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Giorgio Chinaglia: The Kairdiff Kid Who Played With Pele, Partied With Sinatra . . . And Was Linked To The Mafia

Giorgio Chinaglia played for Italy at the World Cup and alongside Pele and Franz Beckenbauer at the New York Cosmos – not bad for a Cardiff schoolboy shown the door by Swansea Town. Twm Owen traces his steps from Cardiff to socialising with Sinatra and allegations of involvement with the Mafia

“Giorgio Chinaglia is Italian, speaks English with a Welsh accent and scores a lot of goals, and those are about the only positive things I can think to say about him.”

The tale of the Cardiff schoolboy who would play for Italy at the World Cup and star in New York alongside Pele may be one of the most intriguing football stories from Wales but Clive Toye’s blunt summation of Giorgio Chinaglia as a footballer and a man only raises further questions.

Englishman Toye was the general manager of the New York Cosmos the club with the mission to make America fall in love with the world’s game. With a cast that included Pele, his countryman and 1970 World Cup captain Carlos Alberto and ‘Der Kaiser’, West Germany’s World Cup winner, Franz Beckenbauer for a period in the late 1970s and early 80s it looked as if they might succeed.

But while those were stars whose best years had passed Chinaglia had only two years before signing for the Cosmos, at 29, secured Lazio its first Serie A title. He had finished 1974 as top scorer, with 24 goals, and appeared for the country of his birth at that summer’s World Cup.

But in 1976 he had wound up in America after one too many fall outs in Italy – a indication, perhaps, of that part of his character that had fuelled Toye’s comment.

A decade earlier, however, his homeland had saved his career which looked as if it may have been over before it began when he was released by Third Division Swansea Town with just one goal to his name.

A Swansea v Grimsby programme from September 1965 featuring Chinaglia in the Swans side. Credit: Gwyn Davies private collection

Chinaglia had demonstrated his scoring prowess with a hat trick for Cardiff Schools, as a 13-year-old, against Wrexham. He would also show the self-belief that would help him towards 321 goals in 525 games as a professional over 19 years when he signed for Swansea, unimpressed at only being offered a trial by Cardiff City.

Born in Carrara, Tuscany, Italy in 1947 Chinaglia had arrived in 1950s Cardiff as an eight-year-old with sister Rita.

Their father, Mario Chinaglia, and mother Giovanna, had been forced to leave post-war Italy in search of employment which Chinaglia senior found at the steelworks in Cardiff. The family of four at first lived in one room and Giorgio attended St Peter’s Primary and Lady Mary Schools in Cardiff while Mario would open his own restaurant in the city.

Author Mario Risoli first heard of Chinaglia from his Italian father who would buy sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, from a shop in a Cardiff arcade a day after publication, and subscribed to weekly sports magazine Guerin Sportivo to keep up to date with football in his homeland before the arrival of satellite television.

As a secondary school pupil in the Welsh capital in the early 1980s, Risoli was captivated by the tale of another schoolboy, from an Italian family in the city, who had played for the Azzuri at the World Cup – and that his father had a personal connection.

“Any knowledge I had about Chinaglia had come from my father, like Giorgio’s, an Italian who emigrated to the UK for work. He was one of the many Italians who patronised the ‘Bamboo Room’ – the Cardiff restaurant owned by Mario Chinaglia.

“My father worked in the hotel/restaurant business and staff from these establishments would go to Mario Chinaglia’s place after work since it stayed open late. That’s how he came to know the Chinaglia family.

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“I thought it was an incredible story – a real-life fairytale if you like,” said Risoli, who worked as a journalist and had already written the history of Wales’ unlikely 1958 World Cup campaign when in 1999 he travelled to Rome to interview Chinaglia, then an Italian TV pundit, for his biography ‘Arrivederci Swansea: The Giorgio Chinaglia Story’ published in 2000.

“Even though some people in south Wales were of aware of what happened to Chinaglia – the Cardiff-Italians who worked during the ’60s and ’70s as well as a few older Swansea fans – I felt the story did not have the recognition it deserved.

“A player who was released by Swansea where he made just six appearances, then eight years later he wins the Serie A title with Lazio, he’s top goalscorer in the league and represents his country in the World Cup. It was just remarkable.

“I follow Italian football so that was another massive pull, plus I was encouraged by the former South Wales Echo news editor, the late Stuart Minton – a wonderful man, a brilliant journalist and my mentor when I started out in journalism in the early 1990s.

“Stuart was a huge Swansea City supporter and loved talking about Giorgio. His enthusiasm for the story convinced me it would appeal to a wider audience.

“His Italian friends from south Wales days didn’t forget Chinaglia and were delighted he found fame ‘back home’. Some of his Cardiff pals, friends from the Italian community in Cardiff, kept in touch with him and went over to visit him.

“Roy Saunders, a senior player at Swansea when Giorgio was an apprentice, went to Rome to see him when he was at the height of his powers at Lazio. He was amazed Chinaglia could park his car wherever he wanted in the city and that a band in a restaurant stopped playing so they could come over and talk to him. But coverage of Italian football was non-existent so people in Cardiff had little idea of how well Chinaglia was doing in Italy.”

It was during Chinaglia’s unproductive spell at the Swans that the journalist Peter Jackson was first alerted to the young striker during a phone call he’d taken at his desk in the offices of the South Wales Echo from an irate Cardiff restauranteur.

“I may have heard vague mention of Giorgio Chinaglia but the name didn’t mean much to me until his father rang me shortly after I’d begun as the Echo’s football man in the summer of 1965,” recalled Jackson.

“Mario Chinaglia ran The Bamboo Room at the city end of Newport Road just before the railway bridge leading into Queen Street. ‘Why you no write about my boy?’ he asked in a way which suggested I hadn’t been doing my job properly. ‘Giorgio is going to be a big football star. One day he will be famous all over the world’.

“I thanked Mr Chinaglia and promptly rang the redoubtable Swansea Town manager Trevor Morris at the Vetch Field where Mario’s only son was trying to make his way as an apprentice professional. ‘Don’t talk to me about Chinaglia,’ came the reply. ‘The boy’s got a lot of talent but he won’t knuckle down’. It left the distinct impression that Morris thought the teenager more trouble than he was worth.”

Mario’s faith in his son’s star potential would eventually be justified but in Swansea it appeared his career was going nowhere.

Risoli’s biography said playing cards or chasing girls held more interest for the teenage apprentice and he would often turn up late for training – racking up so many fines he would resort to stealing milk from doorsteps near the Vetch.

The turning point in Chinaglia’s career would be the decision by Swans manager Glyn Davies to release him in 1966. The then 19-year-old, who had been working as a dishwasher at his father’s restaurant, returned to Italy where he would have to complete his national service, though in a regiment for footballers.

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“It was the making of him,” said Jackson who in 2011 travelled to Naples in Florida to interview Chinaglia for the first of his Jacko’s Sporting Almanac series for BBC Radio Wales.

Sadly, Chinaglia died aged just 65 shortly afterwards in April 2012.

While enlisted, Chinaglia was able to play for Serie C side Massese, in Tuscany, but due to having played as a professional abroad was barred from playing in Serie A for three years.

His performances earned him a move to Internapoli, in Naples and 24 goals in 66 appearances over two years convinced Lazio to bring him to Rome just three years after his release from the Swans.

“Thank God for the army,” Chinaglia told America’s Sports Illustrated in 1979: “Otherwise, I’d probably still be in Wales, slogging it out in the mud and drinking ale.”

In seven years in Rome, Chinaglia became Italy’s highest paid player but divided opinions off the pitch at Lazio and with the national team.

Chinaglia endeared himself to Lazio fans by scoring a winner against city rivals Roma but also gave a straight arm salute to the notoriously far-right ultras.

Off the field he is reported to have publicly expressed support for the fascist party Movimento Sociale Italiano that was led by one of former dictator, and Lazio supporter, Benito Mussolini’s henchmen.

Having angered the country’s various, violent political factions Chinaglia was subjected to death threats and carried a gun for his own protection.

It wasn’t uncommon for Lazio players to arm themselves at the time but while his teammates carried Walther P38 pistols the former Cardiff schoolboy was reportedly armed with a Colt 44 Magnum – the gun made famous by Clint Eastwood in the film Dirty Harry.

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At the 1974 World Cup, Chinaglia caused outrage with his angry reaction to being substituted against Haiti in the opening game as the tournament favourites struggled to break down the stubborn underdogs. Chinaglia gestured with a flick of his fingers to the Italian bench before smashing up the dressing room.

A BBC article in 2016 described Chinaglia as a “self-confessed fascist” but freelance football journalist Ross Highfield, who has also held a long fascination with the star, told the same article he wasn’t sure of his dedication to the far right: “He seems to have just enjoyed riling people.”

Risoli said it couldn’t be denied that Chinaglia divided opinions but he warmed to his subject: “I liked him. I liked the fact he spoke his mind and that he was forthright. There was no grey with Giorgio, just black and white.

“Even late on in life, he believed what he had done was right. For example, he had no regrets insulting the Italian coach, Ferruccio Valcareggi, after he was substituted in the 1974 World Cup even though that turned the Italian camp into a soap opera.

“He maintained Glyn Davies, the Swansea manager who released him in 1966, made a bad decision, even though his attitude and self-discipline when he was a young apprentice at the Vetch was hardly exemplary.

“He didn’t change his views to suit a mood or because he felt you might disagree with him. If you didn’t like his opinion then tough luck.

“I was immensely saddened by his death in 2012. It was a complete shock and – whatever you thought of him – we had lost a complete one-off. Giorgio was in his 50s when I met him but he just didn’t seem that age, if you know what I mean. He still behaved like the outspoken footballer he once was. He loved telling stories, he loved giving an opinion.”

Chinaglia’s American wife Connie, returned to the US following the World Cup, where her husband had already invested in real estate, and by ’76 he had secured a contract with Cosmos, having initially sought to buy his own franchise.

Frustrated by his critics in Italy, his distrust of the Italian federation and the country’s tax system in relation to his own business dealings, Chinaglia, who would take American citizenship, was ready to take a bite out of the Big Apple but reportedly had to be sneaked out on a private jet for fear his departure would spark a riot in Rome where he’d scored 98 goals in 209 appearances.

Once in America Chinaglia continued to enjoy riling people as is clear by Clive Toye’s dismissal of him as a goalscorer with an interesting accent.

Toye, who had in 1969 co-founded the North American Soccer League with Welshman Phil Woosnam, made the comment in the 2006 film Once In A Lifetime which told the story of the New York Cosmos.

In the documentary Toye is just one of a number of former club executives to criticise Chinaglia who was also interviewed and dismissed his detractors with a simple “I don’t give a sh*t”.

Behind many of the rows was how Chinaglia would involve himself in personnel decisions – something he had also sought to do at Lazio.

In New York he was credited with having English coach Gordon Bradley sacked for dropping him and replaced with Italian Eddie Firmani and then having Firmani fired for substituting him.

Chinaglia’s real power at the Cosmos, however, lay in his close relationship with part-owner Steve Ross, the president of Warner Communications the entertainment giant that bankrolled the star-studded club and even provided the striker, who was reported to be a millionaire, with his own office on the 19th floor of its Manhattan headquarters.

“Steve Ross, thought the world of Chinaglia,” explained Jackson: “Giorgio told us that he had two salaries – one as a Cosmos player, the other as a Warner Bros executive.”

Pele, the world’s most famous, and to many its greatest player was the marque signing of the North American Soccer League and by the end of the 70s the Cosmos were attracting crowds of up to 80,000 at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

Chinaglia would fire 193 goals in 213 appearances over seven years, helping the Cosmos to five North American Soccer Bowls in six seasons.

“The Giorgio Chinaglia story was every bit as outrageous as the man himself,” said Jackson explaining why 35 years after the Cardiff-raised striker had swapped the Biancocelesti for New York, and nearly 50 years after that phone call from Mario Chinaglia, he had flown to Florida.

“This was a kid who’d gone to school in Roath and there he was at the height of his career hob-nobbing with some of the greatest figures in America – Muhammad Ali, Henry Kissinger, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Steven Spielberg, Mick Jagger. He claimed to have been on first-name terms with them all.

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“There was a wonderfully colourful story to be told. He took some finding, in the Florida seaside resort of Naples, but readily agreed to an interview.

“We – Steve Groves, the producer of the series and lifelong Bluebirds fan, and I – met him at our hotel. He went through his life, from the early days in Cardiff to ending up as one of football’s first global rock stars.

“He told hair-raising stories, like playing rugby at St Peter’s school: ‘The Welsh boys against the foreigners. I was quite big for my age so I stood up for the immigrant kids. They stuck me in the second row but I didn’t want to end up with a pair of cauliflower ears. Football was always my game.’

“Giorgio had a big ego which helped make him the player he became but there were always rows along the way.”

At the Cosmos, Chinaglia would wear a silk gown for post-match interviews and kept a bottle of pricey whisky Chivas Regal in his locker, alongside his prized US citizenship papers.

Reporters who asked what it was like to play with the legendary Brazilian would be corrected by Chinaglia, who referred to himself in the third person, and told: “Giorgio Chinaglia is not a teammate of Pele, Pele is a teammate of Giorgio Chinaglia”.

Jackson and producer Groves – who had wanted to meet Chinaglia at his own home – “to get an idea of the kind of luxury he was living in” – had to settle on him visiting their two-star hotel. Even while dropping the names of some of the biggest stars in the world Chinaglia would pronounce Cardiff “like Kair-diff”, said Jackson.

“He could not have been more engaging or generous with his time and his memories, he relished the opportunity through Radio Wales to remind the folks back home how well he’d done.

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“The Cosmos were so big that everyone who was anyone came to see them play. Chinaglia liked telling one story in particular, about Jagger. ‘When Mick came into the dressing-room, somebody said: ‘Who’s that?’ I said: ‘Are you nuts? That’s Mick Jagger, that’s who, you moron’. That day in Naples, it was as if he was back where he’d been some 30 years earlier. ‘Mick and I got along just great. Not long after, I met him again in Bermuda when he was on his honeymoon with Jerry Hall.

‘I went to Frank Sinatra’s wedding and to one of his parties. It was great to see these statesmen, movie stars and singers watching you play’.

“Only Chinaglia could have had the nerve to tell Pele: ‘I score the goals here, not you. We didn’t do well in the previous game,’’ Giorgio said. ‘I took 18 shots at goal and five times I hit the post. I was unlucky but Pele says to me: ‘You shoot all the time.’

‘I said: ‘Yes, I shoot all the time because that’s what they pay me for. I am Chinaglia, the one and only. You shouldn’t be standing next to me. You should be out on the left side and then you will do better with some assists.”

When Chinaglia eventually retired he attempted to move into the boardroom positions he had for so long been accused of meddling with as a player.

In 1983 he returned to Italy as Lazio president – a position he held until relegation and near-bankruptcy in 1985 and included an eight month suspension for attacking a referee with an umbrella.

During the same period Ross sold, without any money being exchanged, a majority share in the Cosmos to Chinaglia but by then the promise of a successful football future in America was disappearing into financial insolvency before the league, and the club, effectively folded in 1986.

A reformed New York Cosmos was established in 2010 and had the intention of winning a franchise in Major League Soccer.

But it was in Italy the next jaw-dropping and attention grabbing twist in Chinaglia’s story took place with accusations of involvement with the Mafia – including an attempt to buy out Lazio in 2006.

Chinaglia had attempted to buy Serie C side US Foggia in 2004 but the sale was thwarted in light of money laundering allegations which resurfaced two years later when Chinaglia was a figurehead for a proposed take over of Lazio. It was reported the takeover was a front for the Mafia.

Arrests were made in Rome and a warrant issued for Chinaglia’s arrest which meant even at the time of his death in 2012 he had refused to return to the land of his birth for fear of arrest over the allegations which he had denied.

During his sit down with Chinaglia in 2011, Jackson raised the issue of him being a wanted man.

“At that stage he was wanted by the police in Italy over allegations of money laundering. I didn’t want to ask him about it straight away for fear he might walk off but he answered with typical bravado: ‘Huh. You found me without any problem so why can’t they?’”

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As ever with Chinaglia there was still some intrigue and some of what the man behind one of football’s most remarkable stories told Jackson wouldn’t be resolved until he passed away the following year.

“At that time he was working for a satellite soccer station based in New York and very pleased that some of the greats of the game valued his opinion. ‘I speak to Sir Alex (Ferguson) all the time. He’s a good friend, so is Bobby Charlton. Jose (Mourinho) rings me up.’

“We thought that might have been a bit suspicious but when he died they all paid tribute to him and we could see it was the truth.”

 

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