April 1, 2012


Lighting Up the Cosmos (DIANE ACKERMAN, 5/31/81, NY Times Book Review)

Throughout his career, Chinaglia has had a way of overloading the circuits of already jumpy soccer fans. In Italy, where he played with the prestigious Lazio team of Rome, he became one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the game. He was a sparkling forward with a percussive right foot, a cat burglar's agility and an uncanny instinct for where the ball and players were at any moment; he also had a reputation for going berserk when he scored.

When Chinaglia led the club out of a slump and into the Italian championship of 1973-74, he was devoured by paparazzi. Chinaglia entered the bloodstream of every Italian's life. ''I can't explain what it was like,'' he has said. ''There are 52 million people in Italy, and 48 million could recognize me on the street. When they needed news, they quoted me on the front page of the papers.''

In 1976, during the expansionist days of the youthful North American Soccer League (N.A.S.L.), Chinaglia joined the Cosmos at the age of 29, still in his prime. In those days, the Cosmos were trying to build an audience for soccer by ransacking the world for topflight players who they hoped would appeal to New York's large and varied ethnic populations. Pele, the extraordinary Brazilian, was the team's main drawing card; then Chinaglia arrived, and the dazzling Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany and Carlos Alberto of Brazil - legends all.

In no time, Chinaglia was making news again, both with his explosive play and his impenitent candor. Insuring himself the wrath of soccer fans the world over, he declared that Pele, one of the most beloved figures in all sports, was ''not playing on all cylinders.'' From that comment on, nothing Chinaglia said or did was considered neutral. There were reports of inappropriate hand gestures during a game, a ruckus in the bleachers with the ground crew at Giants Stadium. He was depicted as a sophisticated tough who precipitated trouble just as inevitably as glass condenses water. Comfortable in both the boardroom and the locker room, Chinaglia had a cozy relationship with the executives of Warner Communications, owners of the Cosmos, that became a source of deep suspicion among players and fans alike; like an unofficial player-manager, Chinaglia has long been thought to have a hand in who got hired, who got fired, who stayed and who played. [...]

In Italy, Chinaglia had a history, an aura; but in this country, he has had to invent himself with each game, a challenge that seems both to alarm and renew him. He is the by far the league's leading scorer, ending last season with 126 goals, and he got the fastest start in the league this season, averaging one and a half goals in the team's first 10 games. And fans still flock to Giants Stadium for the chance to publicly adore and revile him. Giorgio Chinaglia (kee-NAL-ya) is not built like most soccer players, who need bellows for lungs and legs so thoroughly developed that each muscle stands out like a clove of garlic. At 6 feet 1 inch, he is tall for a game in which height is not necessarily an advantage. He has hulking shoulders; large, pan-shaped muscles across each thigh; a bobbin-small waist, and, thanks to a childhood deformity of the upper spine, a deep-set neck that nests his head low in his shoulders. Chinaglia looks wrought-up when he is merely standing still, and, when the ball comes near him, his rage to score becomes palpable.

Chinaglia is not an acrobat, like Pele. What they have in common is sheer striking power. Pele, the greatest scorer in the game's history, with 1,282 lifetime goals, could become a human catapult, as agile upside down as rightside up, nerving shots from 40 yards out. In his prime, he would chase the length and breadth of the field, hunting the ball. More than any other soccer player, he was the omnicompetent virtuoso, both feeder and striker, subordinate and master in one.

If Pele was the javelin, Chinaglia is its point. His forte is surprise. In Italy, they devised the word chinagliata to mean ''uniquely unpredictable.'' Chinaglia spends most of most games hanging around the goal like a streetcorner hood, irritable, threatening, ready to erupt. Then he'll shock everyone by running the full length of the field to work as a back, but such outbursts are rare.

Pele, being many players in one, was so busy on the field that he had no time to parade what ego he possessed; Chinaglia, by hovering near the goal, has time to be aware of himself as an object of attention. Pele merged his brilliance with the competence of his teammates; Chinaglia is almost aloof, never merging into the flux of play.

''Total soccer,'' which started in Europe about eight years ago and has been picked up here, encourages players with assigned positions to ad-lib and redefine them as the game demands. This new freedom does not affect Chinaglia much. Traditionally, the center forward's role has been to loiter receptively as close to the goal as he can get, waiting for speedier and defter forwards to feed him the ball. In this, Chinaglia is classical and unyielding, always waiting for the ball to be delivered to him, preferably to his right foot. If the ball comes, he will work miracles with it, but he won't search for it or hustle downfield with a starlet's longing. From his point of view, he is as special- ized a creature as a place kicker in football. His job is to score goals, not to chase wayward balls; his lot is to be ''served'' the ball by others.

Over the years, this attitude has chafed some of Chinaglia's admirers, teammates and associates, not to mention his critics and opponents, who have accused him of being lumbering, immobile, lazy, self-serving, uninventive, possessive, imperious, close-minded and uncoachable. Werner Roth, the Cosmos captain in the late 1970's, suggests that ''the team would benefit if Giorgio changed his style a little and came out of the middle once in a while. Very often they put two or three players on him, and if he stays in the middle it closes off all possibilities, since the main artery of attack is through the middle. If he would sometimes allow others to go in, it would be better for the team.'' [...]

With much hoopla, Chinaglia became a citizen three years ago, and for a spell his pride was such that he kept his citizenship papers next to the Chivas Regal in his locker. ''When I go home over the George Washington Bridge,'' he says with visible emotion, ''I feel as if I've lived here all my life. The rest is like a film. Like when we play in Los Angeles. We return to the airport here, and I feel as if I can breathe again, I'm home.''
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Posted by at April 1, 2012 6:58 PM

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