Football in the ’70s was revolutionary. Rinus Michels, the fantastic Dutch coach was showcasing his early version of the ever-developing football theory ‘Total Football’. Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola, FC Barcelona, Ajax and the Netherlands being the other names, clubs and countries everyone instantly associates with Total Football. Of course, many others relate to the beliefs and tactics (see my earlier piece on Vic Buckingham). What about Italian football though? The defensive nation, who started the 70s by losing a World Cup final, beaten by the great Brazilians. The mid-70s will be the focus of this story, the armed and dangerous Lazio team that quite literally fired their way to winning the Scudetto, a miracle that was mainly thanks to their subtle but extremely intelligent coach Tommaso Maestrelli and his version of ‘Total Football’.
Maestrelli The Footballer
Maestrelli was born in Pisa in 1922. The son of an employee of the Italian State Railways meant he moved around the country a lot before settling in Bari, this would be where he first signed for a professional football team. He played as a midfielder and his coach at Bari, the Hungarian Jósef Ging gave Maestrelli his debut at the age of just 16. Maestrelli played mostly for Bari but he did earn a move to Roma in 1948 which ended in disaster. This was and still is the worst period in history for AS Roma which ended in the only relegation in the club’s history.
Maestrelli avoided being relegated with AS Roma as he was sold to Lucchese, this would be his first taste of the dugout, as he covered the role of player-coach before moving back to Bari to end his playing career. He became the manager of Bari after being promoted from assistant after the departure of Pietro Magni. He didn’t last long as interim manager of Bari. However, he was granted an opportunity to showcase his coaching talent when AS Reggina (now Reggina 1914) hired him as their manager in Serie C.
He done more than just showcase his talent, he wrote history. Winning promotion for the first time to Serie B for the club in 1965. The year after Reggina could remarkably touch promotion to Serie A but lost out at the final hurdle to Lecco, just from looking back at results from his early years in management its clear that Maestrelli preferred front-foot attacking football. His talent was undeniable at this point in the lower leagues and in 1968 he decided to move to Foggia to see if he could challenge for a place in Serie A.
Becoming A Manager
Foggia were playing in Serie B at the time, Lazio were also looking to gain promotion back to the top flight in Italy. This meant that Maestrelli’s first game in his future home the Stadio Olimpico was as Foggia manager and maybe this was when the Lazio board decided that one day he would be their man. The 1968-69 season was very much an experimental season for Maestrelli, in which he first displayed his revolutionary and continental tactics.
Looking in more detail at the Lazio game on the 29th December 1968, this was a game that Lazio were looking to comfortably win. The first half was quick-paced but was very much a typical Italian game in those days where both teams marked very tightly. Despite a couple of penalty claims from Lazio, there was very little between the sides at half time. The second half is another story, Foggia came out flying and caught the Lazio players cold with a stunning counter-attack. A clear demonstration of Maestrelli’s tactical nouse as this would be a clear trend throughout his career. His teams would often go in at half time either behind or drawing and then go on to win or at worst draw. Amazingly Foggia found themselves 1-0 up in the Olimpico but they didn’t stop there another and doubled their advantage. Only to be pegged back by two late Lazio goals.
Foggia missed out on promotion but there was a few moments to savour from his debut season at the Apulian team. Like the 4-0 win in the derby against Bari, again another game tied at 0-0 at half time, some tinkering from Maestrelli and their attacking, flowing football prevailed. A great run in the Italian Cup was halted by the defeat by AS Roma in the final game. (The Copa Italia was played as a group stage then quarter-finals and a final group to determine the winner.)
After this first season of tampering and acclimatisation in the 1969-70 season Maestrelli would finally win promotion to Serie A as a coach. Winning the title with Foggia beating Livorno 3-1 on the final day. In the first half of the season, Foggia were a revaluation, lighting up the league with their impressive attacking football, he played with an ever changing formation which was based on getting the best out the players he had. Maestrelli was certainly one of the first exponents of ‘total football’.
Training his squad that they all could be attackers, sparing only the goalkeeper and two central defenders. Dutch scouts who were working on similar tactics in the early ’70s requested to watch some of his training sessions. If the draw in the Olimpico two years earlier made the Lazio chiefs take note of Tommaso Maestrelli, then the meeting of the two teams on December 13, 1970, in Serie A made them draw up his contract. This time on home soil, Foggia tore Lazio to shreds winning 5-2. Unfortunately in the second half of the campaign results started to go downhill and Foggia were relegated on goal difference having only lost one game at home all season.
Lazio were also relegated that season, Maestrelli moved to Lazio that summer and was handed the task of gaining promotion back to Serie A. His first demand as manager was that the club did everything to keep striker Giorgio Chinaglia and defender Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Wilson at the club. Apart from his revolutionary tactical approach, what was also fascinating about Maestrelli was his taciturnity. Tobias Jones in his book ‘Ultra’ describes how Maestrelli’s character often disguised profound values, in his first speech as Lazio coach he supposedly said to his players “I will speak little and that little will be seen to be a lot… We will love one another and avoid any misunderstanding. I consider loyalty the best gift given on this planet. We will grow together.” He was a very mild-mannered person, a father figure to his players and would often invite his players to his house for meals. Chinaglia and Wilson had committed to staying and Maestrelli signed Luciano Re Cecconi from his former team Foggia, these three would make up the spine of his Lazio team, who won promotion back to Serie A at the first time of asking.
The Years Of Lead
The tragic bombing in Milan that left 17 dead and over 80 injured in 1969 and further bombs were found in Milan’s central train station and business quarters, meanwhile explosions caused pandemonium in the capital, Rome. Italy was in the midst of what is now known as the ‘Years of Lead’ a name referring to the number of bullets that would riddle the country over the next decade. After the death of Benito Mussolini, Italy provided the USA with a perfect opportunity to build a relationship, the US was looking to forge and capitalise on countries struggling within the shadow of the Iron Curtain. For Italians, this new relationship brought a surge in industrialisation due to the demand for large and cheap labour which saw the countries economy grow at a rapid proportion.
Cheap housing projects were built on the outskirts of the cities to house families who were looking for a better future however this rapid growth was the spark that caused the ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969. Trade unions obtained unbeatable power across the country as workers demanded better working conditions and pay to match, the strikes and marches nearly brought the country to a standstill. Extreme left and right-wing political groups saw a way to influence the population by any means necessary, both sides with anarchistic tendencies looked to cause chaos and destruction.
‘The Years of Lead’ would be the perfect era for Maestrelli’s gun-toting, parachute loving self-declared fascists Lazio team, they were armed and very dangerous. Football was the only constant in a torn country, it would give everyone a sense of relief every Sunday when it was game day, almost like a day off from the chaos the country was going through. Considering Maestrelli’s calm persona it’s astonishing just how much he achieved with this gang of absolute nutters. They fought opposing teams on and off the field, most famously clashing with the Arsenal team outside a restaurant in Rome in 1970 after a European fixture where the Lazio players gifted the Arsenal squad with leather purses, the Lazio players took great offence at the lack of gratitude shown by the Arsenal players for their gift, that they ignited a mass brawl that spilt out onto the street and Arsenal’s Frank McLintock describing it as like “something out of the wild-west”.
Lazio – Armed And Dangerous
Maestrelli didn’t just have to worry about the discipline of his players towards the opposition, they frequently fought amongst themselves. The players were so divided that they changed in separate dressing rooms and any infringement of the territory of the other would often end in violence as John Foot describes in his amazing book on the history of Italian football “Calcio”. Training sessions would often include a training game between the two dressing rooms, these games are said to at times go on until late into the night until one team won, players were told to wear shin guards during these games and they all did, some of whom wouldn’t even wear them for games in Serie A. Usually, the team that included Giorgio Chinaglia, the man often at the centre of the chaos.
Chinaglia was born in Italy but raised in Wales when his father secured a job in steel-producing in the city of Swansea. A lot has been written on the man nicknamed ‘Long John’, with clear talent on the pitch with his big frame and ferocious strike, his goals were at the centre of the success that Lazio was enduring, he was named Lazio’s greatest ever player in 2000, they loved him. He didn’t receive the same love from the left-wing thanks to his open admiration of right-wing politicians at the time, although he was probably not even a real fascist after all one of his favourite past-times was to wind people up. No wonder he didn’t let the training games finish until he won, maybe Donald Trump is a fan of Chinaglia. On the pitch he harassed opposing teams, screamed at referees, attacked his players for not passing to him, he once ran after and kicked teammate D’Amico up the backside at the San Siro after an on-field dispute, he always provoked the crowd. Maestrelli was like a father to him, he would often stay at Maestrelli’s house and would always run over to him on the bench whenever he scored to embrace his manager.
Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Wilson, the rugged, often dirty defender that Maestrelli made his sweeper or libero was just as important as Chinaglia. He never missed a single league game from 1971-1975 and as captain was the linchpin of the title-winning side in 1974. Wilson was born in Darlington, a lot less famous than the other ‘Anglo-Italian’. His parents met in Naples during the war but he was born in County Durham, however, shortly after they moved back to Naples and never returned to the North East of England. He changed in and helped lead the dressing room of Chinaglia’s clan but was ‘allied’ with the other group.
Perhaps the greatest student of Maestrelli’s ‘Total Football’ was the very blonde, tall and gangly central midfielder, Luciano Re Cecconi who flitted between the two dressing rooms. A real character in his own right, the only player who never carried a gun, he declared he knew nothing about politics however he was seen as a fascist, mainly due to his love of parachute-jumping (seen in Italy at the time as a right-wing pastime). On the pitch, he was the link, from Pino’s solid defending and Chinaglia’s devastating finishing. He was brought to the club by Maestrelli, from former club Foggia, upon their arrival back into Serie A in the 1972-73 season.
Going off the prototype formation that Rinus Michels used to play his ‘Total Football’, Re Cecconi was effectively played as the number 4, the player in front of the defence but not to just retain the ball but also to carry it forward, dragging his team up the pitch. Maestrelli also played with two wingers Pierpaolo Manservisi on the left and Luigi Martini on the right, wingers that would also act as full-backs if needed but Maestrelli, as mentioned earlier, wanted all his players to attack as much as possible. Mario Frustalupi would be the director in the midfield acting like how Michels would want his number 4’s to play but Frustalupi would push higher and act as the final link to the attacking midfielder Franco Nanni.
More of a 1-3-3-3 formation into a 2-3-4 when attacking, rather than the 4-3-3 associated with ’Total Football’. In his first season in the top flight with Lazio, Maestrelli adjusted the midfield a lot from his promotion team the season before but what brought them the most success was that he had built the best defence in the league. Only conceding 16 goals all season, the signing of Felice Pulici as goalkeeper helped this happen.
Chinaglia was partnered upfront by Renzo Garlaschelli for what would be a remarkable first season back in Serie A. Going into the final day Lazio and Juventus were a point behind leaders A.C Milan, who were beaten on the final day by Hellas Verona 5-3. Unfortunately, Lazio were also defeated in their game against Napoli losing 1-0. Handing the title to Juventus, nonetheless, it was an unbelievable achievement by Maestrelli’s men having just been promoted, although the following season would provide an even bigger miracle.
Gunning For The Title
Before home games, the Lazio squad used to stay at the L’Americana hotel, situated in the countryside around 5 miles out of Rome. ‘The team would shoot at things all the time’ according to Franco Nanni. With real guns and real bullets, lampposts, birds, bins, each other and as John Foot declares in the book ‘Calcio’, some Roma fans who had come to keep them up before a derby game to keep them awake even got shot at. On one occasion before an away game the pilot refused to take off until all the players had left their guns behind, leaving them to pick up later. Usually, though all the guns would be handed to the captain before boarding and placed in a bag. The defender Sergio Petrelli, claims he once shot out a light in his hotel room as he couldn’t be bothered to turn it off. Most of the protagonists now admit that their hobby, at times went too far but at the time they had great fun. I’m guessing not the unnamed player who’s was on the end of a joke which ended in a shot being fired between his legs while he was in his hotel bed.
The 1973-74 season followed pretty much the same path as the season before, Lazio again boasted the best defence in the league and finished on the same number of points. However this season their rivals fell away and Lazio were crowned champions of Italy. Maestrelli had completed his masterpiece. His ability to get this bunch of maniacs, who hated one another, dressed in separate changing rooms to galvanise together every Sunday and along with the fans come together and conquer Serie A was just remarkable. One game that underlined this great talent was a game at home against Verona. Losing 2-1 at half-time, when heading down the tunnel Chinaglia was winding up one of his famous rants but the team was met by Maestrelli who blocked the entrance to the changing rooms. Maestrelli simply said ‘back on the field’. The players listened to their manager and headed straight back out on the pitch and took up their positions. The crowd started going mad and by the time Verona appeared over 10 minutes had elapsed and the Olympico was a wall of sound. Lazio won the game 4-2.
It was fitting that Lazio were crowned champions on the penultimate day, at home against Foggia. A Chinaglia penalty hammered home like all the other 24 league goals he managed that campaign. The season’s only blip came during their UEFA Cup game against Sir Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town. Just as the Arsenal game in 1970, it ended in a mass brawl. This time however it broke out on the pitch, during the game and spilt into the dressing rooms. It was inexcusable violence in which bizarrely Chinaglia even ended up becoming peacemaker and was the only one who Robson said could be excused. Robson described the rest of the squad as animals and savages who ‘If any of my players had acted even fractionally like that they would never be allowed even to wear the shirt of Ipswich’s youth team’. Ipswich won the first leg in England 4-0. In the second leg, Lazio went 2-0 up after only half an hour, in the 75th minute Ipswich were given a dubious penalty and scored. At this point the game turned very sour, objects were thrown on the pitch by the Lazio fans, they were then picked up by the Lazio players and thrown at the Ipswich players. Lazio scored a further two goals but when Ipswich broke away and scored a second, anything that remained of a civil game of football had gone. At the final whistle, the Ipswich players ran for their dressing room to lock themselves in being kicked and punched by the nearest Lazio player. Punches were thrown at the referee and the police guarded the Ipswich dressing room until it was safe to leave, an hour later.
A Truly Tragic Ending
Banned from the European Cup for the chaos in the Ipswich game, Maestrellis focus was fully on defending their Scudetto title in 1974-75. Lazio started fantastically and were looking like making it a successful defence of their title. However, in March 1975, less than a year after winning the title Maestrelli discovered that he had terminal liver cancer. He left his post as manager immediately and was replaced by Roberto Lovati. The effect on the team was immediate and they lost the first game without their manager 5-1 at home. Lazio ended up slumping down to 4th as Juventus won the league.
For a time it looked like Maestrelli might recover but by the time the 1975-76 season had begun he was still hospitalised and despite a late improvement on his health initially, tragically Tommaso Maestrelli died on the 2nd of December 1976. Most of the best players had already been sold by this point and Lazio finished 4th from the bottom but more tragedy would strike in January 1977. Re Cecconi as mentioned earlier loved to play pranks and jokes. Cecconi and two friends including Piero Ghedin (also a Lazio player) were shopping not far from the centre of Rome. While looking in a jewellers store Re Cecconi with his hands in his pocket thought it would be a good idea to jokingly shout ‘Stop, this is a robbery”. The shopkeeper, Bruno Tabocchini had his back to the three men but instantly drew for his shotgun. At first, he pointed it at Ghedin, who instantly raised his hands. Then towards Re Cecconi who did not. The jeweller shot him, from close range. As he slumped to the ground Re Cecconi muttered ‘It’s a joke, it’s a joke’. Re Cecconi left a wife and two small children. He died just 47 days after carrying the coffin of Maestrelli, the man who transformed his career from his time at Foggia to becoming a champion of Italy.
Maestrelli’s success on the pitch was down to his fabulously attacking ‘Total Football’ style of play. He shared the beliefs of the great Rinus Michels and those that have followed him, for example, Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola and Louis Van Gaal. They have all created fabulous teams, often record-breaking in stats and trophies, producing fabulous players that symbolised their sides. What makes Maestrelli different however is that the others used ‘Total Football’ and its theory as the core of their teams. Players who didn’t fit the style were not included no matter their talent, players with the wrong attitude were also cast aside. Maestrelli never had this luxury and he used his fantastic man-management skills to nurture his crazy player’s ego’s, hobbies and attitudes to not only get them to perform but to carry out the most physically demanding and mentally challenging brand of football, something a lot more comparable to the great Englishman Vic Buckingham.
The success of his Lazio side was of course down to his players and their performances but I think you can confidently say without Maestrelli at the helm there is no way they would’ve won the Scudetto, who knows they may have ended up trapped in Serie B for several years. This is backed up by their dramatic slump once Maestrellis illness forced him away from the dugout. Who knows what else Tommaso Maestrelli could’ve done for the game if he didn’t so tragically pass away, although he should never be forgotten for what he did manage. Bringing success to every team he coached, working his way up through the leagues and winning them all along the way. A fantastic manager, coach and friend. A legend and a pioneer of ‘Total Football’ that we all should celebrate