Every child has heroes growing up. One of mine was Italian soccer star Giorgio Chinaglia, who died Sunday April 1, at his home in Naples, Florida.
Many people in this country remember Chinaglia for his scoring prowess as a New York Cosmos player from 1976 to 1983. But Chinaglia was already one of my heroes before he ever put on a Cosmos jersey.
I first heard of Giorgio Chinaglia when I was 7 years old. My family had just moved to Rome, Italy. And there was this professional soccer team called Lazio that had just come out of nowhere to become one of the best in Italy. Chinaglia was its larger-than-life leader, and a shoe-in for becoming my hero.
As a very young outsider in Italy, I was pleased to learn that Chinaglia was sort of an outsider, too. He was the son of immigrants who left Italy for a new life in Wales when Chinaglia was just a boy. I could definitely relate to that. Of course, it also helped that my new hero and his Lazio team were scoring lots of goals and winning lots of games at the time. I can honestly say that the day they won Italy’s national soccer championship in 1974 was one of the happiest moments of my young life.
I know, I sound like a Cubs fan or something. Little did I know back in the 70′s that I was signing up for a lifetime of ups and downs (mostly downs) supporting a team that seems to always fall apart at key moments of the season.
My adoration of Chinaglia didn’t last long. His fall from hero status began right after that championship season in 1974. Chinaglia was part of the Italy National Team that traveled to West Germany for the 1974 World Cup.
The team struggled, and in one game Chinaglia was substituted by the coach. My hero wasn’t happy. I watched on my little black and white TV set (color came much later to Italian TV) as Chinaglia stormed off the field, while very publicly telling the coach where to go (a rude hand gesture was involved).
I tried to forgive him, with all the earnestness of a 9-year-old fan. But things were never the same for Chinaglia after that. Exiled from the national team, he still gave his all for Lazio. But the team declined and was never able to recapture the magic (at least not for another 26 years).
Then in 1976, Chinaglia stunned me and all Lazio fans by announcing he was leaving to play soccer in the United States. This was at a time when most foreign players in the US were more than likely already over the hill (sorry, Pelé, just saying). Chinaglia was definitely not over the hill yet. To me, it was a betrayal. I still remember thinking in disgust, “He did it for the money!”
I only realized much later that maybe coming to America to play soccer was a challenge that Giorgio Chinaglia couldn’t resist. Yes, he made a lot of money. But I think he also felt that he had nothing left to prove in Italy anyway.
He wanted a bigger stage, and perhaps to prove that he was better than Pelé and all the other stars who were hired to transform soccer in the US into a major sport. Chinaglia did have a huge ego, but he backed it up with goals on the soccer field. He was by far the all-time leading scorer in the old North American Soccer League (NASL), with 243 goals in 256 games.
Now, I’m not arguing Chinaglia was better than Pelé. But I did notice one thing: in remembering Chinaglia on the Cosmos website yesterday, the club called him “the New York Cosmos’ greatest player ever.”