It has been decades since the Lazio beat Spanish side Real Mallorca in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in Birmingham to win their first, and so far their only, major continental title.
That final at Villa Park also marked the 39th and final edition of the tournament, which was thereafter absorbed into an expanded UEFA Cup/Europa League.
Lazio’s triumph was also one of the first instances of the now common phenomenon of suddenly rich clubs, those with scant history, using their new-found financial muscle to buy success, and subsequently create a higher profile.
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In many ways it was Lazio that set the precedent.
A little over a decade before the Russian oligarchs and moneyed men from other nations with bloated ambition but little in terms of footballing history set out on a quest to use their financial muscle to achieve, rather ‘buy’ sporting success, it was this Roman club that had set the tone.
What the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris-Saint Germain have been doing since the turn of the millennium, Rome’s second club did so successfully in the last decade of the previous century. Till the arrival of Sergio Cragnotti in the early 1990s Lazio was a little known Italian club, with limited achievements. One Coppa Italia title in 1958 and a Scudetto in 1974 are anything but impressive for a club that had been in existence for 90 plus years, definitely not enough credentials to garner publicity and consequently, a higher profile.
The Italian entrepreneur, who coincidentally shares his birthday (January 9) with the club’s (foundation day) – whose fortunes he turned around, had grand plans. With significant and long-term investments he aimed to convert Lazio into a winning outfit. “The diversification of activities, merchandising, marketing: all of which we said as early as 1996. Our ideas were too innovative for that time. We were the first…the Federcalcio [Italian Federation] did not understand and rejected our plan. Today they all do it, starting twenty years ago could have increased the turnover of the football clubs,” Cragnotti said in a rare interview to Italian newspaper Il Tempo a few years back.
The initial years of his decade-long ownership of the club was palpably about making statements, not on the pitch but off it. Consequently, there were a slew of high profile signings early on. Temperamental Englishman Paul Gascoigne came and left after what wasn’t exactly a very successful spell, and that is putting it mildly. Ditto for Alen Bokšić. The Croat’s first spell in Rome (1993-1996) wasn’t exactly memorable. However, after a solitary season at Juventus he did return to Lazio for a second stint, a more mature and complete player.
By then things had changed for the better in Rome. Lazio’s results had improved. The Biancocelesti finished second (behind Juventus) in the Italian league in the 1994-95 season. In the following two seasons they placed third and fourth respectively. With talented academy graduates like Alessandro Nesta and gradual acquisitions like Matías Almeyda, Pavel Nedvěd, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Roberto Mancini and Vladimir Jugović to name a few, Cragnotti had not only managed to improve the club’s profile off the field, but also on it with there being a visible consistency of results – even if it was yet to translate into something tangible.
Bokšić’s return coincided with the appointment of a high profile manager. Sven-Goran Eriksson had made a name for himself not by managing behemoths like Real Madrid and AC Milan but by achieving success with second rung clubs like IFK Göteborg and Benfica.
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The 1997-98 season was seminal in more ways than one. While Lazio could only finish seventh in the league, that disappointment was camouflaged with a 3-2 aggregate win over AC Milan in the Coppa Italia final. Besides, there was an impressive run to the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) final – the club’s maiden European final. In what was the first single-legged final in the tournament Lazio took on another Italian side Inter Milan at the Parc des Princes in Paris.
While it was a momentous occasion for the Roman club, it was one that ended in an anti-climax. Facing an experienced Inter side that included the likes of Ronaldo, Iván Zamorano, Diego Simeone, Javier Zanetti and Aron Winter among others, Lazio failed to put up a semblance of a fight, being at the receiving end of a 3-0 score line. Eriksson’s side had been good, but not good enough to cross the final hurdle. On the contrary, that Inter Milan side had used their European experience – at that point they had won both the European Cup/Champions League [1964 & 1965] and UEFA Cup [1991 & 1994] twice each – and pedigrees to an equal measure to score a comprehensive 3-0 win.
Experience comes with time but the veteran Swede was quick to realize the need for reinforcements, to improve his side’s overall quality. In came the likes of Dejan Stanković, Fernando Couto, Sérgio Conceição, Siniša Mihajlović and Marcelo Salas. The high profile acquisition was that of the prolific Christian Vieri from Atletico Madrid. He had not only won the Pichichi Trophy as the highest scorer in Spanish League in the 1997-98 season but had also been the most impressive Italian player in the World Cup in France. Vieri was the final piece in the puzzle.
With what World Soccer Magazine labeled “the most expensive team in history” Eriksson was ready to mount another serious challenge. The seventh place finish of the previous season coupled with their Coppa Italia triumph meant that Lazio had to play in the European Cup Winners’ Cup that season. If one takes a cursory glance at that tournament’s draw now, the initial feeling would be that Lazio definitely didn’t have to break much sweat. The reality was altogether different. The Roman club made a mess of seemingly innocuous fixtures and found the going tough in all but one round. To their credit they held on.
The aggregate score was 3-3 after the two legs, but away goals ensured safe passage against Swiss club Lausanne-Sport in the opening round. A 3-2 away win, that followed a stalemate in Rome, meant Partizan Belgrade was accounted for in the second round. The quarter-final tie was by far their easiest as Greek side Panionios were struggling to make any sort of impact. Lazio won 7-0 on aggregate. However, they made it difficult again in the last four, getting it past Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow on away goals, after two tough legs.
Waiting for them in the decider at Birmingham was Spanish side Real Mallorca. The side managed by Héctor Cúper had accounted for defending champions Chelsea in the semi-finals, and it was least surprising when Dani cancelled out Vieri’s opener in quick time. The next 70 minutes was a battle of attrition with no side willing to give an inch. Then Nedvěd slammed a right-footed volley past a diving Carlos Roa to give the Italians the lead against the run of play. Eriksson’s side held on to become the sixth Italian club to win the tournament.
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It was Lazio’s first major European title, and coincidentally came in the 39th and last edition of the Cup Winners’ Cup. It is sheer coincidence that just like the first edition of the tournament (1960-61) had seen an Italian side (Fiorentina) emerge champions, the final match in the competition witnessed the trophy finding its way back to Italy.
It’s been several years since then. Lazio, though they beat Manchester United in the UEFA Super Cup that season, have over the years not only failed to mount a serious challenge in Europe but also in the Italian league. In the interim period they have struggled from a host of off the field issues like financial problems and exclusion from European competitions – in the 2006-07 season, as punishment for their role in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. The club’s financial problems forced the sale of their prized acquisitions. Some, like academy graduate Nesta, were emotionally attached to the club and didn’t want to leave, but were forced to given the situation.
“I grew up at Lazio, ever since I was eight years old. I went through the whole youth system, I got to the first team and I became captain at a very young age. That was a very important milestone for me, after that I’d say the Scudetto.” Nesta was quoted speaking to DAZN. “I didn’t want to leave, the year before I’d turned down some big clubs but then I realized I’d have to go.”
There were others who put reason ahead of emotion. “I left Lazio because I felt it was time for a change.” Diego Simeone has been quoted in the media. The current Atletico Madrid manager played for the Roman club between 1999 and 2003, winning his career’s lone Scudetto in that period. “I think that in life it is best to leave a place on your own decision rather than be forced out.” added the Argentinian, who has also been quoted of harbouring ambitions of coaching Lazio one day. Simeone also has hopes of managing Inter one day. Given a choice which club he will opt for is any body’s guess. And that explains the reality of Lazio.
Cragnotti’s initial ambition, and subsequent realization, is now part of Roman legacy. But that ambition is long gone. The reverberations from the Curva Nord aren’t as intense as they used to be. The other teams don’t see the Rome club as a threat these days, which was the case in the late 1990s. Only the vestiges remain. In fact, for the most fervent among the Irriducibili – one of the most famous ultra-groups in Italy, there will always be ‘only one president’. With him long gone the club these days is evidently content with mid-table finishes and sporadic successes in domestic cup competitions, their seventh Coppa Italia triumph came in the 2018-19 season at the expense of Atalanta.
Entrepreneur Claudio Lotito, the club’s owner for the past 15 years, has ensured stability but probably lacks the ambition and resources to restore the club’s glory days. “Today though Lazio is a healthy and well-organised club, President [Claudio] Lotito has done a good job, even though he’s challenged sometimes.” observed Nesta. When Cragnotti was asked during the course of that interview with Il Tempo as to what was amiss in the present Lazio side, his response was an apt summation.
“A project. I have to explain it clearly; Lotito cannot live in alternate phases. For now he has built a team of average value but it must be improved if we want to compete internationally. When you think big you have to do great things,” said that main who had masterminded the club’s rise in Italy and in Europe. “At that time we were the number one team in the world, (Alex) Ferguson also said it.” boasted Cragnotti.
In fact if Eriksson is to be believed, that Cup Winners’ Cup winning Lazio side was capable of winning much more, even the Champions League. “At Lazio I had a very strong team made up of players with personality and technique, it was the team of dreams,” the ex-England boss was quoted in the Corriere dello Sport. “We could have also won the Champions League. We won seven trophies in three years; I don’t think that’s a small thing. We were at the top of world football.” added the Swede.
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The closest Lazio came to winning Europe’s Premier club competition was in the 1999-2000 season, one that also saw them win their second, and till date the last, Serie A title. That season Eriksson’s team, having topped a group featuring three formidable sides in Chelsea, Feyenoord and Olympique Marseille, reached the last eight stages before coming up short against Valencia.
That was then. Lazio hasn’t featured in the Champions League for years. An ambitious bunch of clubs, that took a leaf out of the Rome club’s book, have done a lot better. It is sheer irony that the substantial rise of profile of this handful of clubs happened to coincide with Lazio’s gradual decline.