(L-R) Beckenbauer, Pele and Chinaglia

by Martha

Giorgio Chinaglia was (and is) graceless, on and off the pitch. He was a bull of a footballer, physical but labored, lacking the ability in the air his size would suggest, and given to angrily disappearing for long stretches of matches. He fought with teammates wherever he went, argued with coaches and reserved his respected for a very select, very motley few – Pelé? Please. Pelé got in his way.

As a youngster, he was on the books at Swansea (though born in Italy, he spent most of his youth in Wales and was once described as “more Welsh than Italian”) but was quickly dismissed for his lack of athleticism and discipline. What they missed at Swansea, though, was Chinaglia’s vicious right foot and his gift for getting it on the ball almost instantly, no matter his position. And they also missed the most important bit — what he had inside. They saw the ego, and the belligerence and the need for confrontation that he wore like armour, but they missed the secret, gnawing need to prove to everyone that they were wrong about him. Wrong about everything.

It was that need that made him a legend.

When Lazio turned 100, fans voted Chinaglia — the only Lazio player ever to lead Serie A in scoring, and the scorer of the Scudetto-winning goal in their magical 1973-1974 season — the club’s greatest-ever player. That honour was bestowed despite the fact that his relationship with the fans had been so bad that, in 1972, Chinaglia had sent his wife to live with his family in Naples out of concern for her safety. This despite the fact, in 1974, after throwing Azzurri coach Fulvio Bernardini a vaffanculo upon being substituted against Haiti, he was the default scapegoat for Italy’s dismal World Cup performance.

This also despite the fact that, in 1976, after the departure of his mentor Tommaso Maetrelli from the Lazio bench, he fled Rome — and Italy — under cover of darkness to join the New York Cosmos in the worryingly unstable North American Soccer League. This despite the fact that he drove the team into Serie B as its owner in the 1980s and later led a corrupt takeover bid that resulted in the arrest warrants which now keep him from returning to Italy.

Chinaglia is not a man one easily forgets.

In New York he was the same man he’d been in Italy, and the same boy he’d been in Wales. He still scored goals like a machine, he still gave no quarter to anyone, and he was still never, ever wrong. He was regularly abused by Cosmos fans, ran coaches out of town, and argued with team-mates like Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer as he outshouted and outlasted them and almost everyone else in the league, doggedly carrying on even as the NASL crested under and collapsed around him.

When the dust had cleared, Lazio’s greatest-ever player was the NASL’s all-time leading scorer with 242 goals in 254 matches, had a place in the North American Soccer Hall of Fame and was a long-standing American citizen.

There are as many stories about him as there are goals on his tally sheet, but the most enduring image of Chinaliga is that of an aging bear of man lumbering across the Giants Stadium turf, chanting his own name as the boos of his own fans rain down upon him. And he’s alone — he’s always alone, which is probably how he told himself he liked it.

Follow Martha on Twitter @MarthaCalcio.