By Paul Gardner
Which Giorgio? The Giorgio I enjoyed being with, the easy-going one with the boyish smile and the sense of humor? Or the Giorgio I admired, the goal-scorer, the player who could always be relied upon to liven up any game because, with him on the field, the thought of a dour defensive struggle seemed impossible? Or the darker Giorgio, still the smiling schoolboy, but one who carried the lurking menace of the schoolyard bully?
When Chinaglia arrived in New York, I got the second interview. I waited in a sidewalk cafe on 6th Avenue, while, many floors above, he went through a session with RAI, Italian television. Plenty of time for me to ponder what his arrival meant for the Cosmos -- simply more goals, I thought. It was to mean a hell of a lot more than that, but in ways that I never dreamed of.
There was a huge hint in that first interview, one that I did not grasp, not until much later. During our rambling interview, Chinaglia recounted his life as an Italian boy growing up in Wales -- not easy, you could tell. It had clearly left him with something of a chip on his shoulder as far as Brits were concerned -- a feeling that increased when he couldn’t find a British club who wanted to sign him as a youngster. He had to return to Italy for his talents to be recognized.
He took back to Italy his heavily Welsh-inflected English and it was in that accented speech that he told me several times, with increasing emphasis, that he was a close friend of Steve Ross.
I thought that unlikely. Friend -- from where? That was the first I’d heard of it, and I dismissed it as, well, as name-dropping. I was really much more interested in Chinaglia the player -- so we talked mostly about his career, how he would fit in with Pele and so on. And that satisfied me.
That was in May 1976. Shortly afterwards, Chinaglia played his first game for the Cosmos at Yankee Stadium, a 6-0 rout of the Los Angeles Aztecs. Chinaglia got two goals, Pele got a couple as well, and things looked great.
But not for long. While Chinaglia went on scoring, there was chaos in the front office -- much of it, we learned, fomented by Chinaglia. His anti-Brit bias was working overtime as first Coach Gordon Bradley was fired (replaced by the South African-Italian Eddie Firmani), followed by the ouster of GM Clive Toye, the man largely responsible for the creation of the Cosmos.
Clearly, Chinaglia did have exceptional influence within the club -- something that would be underlined in a most unpleasant way, when, during a practice session, Chinaglia delivered a powerful punch to the face of teammate Julio Cesar Romero. Any doubts about Chinaglia’s power were erased, because nothing was done about the incident, Chinaglia was not fined or suspended and, perhaps more significantly, the other Cosmos players never uttered a peep of protest.
Colleague David Hirshey, then writing for the New York Daily News, called Chinaglia “the only playing general manager in the league” and that was about the measure of it.
But the amazing goal-scoring went on, and that was what I focused on, which meant I continued to see Giorgio in a totally positive light. Giorgio told me, “To me, a 0-0 game is always boring, even if it’s a great game,” and that was the way I felt about things. And still do.
With Giorgio around, there weren’t many 0-0 games. His amazing record of 242 goals in 254 games saw to that. I can recall only one shouting match with Giorgio -- after a 1979 game in which he did not score. The Cosmos locker room was in a self-congratulatory mood, even though they’d just lost a game, 1-0, to Argentina. But the Cosmos had played, I thought, a negative, defensive game -- which was not at all their style. Maybe, if they’d been their usual attacking selves, they could have beaten Argentina. So why, I asked Giorgio, were they celebrating?
Giorgio yelled at me, told me I should shut up, that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that holding the world champions to just one goal (it was scored very late in the game) was a huge achievement, and I ought to know that. And so on.
The following year came an amazing game at Giants Stadium, with the scoreline Cosmos 8 Tulsa 1. Giorgio got seven of the Cosmos goals. I’ll stick by what I wrote at the time: “Those seven goals against Tulsa -- none of them, as it happens, particularly memorable or brilliant, but all of them dispatched so quickly, so cleanly, so mercilessly -- are a true measure of Giorgio’s precious ability to put the ball in the net.”
There were darker days to come for Giorgio, when he retired and tried to make a splash at the owner/impresario level. That was never going to work at the Cosmos, which was a dead duck before Giorgio, briefly, took over. But maybe things would go better in Italy, with his old club Lazio. They didn’t. His role in an attempt to buy the club ended up in the law courts, with accusations of laundered money and Camorra involvement.
What, in the end, to make of this conflicted man, so brilliant on the field, so harried by his inner demons off it? A man who craved, and for a short while, got, power. But that ended when the Cosmos collapsed. After that, the Chinaglia that I liked and admired, was just a memory.
But I’ll stick with that memory, the boyish smile, the extraordinary goal-scoring that I admired and that made so many people happy.
But not everyone, of course. It was never within Chinaglia’s ability, maybe not within his wish, to please everyone. There was always a group who booed him, whatever he did (“ethnic idiots,” Chinaglia called them). But that was Giorgio, or the various Giorgios struggling within this turbulent man. It was Giorgio with his inner demons. And I still have no idea how to separate them, or whether it’s even possible. Ciao, Giorgio -- sogni d’oro.