Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Giorgio Chinaglia, 1947-2012

Imagine that Babe Ruth, after elevating baseball to new heights -- or Red Grange in football, or Michael Jordan in basketball, or Wayne Gretzky in hockey -- had destroyed the league he had helped make.

That couldn't happen, right?

It did. And it is a major reason why American soccer fell a generation behind.


Giorgio Chinaglia (Key-NAHL-ya, no middle name) was born on January 24, 1947 in Carrara, Tuscany, Italy. The country's post-World War II unemployment led his father to pick up the family and move to Wales in 1955.

At the age of 13, Giorgio was signed as an apprentice by Swansea Town Association Football Club, the team now known as Swansea City A.F.C. In 1964, he made his senior debut for "The Swans," against Rotherham United in an FA Cup match. In 1965, Swansea won the West Wales Senior Cup, defeating Llanelli (a name that sounds both Welsh and Italian, interestingly enough) 3-0 in the Final, with Chinaglia scoring one of the goals.

In 1966, with compulsory military service still in effect in Italy, the family returned so that Giorgio could serve. He said it straightened him out and getting his career on track: "Otherwise, I'd probably still be in Wales, slogging it out in the mud, and drinking ale. The Italian Army has a special regiment for soccer players, so all I did in the service was to train all day, and when my club had a game, get a pass."

Because he had played professionally outside of Italy, the rules of the time, set by the Lega Nazionale Professionisti, meant that he could not play in the top division, Serie A, for 3 years. He signed with Massese, in Serie C, the 3rd division. He soon switched to Naples club Internapoli, before his ban was up in 1969.

At that point, he signed for Società Sportiva Lazio, starring for them through 1976. The club had been sponsoring a soccer (or "football," or "calcio" as they would say in Italy) team since 1900, but had never won Italy's top division. In the 1972-73 season, they came close to winning it, losing out only on the final day of the season. In 1973-74, they finally won it, led by striker Chinaglia (who led the league in goals), centreback and captain Giuseppe Wilson (son of an Englishman and a woman from Naples), and midfielders Luciano Re Cecconi and Mario Frustalupi.

S.S. Lazio, or just "Lazio" (LOT-zee-oh), is named for its administrative region, one of 20 of what Italy calls what Americans would call a State. It contains the national capital, Rome. The other major Roman club is named for the city: Associazione Sportiva Roma, or A.S. Roma, or just "Roma."

It is one of the nastiest rivalries in European sport. Roma have traditionally catered to the leftists in the Rome area, while Lazio have a notoriously right-wing fan base, epitomized by a later striker, the avowed fascist Paolo Di Canio, still regarded as the club's greatest hero.

Both Roma and Lazio are known for their ultras, the former's in the Curva Sud (south curve) of Rome's Stadio Olimpico, the latter's in the Curva Nord (north curve). Trouble is to be expected: If you want to see a home game against either club, do not make it one in which they are playing each other, a Derby della Capitale. (Roma is planning to move to a new stadium for the 2018-19 season, leaving the Olimpico to Lazio. Whether that will help the crowd situation, I don't know.)

Lazio's players, especially then (and in the later case of Di Canio), were known to be as crazy as their fans. All the players I mentioned, including Chinaglia, were party animals. Re Cecconi met his fate in one crazy endeavor: On January 18, 1977, he and 2 teammates pretended to rob a friend's jewelry store. Their guns were fakes. The friend's was not, and he shot Re Cecconi, dead at age 28. His last words were, "It was a joke! It was a joke... "


By that point, Chinaglia was already gone. He thought of himself as a businessman, and was angry at Italy's corporate laws and taxes. In 1972, when Lazio toured America, he began investing in American real estate. Being selected, but hardly used, for Italy in the 1974 World Cup may have been the last straw. In 1975, he bought a house in Englewood, Bergen County, New Jersey, and told Clive Toye, the president of the North American Soccer League's New York Cosmos, that he wanted to play for them. If Toye wouldn't buy him from Lazio, he said he would buy his own team.

Toye bought him from Lazio for the 1976 season. He joined Brazilian legends Pelé and Carlos Alberto, and German titan Franz Beckenbauer. In 1977 (Pelé's last season), 1978, 1980 and 1982, the Cosmos won the Soccer Bowl, the NASL's championship. In 1978 and '79, he was joined by former Lazio teammate Giuseppe Wilson.
Der Kaiser, O Rei and Don Giorgio.
Three giants of the other kind
of football at Giants Stadium.

Giorgio was a goal machine. Not quite as much of one as he thought he was. He thought he was so much of one, he would refuse to pass to Pelé. With Pelé retired, Chinaglia became the team's most popular player.

He played in 5 Soccer Bowls, scoring in 4 of them, and scoring the winner in 3 of them. He led the NASL in scoring 4 times. He set the League record with 34 regular-season goals in 1978. He scored 32 in 1980. He scored 16 hat tricks for the Cosmos. He scored 7 goals in a Playoff game against the Tulsa Roughnecks in 1980. He was named NASL Most Valuable Player in 1981, even though the Cosmos lost the Soccer Bowl to the Chicago Sting.

He was flamboyant. He was arrogant. He would say to his opponents, "Look at me. I am Giorgio Chinaglia. I beat you!" For a country whose biggest athletes in recent times had included Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose, Bill Walton, and, of course, Muhammad Ali, this was something to eat up.
"Look at me. I am Giorgio Chinaglia. I beat you!"

But his massive ego would lead to his downfall, and that of the team, and that of the entire League. For in America, a sports league cannot survive at the major league level if it doesn't have a New York team that is financially stable.

Ban Johnson of baseball's American League knew this as early as 1902. This nearly doomed the NFL in 1925, and the AFL in the early 1960s, before things got straightened out in each. The strength of the Nets probably kept the ABA alive as long as it did, but not having a sound New York team doomed the WFL in 1975 (and would later hurt the USFL in the mid-1980s).

By 1984, the days of the Cosmos packing the 77,000-seat Giants Stadium, or at least making it look like they could if they could simply sign the next Pelé (Would that have been Italy's Paolo Rossi? Brazil's Dr. Sócrates? France's Michel Platini? Probably Argentina's Diego Maradona, but he wasn't all that famous yet), were over. Due to expenditures on star power, the team had never turned a profit. And with Chinaglia having retired at the end of the previous season, they missed the Playoffs for the 1st time in 9 years, and were now desperate, just a year and a half after winning their 5th title. (They had also won in 1972, before Pelé.)

Chinaglia had built a strong friendship with team owner Steve Ross, and convinced Ross to sell him 60 percent of the team's ownership. This was a big mistake. Then Chinaglia made an even bigger mistake: Handing operational control of the team to Peppe Pinton, his personal assistant. Pinton could easily have been a target for the timeless soccer chant, "You don't know what you're doing!" He believed his job was to do what Chinaglia would want, not to do what was best for the team.

The Cosmos were bankrupt. After the 1984 season, the NASL, also bankrupt, collapsed. Without a genuine major league, American soccer suffered until the staging of the World Cup in 1994 and the founding of Major League Soccer in 1996.

Chinaglia moved the Cosmos into the Nassau Coliseum, and into the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL). But indoor soccer, played on artificial turf on a much narrower and shorter field, one that could fit inside a hockey rink, whose boards meant that there was no out-of-bounds unless you kicked the ball into the seats, was a very different game. Most players were used to the outdoor version, and did not excel. Likewise, most of the players who did well in the MISL had not done well in the outdoor, regular-sized version. After the 1985 season, the original New York Cosmos were no more.


Chinaglia, however, was not bankrupt. His real estate holdings saw to that. In 2006, he attempted to buy Lazio. But Italian authorities suspected that he was being financed by the Camorra, the Naples version of the Mafia, and he had to back out. He returned to America, and never set foot in Italy again, fearing that he would be imprisoned.

His English always good, due to having spent much of his youth in Wales, he hosted The Football Show on Sirius Satellite Radio. Also in 2006, he sat for an interview for the documentary Once In a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos. He put his full ego on display. And others who were interviewed had, outside of how good his scoring touch was, nothing good to say about him.

Like so many kids in the New York Tri-State Area in the Jimmy Carter term and the 1st Ronald Reagan term, I was crazy about him. I had no idea he not only wasn't a good person, but that he had helped wreck the team and, indeed, the entire League.

When Major League Soccer was founded, they established a New York team, and wanted to call it the Cosmos. But Pinton still held the legal rights to the Cosmos name and all its various trademarks. He refused to let MLS have it. So the team became the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, and later the New York Red Bulls. Meanwhile, other old NASL names were used in MLS: The San Jose Earthquakes, the Portland Timbers, the Seattle Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps.

In 2009, Pinton sold his Cosmos interests, and a new team with the name was announced in August 2010, with Pelé involved (in name only). MLS rejected this expansion franchise, as they didn't have a stadium deal in place -- unlike New York City FC, which is partly owned by the Yankees as well as Manchester City FC, and was able to play at Yankee Stadium. The new Cosmos began play in August 2011.

Giorgio Chinaglia was named an "international ambassador" for the new Cosmos. But he did not have much of a chance to enjoy this. He died of a heart attack 3 days ago, April 1, 2012, in Naples. That's Naples, Florida, not Naples, Italy. He was 65 years old.

He was married twice, first to Connie Eruzione, a cousin of American Olympic hockey legend Mike Eruzione. He had 3 children, daughters Cynthia and Stephanie, and, in between, son Giorgio Jr.


UPDATE: The new Cosmos -- known to some as the "CosFauxs" for their pathetic attempts to suggest that they're the same team that won 5 League titles -- began league play in the new North American Soccer League in 2013, playing home games at Hofstra University's 11,929-seat Shuart Stadium in Hempstead, Long Island, across from the Nassau Coliseum -- which the original Cosmos had used in the 1972 and '73 seasons.

In 2014, in one of their period attempts to tie their "history" in with that of the original team, they retired Giorgio Chinaglia's Number 9, as they had previously retired 10 for Pelé, who is still a club ambassador. They've won the NASL title in 2013, 2015 and 2016, and were runners-up in 2017. In 2013, they famously defeated the Red Bulls in a U.S. Open Cup match. In 2015, they did the same to NYCFC.

No matter: They remain the 3rd-biggest soccer team in the Tri-State Area, an afterthought. They played at MCU Park on Coney Island, home of the Mets' farm team, the Brooklyn Cyclones, in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, they moved back to nearly where they started, to the 10,102-seat Mitchel Field, just north of the Hofstra campus and the Nassau Coliseum. There are, once again, a small club in Hempstead.

They may have had Spanish icon Raúl, but nobody thinks of them as the club of Pelé, of Carlos Alberto, of Beckenbauer, of Dutch stars Johan Neeskens and Wim Rijsbergen, of Yugoslavs Vladislav Bogićević and Werner Roth, of Chinaglia.
"Look at me. I am Giorgio Chinaglia. I beat you!"

Giorgio Chinaglia remains a legend. If he were still alive, he'd tell you himself. Alas, he would not want all of his legend to be told.

He did not believe that he could return to Italy alive. He did so in death, and was buried in Rome, at Cimitero Flaminio.


Paul said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bernadette Pasley said...

Hmmmm... It'll be interesting to compare your picks with mine when we talk this weekend!

Uncle Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.