A piece of American soccer history passed away over the weekend when Giorgio Chinaglia died of a heart attack at age 65. The Italian soccer player grew up in Wales and started his career there, so his fellow Italians nicknamed him “Long John.” He led the Italian league in goal-scoring in 1974 playing for his beloved Roman club Lazio, helping lead them to a championship that year. However, his greatest antics came on our shores, when he played for the New York Cosmos of the old North American Soccer League.
The Cosmos were, for a few short years, the toast of New York City, the home of all-time greats like Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer. The team dominated the NASL at a time when New York’s baseball, football, basketball, and hockey teams were all sunk in mediocrity (although the Yankees would pull themselves into World Series victories later in the 1970s). The soccer stars came to New York, lured by the bags of money being handed out by the team’s ownership, and their star power drove the entire league to prominence. This was not always a good thing, but Chinaglia was as big a part of that team as anyone else. The black-and-white clip below is of the goals he scored at Lazio, while the one in color shows the goals he scored for New York. In them, you’ll see a striker with the ability to dribble through tight corners and absorb a hit without losing the ball. Most of all, you’ll see his ability to put the ball in the net with his head or either foot, shooting from all angles, and sometimes with defenders draped over him. Check out the turnaround shot at the 3:20 mark of the Lazio clip. That’s a sweet finish.
You can see more of the story of Chinaglia and the Cosmos in Paul Crowder and John Dower’s immensely entertaining 2006 documentary Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos. The movie details the unlikely rise and fall of America’s soccer league in the 1970s, and the glamor that attached itself to the Cosmos and its stars. (It wasn’t unusual to see the Studio 54 crowd hang out in the Cosmos’ locker room.) Chinaglia is interviewed extensively in the movie, and he makes a magnetic villainous presence as the movie posits him as the player whose enormous ego and talent (and chummy relationship with owner Steve Ross) helped take down the dynasty and the entire league. The movie also details how Chinaglia had the stones to call out Pelé himself for not letting him play his game. That didn’t go over well with the Brazilian, as you might imagine. When the movie premiered in 2006, Chinaglia in typical style attended the event and then promptly told all and sundry how the film distorted him and the record.
The obituaries are pouring in, and a lot of them emphasize Chinaglia’s charm and blunt manner of speaking. They tend to gloss over the fact that he ended his life a fugitive from justice. An Italian court issued an arrest warrant for him in 2006 (after the movie had come out) for financial irregularities involved when he headed a consortium trying to buy his old team, Lazio. The consortium apparently had some ties to the Casalesi clan, i.e. the Mafia. Chinaglia strenuously denied the allegations but never returned to Italy to face the charges. He lay low for a while and eventually settled in Florida, while nothing ever came of official Italian requests for the U.S. government to extradite him. He was certainly controversial and arrogant, and he may even have been ethically shady, but Giorgio Chinaglia never apologized for himself, and he was a key figure in the strange early history of American soccer. He is gone now.