Lazio wondering where it went wrong

Letter From Rome
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The Independent Football

Lazio supporters were only just getting over the humiliation of seeing their arch rivals AS Roma win Serie A and literally paint the town red (and yellow) for a week in celebration. They bit their lips as a million Roma fans invaded the Circus Maximus for an immense concert and thought about getting even.

After all they hadn't fared badly last season; they lost the title but maintained a credible third place, the passport scandal which plagued other Italian clubs had seen their Argentinian Juan Sebastian Veron and club president Sergio Cragnotti absolved, after a flirt with Juventus Czech player Pavel Nedved was reconfirmed for the next season and the shameful one-day suspension imposed on the club because of racist slogans and chants was already a fading memory.

Yet in less than a month the club and their followers have been plunged into crisis. Two world-class players have been signed by other clubs, the extremist fringes in the supporters have challenged Cragnotti, who announced that he wanted out of Lazio, and the club have had to make a last dash to buy new talent when all the best deals had already been clinched.

Fans are wondering how it all went so badly wrong. The first blow was the news that 26-year-old Veron had signed a five year contract with Manchester United for £28.1m – the biggest fee in Britain's footballing history. United broke their own previous record, the £19m paid for the Dutchman Ruud van Nistelrooy. Alex Ferguson justly noted that Veron was a world-class player just coming to his peak years and said he hoped that Veron could take Manchester United to the top on the continent, not just at home.

But while supporters rued the loss of Veron, they could console themselves that defender Alessandro Nesta had rejected a megagalactic offer from Real Madrid and Nedved had opted to stay, after supporters' protests. He had re-signed for Lazio and the Juventus contract was to be considered null and void. That was until Nedved and his family came back from Prague on a private plane of the Agnelli family (owners of Juventus) and it emerged that they had paid him 80 billion lire (£26.6m).

Cragnotti and club officials were furious and accused Juventus of behaving under-handedly. The phlegmatic coach Dino Zoff tried to reassure supporters that they would still have a competitive line-up but few were convinced, least of all the hardliners from the Curva Nord. Nedved was not simply a spectacular and committed player, he was in a sense the soul of the team. The culprit, in their eyes, was Cragnotti, with whom they have always had a difficult relationship.

Yet not even they were prepared for the shock announcement of a livid Cragnotti that he had better things to do with his life, that football was a game and he wanted out. Offensive graffiti on the wall and rubbish dumped at the entrance of his family's villa, as well as threats to his relatives, were the last straw for Cragnotti. "I'm not going to allow four degenerates to come to my house, threaten my family. If this is football, I do not need this" he said.

The Italian media's favourite adjective for the silver-haired food magnate is "vulcanico", underlining his short temper, but his anger was comprehensible. With his dynamism and investment Cragnotti has made Lazio players in world football for the first time, helping them win a bevy of Italian and European titles. After Cragnotti's announcement, Lazio shares dived five per cent.

The club rejected his resignation and Cragnotti agreed to remain in place until September, partly because no one is queueing up to buy the Rome side. However he repeated that he had not changed his mind. His dramatic gesture, which those close to him say was no publicity stunt, has had the effect of consolidating supporters. There was a huge pro-Cragnotti mobilisation via phone, fax, radio and internet, a candlelit procession past his house, and a peaceful invasion of the Lazio training ground at Formello. More than three thousand fans turned out, but the hard-liners were there too – stones were thrown and a police car burnt.

Lazio now find themselves with a wad of cash from the exit of Veron and Nedved, but behind in terms of buying just as the powerful northern clubs were on spending sprees to regain dominance. Lazio officials moved belatedly to secure the Portuguese playmaker Rui Costa from troubled Fiorentina but, after a telephone call from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Rui Costa went to Milan.

Gaizka Mendieta wants to leave Valencia and Kily Gonzalez is also being courted, and Lazio are hoping to secure Fabio Cannavaro from Parma. Sergio Cragnotti has vowed that he will pull something out of the hat, not just to keep hotheaded fans at bay, but to ensure that the club he has built up does not return to the days when it was disparagingly known as Lazietta (little Lazio).