European Football: Lazio learn the lessons of history

Michael Briggs
Saturday 04 April 1998 23:02

WHEN Giorgio Chinaglia stepped up to take the penalty which gave Lazio victory over Juventus on their way to the 1974 Italian league title, he was unwittingly brought face-to-face with his club's future.

Juve's goalkeeper at the Olympic stadium on that February afternoon 24 years ago was the Italian international Dino Zoff. Now, Zoff is Lazio's president, a symbol of the Rome club's determination to learn from the Juventus school of success.

Today, pupil meets master, and, with Lazio third in Serie A, two-points behind Juventus, the match represents the final test in a long learning curve. Over the past 10 years, a series of managers and directors have defected south from Turin: the team manager, Nello Governati, the deputy coach, Luciano Spinosi, and the director, Enrico Bendoni.

Players have followed, including Pierluigi Casiraghi, the Croat Alen Boksic and the Yugoslav Vladimir Jugovic. And, just as Juventus are underpinned by the industrial might of the car-maker Fiat, so the owner Sergio Cragnotti's food company Cirio now underwrites Lazio.

"There's no doubt about it, Lazio have chosen the Juventus road to success," says Lino Casholi, the historian of Rome football.

They have come a long way. Over the course of their 90-year history, Lazio have rarely risen above their humble beginnings in a tiny restaurant on the banks of the River Tiber.

The 1974 league title and a lone Italian Cup triumph, in 1958, are poor pickings along-side Juventus's record 24 league championships, eight domestic cups and two European Cups.

It was almost fitting that the one season Lazio were eligible for the then European Champions' Cup, they were serving a 12-month ban for crowd trouble in the Uefa Cup. Even when Lazio emerged from the shadow of their illustrious northern rivals to take the league title, Juve took it back the following year.

Over the next two decades, while Juventus were adding to their list of honours, Lazio were twice relegated, once because of a bribery scandal, and only avoided the humiliation of Serie C2 with a play-off victory over Campobasso in 1987.

At the beginning of the 1990s, however, Cragnotti bought the club and started its transformation into Rome's version of Juventus: on and off the field. Juventus's business-like approach has seen them forgo traditional loyalty to long-serving players such as Roberto Baggio in the name of balancing the books; they have set up football schools throughout Italy to sell club merchandise.

Getting it right on the pitch has not been so easy: despite enormous investment in such players as England's Paul Gascoigne, the manager, Zdenek Zeman, and the striker Giuseppe Signori, Lazio have not won a single trophy under Cragnotti.

This season, however, the statistics match even the best Juventus sides: 24 league and cup matches without defeat, Italian Cup finalists and Uefa Cup semi-finals. Like Juventus, Lazio are not resting on their laurels: the latest South American star Marcelo Salas is Lazio-bound next season together with Sampdoria's Yugoslav sweeper Sinisa Mihajlovic.

Win or lose today, there is one subject in which Lazio will never equal Juventus: supporters. Whereas Juventus are the best-supported club in Italy with black-and-white pennants hanging in bars throughout the peninsula, Lazio supporters are more of a hindrance than a help.

Fans' emotions shift dramatically. After a poor start to the season, Lazio's coach, Sven-Goren Eriksson ,was spat upon. Last month, after a 4-0 victory at Sampdoria, 3,000 festive fans turned up at the club's Formello training ground. When the weather is fair the fans flock to watch, when the clouds appear the attendances drop.

"Lazio finally have a team to match Juventus," says Casholi, "if only their fans understood it."

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