Lazio's unlikely scudetto success
After flirting with relegation last season, Lazio are the surprise leaders of Serie A after six matches. Could an unlikely title challenge be on the cards? Probably not, as the Biancocelesti have won the scudetto just twice in their history. Their most recent title success came in chaotic circumstances in the 1999-2000 season as a team bankrolled by Sergio Cragnotti, coached by Sven-Goran Eriksson and inspired by the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron snatched glory away from Juventus on the final day of the campaign.
Prior to the turn of the millennium, Italian football, like other derivatives of the beautiful game across the continent, was filled with filthy lucre. In the summer of 1999, AC Milan paid £19 million for a talented young Ukrainian striker named Andriy Shevchenko, while no single individual embodied the rampant greed eating away at the heart of football than Christian Vieri, who also in that summer moved clubs for the tenth time in ten seasons when completing a world-record £30 million transfer from Lazio to Inter Milan.
The Vatican's newspaper, Osservatore Romano, described the deal as a "miseducating event... an offence against poor people", while one supporter - 25-year-old Elio Di Cristofalo - cited the transfer of the player nicknamed 'Mister Ninety Billion Lire' in a suicide note before throwing himself under a train. But inside football circles, the growth in largesse was hardly cause for concern. Indeed, Lazio were amongst the leading proponents of transfer inflation thanks to president Sergio Cragnotti.
The Cirio magnate famously signed Paul Gascoigne in 1992, and six years later he spent no less than £70 million to strengthen Lazio's ranks, bringing Chile striker Marcelo Salas to the club amongst others. Though Lazio did lose Vieri in the summer of 1999, they secured Diego Simeone in part exchange and also recruited his Argentina colleague Juan Sebastian Veron from Parma for a fee of £17.1 million and striker Simone Inzaghi from Piacenza. It was a spending splurge that was to underpin one of the most contentious title-races in Italian history.
With future Ballon d'Or winner Pavel Nedved, Roman icon Alessandro Nesta and set-piece master Sinisa Mihajlovic also in their ranks, Lazio were a stronger unit than the side that captured the Cup Winners' Cup and only just failed to win the scudetto on the final day of the previous season when AC Milan won in Perugia, and the initial signs were certainly promising as the 1999-2000 campaign got underway.
Manchester United were defeated 1-0 in the European Super Cup thanks to a solitary goal from Salas, and no less an authority than a recently knighted Sir Alex Ferguson was suitably impressed, declaring: "I think they will win Serie A this year."
Despite Lazio's substantial financial outlay, it was a brave prediction on the part of Ferguson. Lazio had won the title only once in their history, when a somewhat unstable squad, with a worrying predilection for firearms and led by the iconic striker Giorgio Chinaglia, finished top in 1974. Guy Chiappaventi, a journalist who chronicled the season, said of Chinaglia and his team-mates: "They were madmen, wild and emotional, there were fascist sympathisers, men who liked to shoot and go parachuting, they were gamblers and nightclubbers. They formed different clans, and anybody going into the wrong hotel room had a chance of having a broken bottle pushed against his throat."
Under the mild-mannered Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson, who had previously won the Coppa Italia with both Roma and Sampdoria, the Lazio vintage of 1999-2000 were a more prosaic prospect, off the pitch at least. Providing the ammunition on it were the visionary Veron, Czech midfielder Nedved and the menace that was Mihajlovic.
It was Inter Milan, coached by future World Cup winner Marcello Lippi, who started the season strongly following the addition of Vieri, but in December they suffered a damaging defeat to Bari that saw a certain 17-year-old named Antonio Cassano announce his talent to the watching world. In his autobiography, Cassano would later say that without his brilliant goal against the Nerazzurri, "I would have become a robber or a thief... a delinquent."
Lazio, meanwhile, overcame a 4-1 thumping in the Rome derby in November to keep in touch at the top of the table, and an intriguing title race took another twist when AC Milan defeated Lazio 2-1 at San Siro to push Eriksson's side down into third. However, like their city rivals Inter, Milan soon fell away from contention, ensuring a head-to-head race that Carlo Ancelotti's Juventus looked certain to win.
With Juventus maintaining a tight grip over top spot, Lazio began to attract negative headlines due to some unsavoury crowd incidents, and not for the first time. In a match against Bari in February, fans unveiled a 20-metre banner reading 'Onore Alla Tigre Arkan' ('Honour to the Tiger Arkan') in celebration of the Serbian war criminal. Only a matter of days later, against Parma on February 15, opposition players Lilian Thuram, Ousmane Dabo and Saliou Lassissi were targeted for racial abuse. An exasperated Cragnotti said "I am ashamed at fans like these; I don't want them at the stadium". But racism and far-right elements among the Lazio support would prove almost impossible to eradicate.
Though relations were strained between club and Ultras, Eriksson was beginning to get the best out of his players and a nine-point advantage opened up by Juventus was cut to six on March 27. Making amends for the defeat to Fabio Capello's Roma earlier in the season, Lazio responded to an opening goal from Vincenzo Montella to win the Derby della Capitale thanks to an equaliser from Nedved and a sublime free-kick from Veron. Momentum was with Lazio, and they closed the gap further on April 1 when Simeone produced a fine header to defeat Juventus 1-0 in a crucial encounter Turin.
But just as Lazio were stalking Juventus with intent, it seemed their scudetto bid had been undone in Machiavellian circumstances. The penultimate game of the season saw Alessandro Del Piero give Juventus a 1-0 lead at home to Parma but, sensationally, Fabio Cannavaro equalised in injury time. Jubilant Lazio fans were contemplating heading into the final game of the season on level points with Juventus when referee Massimo De Santis controversially disallowed the goal for a phantom push in the penalty area.
Juventus would instead enjoy a two-point lead with one game remaining, and Cragnotti was apoplectic. "Our football has to be completely rebuilt," he said. "Everybody, whether they are fans or not, saw what happened in Turin, and no one is able to explain why that goal wasn't allowed. Everything that led up to it was perfectly normal. If anything the Juventus players were committing the fouls. But the referee disallowed it. Why, I don't know. Lazio deserve the league title, both morally and for their football."
In a football culture that was well versed in corruption and scandal, and particularly repeated accusations that the all-powerful Juventus had form in influencing referees, claims of a conspiracy were as inevitable as they were heartfelt. Corriere dello Sport's headline read "We're sorry, but it's a scandal" while Gazzetta opted for "The poisoned league title." Suspicions of Juve subterfuge over the years were not without justification; the club were demoted for their role in the Calciopoli scandal that erupted in 2006 and referee De Santis was also banned as a result of the controversy, although the events of 2000 were not in the scope of the match-fixing enquiry.
The only way for Lazio to rid Italian football of the stench of corruption would be to beat Reggina and for Perugia to defeat Juventus. Such a scenario was considered barely plausible, given the long-established tradition in Italy of teams with nothing to play for expending little energy against a side still in contention at the end of the season. Perugia, already safe from relegation, could be relied upon to roll over against Juventus, couldn't they?
But the team that lost to AC Milan a season previously, preventing Lazio from becoming champions, surprised everyone by taking the fight to Juventus on a rain-sodden pitch. The downpour in Perugia meant the second half was delayed by 82 minutes, so after Lazio defeated Reggina 3-0, the fans remained packed inside Stadio Olimpico, awaiting news of their rivals' fate.
Four minutes into the delayed second half, the news filtered through to Rome: Alessandro Calori had scored for Perugia! The defender showed admirable skill and poise to control the ball on his chest and fire a shot past Edwin van der Sar. Like modern-day King Canutes, even the regal talents of Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero could not stop the tide turning in Lazio's favour and when Pierluigi Collina blew his whistle after five agonising minutes of injury time, the cash-rich club from the capital claimed only the second scudetto in their history.
What happened next? Lazio went on to win the domestic Double when beating Inter over two legs, but the side embarked on a painful financial decline after Eriksson departed to become England's first foreign manager in 2001. Veron moved to Manchester United in a £28.1 million deal at the end of the 2000-01 season while Nedved joined him in leaving Stadio Olimpico, joining Juventus for £25 million. Juve won the title in both 2002 and 2003 although their titles of 2005 and 2006, achieved with Cannavaro in the team, were revoked due to their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal.