The L’Americana hotel on the outskirts of Rome is a picture of tranquility, an ideal get away from the hustle and bustle of the eternal city. That wasn’t always the case though, especially in the early 1970s. One evening possessed a particularly sinister edge. As the sun dissipated, darkness descended but noise continued to envelope the surrounding area.
A few yards away from the tall, glass construction, a gang of AS Roma fans were waving scarves in the air and chanting loudly enough to disturb any air of peacefulness. The decibel levels continued to rise and rise, until a loud bang disrupted them. It was the sound of a gunshot.
The gathering swiftly ducked for cover as bullets flew in their direction. What had started as mischievousness on their part was developing into a truly dangerous situation.
You see, L’Americana was no ordinary hotel. The night before every home match, it housed the Lazio squad. On this precise occasion, the Derby D’Capitale was due to take place the next day and Roma’s congregation of ultras had decided to antagonise their rivals by preventing them from sleeping. The response was a scattering of bullets fired in their general vicinity — by Lazio’s players.
When a footballer joins a new club, there is usually much talk of him connecting with the club’s history and becoming entwined in its culture. Regularly, you hear legendary figures express the importance of their club to the current incumbents, encouraging them to embrace its traditions. Bayern’s stars don Lederhosen and attend Octoberfest in true Bavarian style. Every year, Liverpool players commemorate the 96 supporters who died in Hillsborough, even though some of them weren’t even alive at the time. The Basque country’s Athletic Club only sign players from that region.
Touching on a similar theme, the Lazio squad of the early 1970’s perfectly embodied their club and its’ founding principals. Allegedly the favoured team of Benito Mussolini, Lazio have a long association with fascism and right wing politics. Supporters often still deliver the one armed salute during games and many have ultra nationalistic tattoos adorning their bodies.
That particular incarnation of I Biancocelesti contained open and self-declared fascists. Described by John Foot as “gun-toting parachute enthusiasts” in his seminal book Calcio, the majority of the squad were armed and dangerous. On one away trip, a pilot refused to take off until they left their weapons behind. Goalkeeper Felice Pulici later stated that “we all carried guns, in holsters”. To quell boredom, they used to shoot at birds and lampposts from their hotel rooms, and right-back Sergio Petrelli even blasted out a light above his bed because he was too lazy to turn it off.
Lazio’s violence wasn’t exclusively carried out with artillery. Frequently, they fought opposing teams on and off the pitch – once brawling with Arsenal’s squad outside a Rome restaurant in the aftermath of a UEFA Cup game. They also fought amongst themselves; the Lazio dressing room divided in two because of the level of disdain between between certain players (they actually changed in two separate rooms).
Coach Tomasso Maestrelli almost always managed to set aside differences and get them playing as a unit. Formally a player at Roma, Maestrelli took charge of the old enemy in 1971. In his first campaign, Lazio surprisingly finished third in the table, just three points behind champions Juventus. They were unbeaten at the Olimpico and conceded a miserly total of 16 times in 30 matches.
Maestrelli admired Rinus Michels’ ‘total football’ and set about implementing an Italian version, based on constant movement and dynamic play. Individuals still despised each other, so for Lazio to come so close to the championship was a testament to Maestrelli’s coaching ability. Even better was to come the following season. Charged by the goals of Giorgio Chinaglia, Lazio made another tilt at the title.
Chinaglia was arguably the dominant figure in Serie A during the early 70s. Growing up in Wales, the son of a steel factory worker, he was one of the team’s most vocal fascists – although some claim that his political leanings veered very much towards the centre and the he only proclaimed himself one to wind people up (his favourite hobby).
Unwaveringly quotable, Chinaglia was fond of touting his own ability. “I am a finisher,” he said in an interview in 1978. “That means when I finish with the ball, it is in the back of the net.”
In his defence, he largely backed it up. No time was that more evident than in the 1973/74 campaign. Chinaglia notched 24 goals and won the Capocannoniere for the league’s top scorer. Maestrelli’s team was settled and he only used 18 players all season.
As the Scudetto race reached the crunch period, one of the decisive moments came in a home game against Verona. 2-1 behind at half-time, Lazio’s players arrived back into the dressing room and a furious Chinaglia was about to lose it with his teammates. Maestrelli’s team talk simply consisted of four words: “back on the field”. The players stormed straight back out and took their positions. The crowd were whipped into a frenzy and the Olimpico was a cacophony of noise. Verona got blown away and Lazio won 4-2.
Lazio maintained their consistency from the previous season and matched their points total. This time, their rivals fell away and a first ever title was secured. It was an improbable success, as Foot describes in Calcio, “a masterpiece” constructed by Maestrelli. He unified a group of individuals who couldn’t stand the sight of each-other.
Unsurprisingly, that harmony wouldn’t last. The following year, Lazio remained a competitive team, finishing fourth in the table – a credible title defence. They were unable to take their place in the European Cup though; receiving a one year ban for initiating a brawl with Ipswich Town players in the dressing room after a UEFA Cup match.
The totem of that team Chinaglia, despised by rival fans as much as he was revered by Lazio’s, grew unsettled. He threatened to leave at various points, but eventually upped sticks and joined Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Moore at the New York Cosmos in 1976. Key midfielder Mario Frustalupi was sold to Cesena and they began to disintegrate.
In January 1977, their midfielder Luciano Re Cecconi, dubbed the ‘blonde angel’, went to a jewellery store alongside teammate Piero Ghedin and another friend. Cecconi decided it would be a good time for a practical joke. He whipped out his gun and shouted “stop, this is a robbery.” The shopkeeper, who had been the victim of an armed raid only months before, took out a firearm of his own and shot Cecconi in the chest. When slumping to the floor, Cecconi shouted “it was a joke, it was a joke.” He died later that day.
As for Maestrelli, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1975 while still the club’s manager. He passed away a little over a year later, which devastated all concerned. Lazio spiralled into the doldrums and it was over a decade before they possessed a good side again. They would have to wait until 2000 to win their second championship. Italy’s most notorious team had crashed as quickly as they ascended.