Giorgio in trouble

AP

Giorgio Chinaglia is accused of being involved in threats to set neo-Fascist fringe fans on the Lazio president.

The news that Giorgio Chinaglia, former player, idol and later even President of the Lazio club of Rome, is wanted for questioning by the Italian police is alas merely the latest development in a torrid career. I take a great personal interest in the affair since I've known Giorgio for many years. He even, back in November 1977, played a game for my little Chelsea Casuals Sunday team.

His history is one of an astonishing rise from poverty and obscurity. Son of a violent immigrant from Carraro, the marble quarry town in Tuscany renowned for producing "hard heads," he was brought to Cardiff by his father as a small child. Showing an early talent for football, he was signed by that other South Wales club then known as Swansea Town, but fell out so often and was fined so often by the manager, Billy Lucas, that he was reduced to stealing milk bottles from doorsteps early in the morning for his breakfast.

His father eventually, when he was 19, took him back to Italy where he signed for Massese then Internapoli, both then clubs in Serie C. Lazio bought him after a couple of seasons in Naples, and in due course he rewarded them — having already been capped for Italy — by scoring a remarkable and crucial 24 Serie A goals, which gave them the `scudetto' for the first time in their history.

That was in season 1973-74. So to the 1974 World Cup in West Germany and disgrace. Italy's first game was a disastrous affair against little Haiti, in which they even risked defeat. When Giorgio was pulled off the field by the manager, Ferruccio Valcaraggi, he responded by insulting him as he stormed past the bench, proceeding to smash an array of mineral water bottles in the dressing room.

The Lazio club President flew urgently to Germany to pour oil on troubled waters and succeeded in getting Giorgio reprieved, at least to the extent that he remained in Germany, though he didn't take part in either of the last two `azzurri' games. I remember meeting him outside the Stuttgart stadium before Italy's second game. "Always in trouble!" I told him. "Perhaps I'm too much like you!" he smiled. The reference was to the outraged response in Italy to our `Sunday Times' revelations of Italian clubs' bribery of European referees.

From Rome to New York, where Giorgio became one of the numerous stars, including even Pele, signed by the short-lived but heavily subsidised Cosmos. Gaining the friendship of the chief owner, Steve Ross, the head of Warner Communications, Giorgio actually became the President as well as centre-forward of the Cosmos, with an office in the Rockefeller Centre in the heart of New York City.

When he came to London that November, it was as a TV commentator for the ensuing England v Italy World Cup qualifier at Wembley. He came to Pimlico School, where my children were pupils, to take part in a television discussion, during which someone asked whether Chelsea Casuals had a match that coming Sunday. When I replied that we had, Giorgio, sitting next to me at the lunch table, demanded, "Is there a game for me?" Straight faced, I responded, "Well, Toby (my younger son, then 16, due to play with Serie B Formia the following year in Italy) will be visiting a friend in Seaford. We might put you in."

"How much?" asked Giorgio. To which, I replied, "It will cost you 20 pence!" which was the match subscription then.

Come Sunday afternoon, I drove down to Sloane Square in Chelsea, and found Giorgio in a fashionable hotel. Thence to the Royal Hospital by the Thames, where the Chelsea Pensioners live in a magnificent building designed by Sir Christopher Wren and where there are two football pitches.

At the kick in, Giorgio let loose a right-footed shot from outside the penalty box which bounced off the chest of Ben, our teenaged 'keeper and flew all the way out of the box again. We won 3-1 with Academicals, ex-University College London, Giorgio operating diligently in midfield.

The following day I drove him and a Roman reporter to the Wembley hotel where we awaited the arrival of the `azzurri'. On the way back, Giorgio said, "They're so sure they're going to beat you!" Assuming he meant the coming international, I replied that England's team just then were hardly great. "No, no," he said, "the journalists! I told them, `Listen! They've got a lot of young kids! They run and run!' But they said, `Class will tell!'"

"It did!" said my older boy Mark, 18, after he had scored three goals in our 11-2 victory; Toby now very much included. But Mark added, "Dad, I don't think I treated Umberto Colombo with sufficient respect!" Colombo being the former Juventus and Italy midfielder who, two years earlier, on the same ground, playing against the British Press, had looked so formidable.

Returning to Italy, Giorgio actually became President of Lazio though the Italio-American businessman who'd subsidised him complained they were marginalised. Now he is accused of being involved in threats to set the so-called `irriducibili,' the neo-Fascist Lazio fringe fans, on the present President. He insists he will go back to Rome and clear it all up. Perhaps he will. After all, as Lazio President, he even found himself a flat in the glorious Piazza di Spaena!