A brooding Italian, with fast feet and even faster tongue, Giorgio Chinaglia, nicknamed ‘Long John’ because of his resemblance to John Charles, was one of the most prolific strikers in football in the 1970s.
As the top scorer in Serie A in 1973/74, Chinaglia propelled Lazio to their first ever Scudetto and also gained international recognition, winning 14 caps for Italy, scoring four goals.
He was also the star striker of the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League (NASL), helping the fabled side to four NASL Soccer Bowls.
But as anyone who ever met him will testify, he wasn’t exactly the easiest guy to get on with.
“Giorgio is a brilliant player,” his Cosmos teammate Franz Beckenbauer once said, “but he has no career as a diplomat…”
A TOUGH START
Though he was born in Tuscany, Italy, he moved to Cardiff in 1955, aged eight.
His father Mario had left their homeland to find work in Wales in the steel industry but his entire family would have to live in just one room.
Giorgio is a brilliant player, but he has no career as a diplomat.”
In fact, the Chinaglias were so poor that young Giorgio has to resort to stealing the milk left on people’s doorsteps each morning on his way to school.
It was only when he was spotted scoring a hat-trick for Cardiff Schools at the age of 13 did he finally attract attention from Swansea Town (now Swansea City), signing his first contract.
As one of a small group of foreign boys at his school, Chinaglia was often the target for some of the local lads.
“Back then there were fights in the schoolyard at least twice a week — the Welsh boys against the foreigners,” he explains.
And then he had a scrap with one of the teachers. Parents were summoned, the cane was duly applied and a threat of expulsion hung over him.
And then the PE teacher intervened, begging the head to reconsider.
“He said, ‘You can’t do that. He’s the best player we’ve got’.”
When Swansea released Chinaglia in his late teens, the player and his family moved back to Italy when he was 19.
But that meant Giorgio would have to do compulsory military service.
Luckily, his prowess on the pitch saved his bacon and he was placed in a special regiment for footballers where all he had to do was train all day and then play the odd game.
It’s something Chinaglia credits with getting his faltering career back on track.
“Otherwise, I’d probably still be in Wales,” he said, “slogging it out in the mud and drinking ale.”
Having helped Lazio to their first Scudetto in 1974, Chinaglia’s place in the club’s annals was assured but for Roma fans he was the devil incarnate.
And for every fan who wanted an autograph or a photo, there was another with very different intentions.
That’s why it’s said that he used to carry a .44 Magnum around in his car’s glove compartment.
During one team trip to the cinema, for example, a Roma supporter recognised Chinaglia and began insulting him. Giorgio didn’t respond.
Then, when the lights were dimmed, the Roma fans found himself punched twice in the face, unaware as to who has just assaulted him.
Though he missed out on a place in Italy’s 1970 World Cup squad, Chinaglia did make the cut four years later when he was selected by national boss Ferruccio Valcareggi for the finals in West Germany.
But it didn’t work out quite as planned. During the Azzurri’s opening game against Haiti, Chinaglia was substituted in favour of Pietro Anastasi and he wasn’t happy.
As he left the pitch, he swore right down the lens of a TV camera before storming away and booting down the dressing room door.
As for Italy, they were knocked out in the first round.
When news emerged of Chinaglia’s transfer to the New York Cosmos, the Italian communities in the Bronx and Brooklyn staged a ‘Giorgio Chinaglia Night’ at a hotel on the banks of the Hudson River.
Hundreds of guests gathered and collected cash in black bin bags to give directly to Chinaglia.
“I have to tell you,” he said. “[There were’] A lot of people wished me well, let’s put it this way.”
Take Chinaglia’s locker in the Cosmos’ locker room. While most players just stuffed a towel or two and their personal belongings in there, Chinaglia’s was like a roped-off VIP area.
There was a pristine chrome hairdryer, a wide range of high-end lotions and potions, a personalised silk robe, handmade slippers, some cigarettes, a Dunhill lighter, a bottle of Chivas Regal whisky and a crystal glass.
When they were teammates at the New York Cosmos, Chinaglia and Pele’s relationship was frosty at best, primarily because the Brazilian World Cup winner always stole the Italian’s spotlight.
Rows were commonplace and countless truces brokered.
Once, when an interviewer asked Chinaglia if it was true that he had once played with Pele, he simply responded: “No, Pele played with me.”
During one heated training session with the Cosmos, the young English winger Steve Hunt grew tired of Chinaglia’s less than energetic attempts to participate, calling him ‘lazy’.
No, Pele played with me.”
Giorgio Chinaglia's response when asked if he had played with the Brazilian
“Next thing you know he’s put a right-hander on my chin,” recalls Hunt.
“So obviously I went back for him, there was a big melee… but I must say from then on we sat down and talked about that and we got on great.”
In 1977, Chinaglia and the New York Cosmos ventured to the Far East, becoming the first professional football team to play in the People’s Republic of China.
While most of the Cosmos squad embraced the experience, Chinaglia was less than impressed with the country, especially the cuisine.
So rather than enjoy sea slug soup of jellyfish, Chinaglia took matters into his own hands, taking endless cans of ravioli and cannelloni with him instead.
After his playing days came to an end in New York, Chinaglia returned to Italy to take over as the president of his beloved Lazio. But controversy was never far away.
In one game against Udinese at the Stadio Olimpico, for example, Chinaglia was apoplectic at the performance of the referee Gino Menicucci and took to attacking him with an umbrella at the end of the match.
An eight-month ban followed.
In 213 regular season games for the New York Cosmos in the NASL, Chinaglia scored 193 goals while in 43 play-off games he scored a further 50.
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In 1980, meanwhile, He bagged seven goals in an 8-1 win over Tusla Roughnecks.
“I just wanted to score goals. I didn’t care who played beside me really.
“I never did, that’s why sometimes I wasn’t liked. But I don’t care about that.”