Riots, death and brilliant football: the Lazio team of the early 1970s were notorious for many reasons, and one of them was the game that saw them banned from European football…
Prior to the early 1970s, Lazio were a club with a relatively nondescript history. They won the Coppa Italia in 1958 but never finished higher than third in Serie A, and by the end of the 1960s were in danger of becoming a yoyo club, mediocrity on the pitch and financial problems off it preventing them achieving much of real substance.
Then in 1971, with the club in Serie B, Tomasso Maestrelli took over and so began perhaps the most dramatic five-year spell of any club in Italian football history. In that time they were promoted, finished third in their first season back in the top flight, won the Scudetto the season after that, Maestrelli died, another player was shot dead in a possible botched jewellery heist, their star player Giorgio Chinaglia incited a riot in a Rome derby and in the middle of all that, they played some rather nice football.
But among the great teams of yore, they’re rarely remembered, for how they played at least. One reason for that is they ‘only’ won one title and shone relatively briefly. But another could be that amid all that madness, they got themselves banned from European football after a semi-riot in a game against Ipswich.
Lazio had only just returned from a previous two-year European ban by the time the 1973/74 UEFA Cup came around, banished after a tie against Arsenal in 1971: after the game the Italians gifted their opponents some leather pouches, which the Englishmen mocked by prancing around effeminately with them, leading to some hurt feelings and a stramash in the street. After serving their time, they edged through the first round against Sion, Chinaglia’s hat-trick in the first leg nearly wiped out by the Swiss side in the return, but they held on and were drawn against Bobby Robson’s men in the next round.
The first game was at Portman Road, and to say the least things did not go to plan for Lazio. Trevor Whymark scored four unanswered goals which secured a hefty advantage, but would ultimately at least contribute to the chaotic scenes when the teams met for the return in Rome.
“When I got off the bus to go to our first training session there were these people from a Roma supporters’ club who wanted to thank me,” Whymark told Mario Risoli in his biography of Chinaglia ‘Arrivederci Swansea.’ “They gave me a plaque for scoring those four goals. The plaque basically says thank you for scoring four goals against Lazio!”
Those Roma fans, very much knowing what they were doing, brought a photographer along as well and the picture of these Ultras, along with a slightly baffled Whymark holding his commemorative plaque, was splashed across the morning papers in Italy. Which, to say the least, did not go down well on the blue side of the city, and by the time the game arrived tensions were sky high.
After being taken apart by Whymark in the first game, Maestrelli decided that more attention needed to be paid to the centre-forward. Even by the standards of a Lazio side not afraid of asserting their physicality, he was given some special treatment immediately, in the shape of a whack to the head inside the first minute. Ipswich, despite their big lead, were on the run immediately and Lazio scored after 43 seconds through Renzo Garlaschelli, Chinaglia adding a second before the half-hour mark.
Just before that second, Lazio ire was stirred even further when Ipswich keeper David Best came for a cross, missed it, and defender Alan Hunter pushed a subsequent effort away with his hand. The penalty wasn’t given, leading to more conniptions with Chinaglia chasing the errant linesman down the touchline and “practically head-butting him”, according to Hunter.
Afterwards the fans went crazy - everybody went crazy.
Things calmed down a bit until the 70th minute, but then the visitors were awarded a slightly dubious penalty, and all hell didn’t merely break loose but charged around the paddock and demolished a few fences. The building ire of the Lazio players burst out of them and referee Leo van der Kroft was shoved and bumped and jostled in a manner that would have led to suspensions all round these days. When Colin Viljoen, Ipswich’s penalty taker, tried to place the ball on the spot it was moved two or three times, an act of amusing pettiness amid the violence. After he slotted it away, Whymark made the mistake of congratulating Viljoen and both men were escorted back to the centre-circle by a troupe of Italian boots. The police had to intervene to restore something approaching order.
Writing in the Guardian, Frank Keating takes up the story: ‘A posse of frantic supporters galloped to the Ipswich touchline bench to let fly a volley of spittle. A regular stream of wild-eyed watchers pelted the English pressmen with anything to hand and at the final whistle, as clouds of tear gas wafted about the chill night and the Union Jack was ripped down from the official flagpole and bonfired.’
Another big reason for the trouble was the suspicion, however unfounded, that the referee might not have been rolling straight dice: some Lazio players suggested Mr van der Kroft had booze on his breath and was slurring his words. That seems unlikely, but this was football in the 1970s. Who knows what really happened.
After the Viljoen penalty, Lazio required four goals in the last 17 minutes to progress, and in fairness had a bloody good stab at it. Chinaglia had a goal disallowed for offside, converted a penalty when they were eventually awarded one and added another with four minutes remaining. But as they pushed for another, Ipswich hit them on the counter-attack and David Johnson killed off any potential comeback.
The game over, then the fun really began. “Afterwards the fans went crazy – everybody went crazy,” Chinaglia said. “Their players couldn’t come out of the dressing-room because 75,000 people were waiting for them, and that’s a difficult situation.”
Lazio were human beings gone berserk.
To say the least. “At the final whistle the police had to fire tear gas into the crowd as we went off. It was every man for himself,” Whymark told Risoli. “The tunnel had this Perspex roof and people were jumping on top of it.’ The Lazio players didn’t help matters either, with David Best their primary target for some reason, kicked to the ground by the Italians’ captain Giuseppe Wilson. Once they eventually reached the dressing rooms, the police advised both teams to stay there for an hour, for their own safety.
When they did emerge, the usually mild-mannered Robson was thoroughly vexed. “You’ve seen boys become men tonight,” he said, about his own team. “We’ve all aged 20 years. Lazio were human beings gone berserk.
“They acted like savages, animals. The only Lazio player who acted with any sort of restraint and came to my men’s assistance, was Chinaglia. If any one of my players had acted even fractionally like that they would never be allowed to wear even the shirt of Ipswich colts.”
Lazio very much adopted a ‘nothing to see here’ approach. “Robson is exaggerating normal incidents that happen at any football ground,” said president Umberto Lenzini, foreshadowing Comical Ali as Baghdad/Portman Road burned behind him.
UEFA sided with Robson’s view of things, fining Lazio and banning them from European competition for a further year, which became relevant after they won Serie A that season: they couldn’t compete in the European Cup in what would have been their first ever involvement in it.
A game like this would probably have been the standout story for most teams, but for Chinaglia’s Lazio, it was almost a footnote. Quite a spicy footnote, but a footnote nonetheless.
To hear more about the Lazio team of the early 1970s, listen to the Golazzo episode dedicated to them.
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