio’s all-time greats and fan favorites.

Afterwards he would sign with the New York Cosmos and enjoy much success with the club, winning four league titles with the club, forming a lethal partnership with Pele as he scored an astounding 193 goals in 213 matches. Chinaglia would once again prove to be both a decisive and divisive presence in the team; despite his extremely productive relationship with Pele on the field, they had an uneasy one off it, as Chinaglia had criticized Pele for what he felt was inadequate service; this, of course, was unheard of back in those days (until Maradona made it fashionable to fight with the Brazilian). Who would ever criticize the greatest footballer in history? For Chinaglia, it didn’t matter who he was playing alongside; if he felt he wasn’t getting the service he needed from Pele, then he’d tell him so. Regardless of their tenuous relationship, the Cosmos dominated the NASL, as the team won four titles in Chinaglia’s six seasons with the club.

His time in New York is best summed up by ex-Cosmos ‘keeper and teammate Shep Messing: “Pele reached the whole world and got New York’s attention, [and] Giorgio put it over the top. Giorgio was the opposite of Pele; he wore his emotions on his sleeve. Dynamic, big, good-looking, long hair, an idol, like a movie star in Italy. People wanted to come to boo at him, cheer him, yell at him, throw things at him. And that’s the kind of passion you expect in New York.”

Chinaglia lived out the rest of his days in the United States, partly because of the radio show he hosted, and partly due to the warrant out for him in Italy issued in October 2006, due to his alleged involvement in extortion and insider trading, charges he has strenuously denied.

Giorgio, despite the controversy that always surrounded him, should be remembered as one of the great, eccentric characters of the game; his confidence in his abilities, his prowess in from of goal, his routine clashes with managers and teammates alike, and his penchant for partying will always be remembered. His goalscoring exploits often go unnoticed in spite of his awesome stats with Lazio and New York. The comparisons with John Charles at the time were apt, as like the Welshman, he was a complete striker: big, strong, and a fantastic finisher; as the man put it himself in his infamous confrontation with Pele, “I am Chinaglia. If I shoot from someplace, it is because Chinaglia can score from that place.” How right he was.

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