“Look At Me. I Am Chinaglia”

“The essence of Chinaglia’s world is style” wrote Sports Illustrated’s J.D Reed in 1979. “He’s the guy who orders dinner for everyone in Chinese restaurants.” Chinaglia, who died last Sunday of complications from a heart attack, was a dogged striker, prolific on both sides of the Atlantic. To his fans, his endearing on-field ruggedness more than offset his penchant for smoking cigarettes and womanizing. Chinaglia was an insufferable human being, but it was impossible not to love him.

Born in Italy, Chinaglia moved to Wales with his family at the age of six. In his early teens, he was scouted by Swansea Town (now Swansea City), but he made only a handful of appearances for the first team. Even in his early years, he was volatile: supposedly, he once attacked a Swansea City coach with an ax*. While that particular anecdote may be apocryphal, it is certainly true that the Welsh coaching staff disliked Chinaglia; indeed, they told him he would never make it as a professional footballer.

Undeterred, Chinaglia moved back to Italy, settling in the quaint quarry town of Massese. By 1966, Chinaglia was playing regularly for Massese’s local third-division side — a tough, functional club reliant on catenaccio. The forward would later credit his devious marksmanship and unremitting bravery to his experiences in the lower tier of Italian football.

Quickly, it became clear that Chinaglia was too good for Massese. In 1967, he moved to the now defunct Internapoli of Naples. Two seasons and 24 goals later, Chinaglia finally entered the big time, with a move to the Roman club Lazio.

At Lazio, he became a legend. On slow news days the press would arrive at his house looking for sound bites, however irrelevant. Chinaglia was the most recognizable player in Italy, a national hero.

His career in Rome, though, started somewhat inauspiciously. Lazio was a mess – crippled on the field by mediocrity and off it by boardroom controversy, even the brilliance of Chinaglia wasn’t enough to save the club from relegation in 1971.

The following season, Chinaglia became the first-ever Serie B player to receive a call-up to the full Italy team. A resurgence in Lazio’s form, facilitated by Chinaglia’s goals, won promotion back to Serie A, where the club would soon develop a reputation for being, in the words of Italian football expert John Foot, “armed and dangerous”.

“I used to carry a pistol, a .44 magnum,” Chinaglia said, reflecting on his time at Lazio. “It could have been useful. But I didn’t buy it for self-defense. With Lazio we were nearly all armed. It was fun, a game.” During Chinaglia’s time, Lazio was a club synonymous with violence. Once, after an on-field disagreement, Chinaglia famously chased teammate Vincenzo D’Amico, and kicked his backside.

In between shenanigans, “Long John” (because of his Welsh connections, Chinaglia was nicknamed for legendary Juventus forward John Charles) did what he was paid to do: score goals – a total of 122 in 246 games.

Even at his most successful, however, Chinaglia had a somewhat tenuous future in Italy. In 1972, he declared himself a supporter of MSI – Movimento Sociale Italiano – a neo-fascist party led by a notorious anti-Semite. To the Italian left wing, Chinaglia became a symbol of the barbarous right – a gun-toting hoodlum associated with disgraceful politics. Italian journalist Giovanni Arpino called him “one of the most squalid and most negative personalities from the recent history of our game.” At matches, opposing fans chanted “fascista” at him.

Popular hatred, though, would reach fever pitch at the 1974 World Cup. Having won the scudetto with Lazio in the season leading up to the tournament in Germany, Chinaglia was widely expected to star for the Italian team. However, after struggling through the first 60 minutes of a dour 1-0 win over Haiti, he was substituted by manager Ferrucio Valcareggi. What happened next remains the stuff of legend. As he walked off the pitch, Chinaglia aimed a rude hand gesture at his coach, before storming into the dressing rooms, where he cracked eight water bottles, smashed up the team shower, and may have destroyed a hairdryer. (Reports of the incident are notoriously inconsistent. Chinaglia himself maintained that he damaged nothing – he blames press exaggeration and geopolitics for the angry fan reaction). Remarkably, Chinaglia actually played one more time before Italy’s group-stage exit, substituted at half time in an embarrassing loss to Poland.

After the World Cup debacle, Chinaglia never quite recaptured the form that had propelled Lazio to their maiden league title. By 1976, the club was fighting relegation again. With just a couple of weeks remaining and Lazio in danger of dropping down a division, Chinaglia was smuggled out of Italy to complete a deal with the New York Cosmos, an American soccer franchise. His wife and children had already settled in the States, but Chinaglia had to depart in secret to avoid a potential fan riot.

If Chinaglia thought a move to New York would save him from hysterical fans, he was sadly mistaken. Italian-Americans all over the city threw parties dubbed “Chinaglia Nights” to celebrate the arrival of one of their heroes. One group of fans presented him with a suitcase full of cash; Chinaglia probably appreciated the gesture — later he would say, “I have no problem here because I get paid very well.”

Whatever the club’s financial sacrifice, New York’s high profile move paid almost instant dividends – Chinaglia finished his first season in NASL  — the now-extinct American soccer league of the ‘70s and’80s — as top scorer. He failed however to use his individual achievements to catalyze dressing room harmony – as he had at Lazio, he quickly fell out with his teammates. Speaking to the press about star Cosmo and Brazilian World Cup winner Pele, Chinaglia said “He may be a legend, but right now he’s just one more player I have to carry.” Nice. The rivalry with Pele also caused Chinaglia’s eventual falling-out with Cosmos coach Gordon Bradley. Chinaglia felt that too much attention was being focused on Pele, and identified Bradley as the main culprit. There could only be one winner. Bradley was sacked. In an interview years later, Chinaglia was asked by journalists if he was uncoachable. He replied, “I know more than the stupid coaches.”

We laugh, but Cosmos owner Steve Ross bought the bombast. Chinaglia persuaded Ross to hire Eddie Firmani — a former acquaintance of Chinaglia’s — as the new coach, a decision that riled many involved in the club’s administration.

After the Cosmos won the league championship in 1977, Pele retired for the second time in his career, leaving Chinaglia as the team’s stand-out star. Unsurprisingly, he reveled in the role. “He needed people to do things for him,” remembered Cosmos ‘keeper Shep Messing in an interview for the documentary Once in a Lifetime. Another title in 1980 – clinched by a Chinaglia header – further massaged the Italian’s massive ego: “The Cosmos belong as champions. We are soccer in America”.

Ultimately, even the Cosmos’ sexiness couldn’t save NASL. Financially unsound from the very beginning, the league slowly deteriorated in the early ‘80s, before collapsing in 1984. It was the end of an era for Chinaglia, the beginning of life in football administration.

Just before NASL’s demise, Chinaglia became chairman of the Lazio board. In his first year in charge, he was suspended for eight months for attacking a referee with an umbrella. In 1986, he left the post after being accused of fraudulent banking and false accounting.

The legend lived on, though. Chinaglia was inducted into the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 2000, a deserved reward for 242 goals stateside. Despite his disgraceful spell as chairman, Chinaglia was also voted Lazio’s best-ever player during the team’s centenary celebrations.

Yet, controversy still followed him. In 2005, Chinaglia tried to buy Lazio with funds supplied by the Neapolitan Mafia. To avoid arrest, he fled to the United States.

Despite the controversy, many still remember him for the player he was. “It was clear that he wasn’t afraid; the man would take an incredible punishment just to set up a goal,” recalled British football journalist Brian Glanville. Former teammate Keith Eddy talked adoringly of Chinaglia’s lethal finishing: “If you gave him the ball over his right shoulder, it would be in the back of the net before the goalkeeper even knew that he had shot.”

Chinaglia was a bastard in boots, a football villain, a womanizer, a manipulator and an egotistical thug, but his contributions to the growth of football in the United States and his role in reviving Lazio will ensure that he is remembered in a positive light. He was loved and hated in equal measure (not that he cared which side you were on: “Public don’t like me… I don’t give a shit!”), a polarizing character who probably should have won more European silverware than he did. Trophies, though, were never what motivated Chinaglia. “I’ve got video tapes of all my goals,” Chinaglia said sometime after his playing career ended. “Let the critics watch them.”

*Some claim that it was actually Chinaglia’s father who wielded the ax.


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