Suspension of Lazio's Scudetto Charge Reveals Scars of Century-Old Dispute
It is the fate of Lazio supporters, according to the Italian voice actor Pino Insegno, to “suffer even in those moments when we were not supposed to”. The Biancocelesti were enjoying one of their finest seasons prior to the coronavirus outbreak, sitting one point off the top of Serie A at the moment when games were suspended. They are undefeated in the league since September, and beat the leaders, Juventus, twice in December.
Football, as Insegno was quick to remind listeners to the Roman station Radiosei last week, is of secondary importance at a time when Italy is on lockdown. “We need to stay home, and that’s it,” he continued. “We have not lived through a moment like this since the war.” Still, it is a curious quirk of fate that Lazio – champions of Italy just twice in their history – were denied a shot at a title on the only previous occasion when football was suspended mid-season on the peninsula.
It was war that thwarted them in 1915. No single top division existed back then, but rather a series of regional tournaments. The season was supposed to culminate in a grand final between the champions of the north and the best of the rest. Those plans were shelved after Italy entered the first world war in May, prompting the national football federation (FIGC) to suspend play.
Lazio had already progressed through a regional sub-section and then won a mini-league between the top four teams from central Italy. All that separated them from the grand final was a knock-out tie against the champions of the south. But that match never took place.
Instead, the Scudetto lay vacant for four years before, according to Gazzetta dello Sport, the FIGC issued a resolution awarding it to Genoa in 1919. The Rossoblu had been top of the northern section at the time when the leagues were suspended, with one game still to play.
A nation in post-war recovery barely noticed. Another two years would pass before Gazzetta – acting as an official mouthpiece for the federation – arranged a small dinner ceremony to present Genoa with their title. Almost a century later, that act is still under dispute.
This February, a lawyer named Gian Luca Mignogna presented fresh documents to the FIGC, asserting that their own regulations from the era should have prohibited the title from being awarded in such a manner. He has argued for it to be shared between Genoa and Lazio instead. A petition supporting him on change.org has drawn more than 35,000 signatures.
In truth, Lazio were not the only ones with a right to feel aggrieved. Genoa’s remaining game in the northern section would have been against Torino, who lay within overtaking distance and had beaten them 6-1 in their previous head-to-head. Inter, in third, were not mathematically out of the running either.
The picture was less clear in the southern section, with a deciding game between Naples and Internazionale Napoli reportedly annulled due to an irregularity with player registrations. In theory, Lazio still needed to overcome the winner of that tie to qualify for the grand finale.
Northern teams were manifestly dominant in this period. Lazio had reached the previous two finals only to get thumped on both occasions: losing 6-0 to Pro Vercelli at a neutral venue in 1913, then 9-1 to Casale over two legs a year later. After the war, teams representing the north went on to win every Scudetto until the formation of a single national top division in 1926.
Such outcomes were no accident. In an era before professionalism, teams from wealthier cities were often able to recruit more effectively with the help of friendly local businesses that lured players with the promise of comfortable employment. Some had more direct means. Two Genoa players were banned for life in 1913 after being caught trying to pay in substantial cheques signed by their club’s president, though those suspensions were eventually overturned.
Much has changed over the course of a century, yet the fact that the FIGC are still dealing with the fallout from 1915 might be a salutary lesson for football’s governing bodies as they consider how to proceed today. The federation’s president, Gabriele Gravina, last week outlined four options for Serie A to proceed once quarantine restrictions are lifted.
The first, preferred solution, would see all the games being completed on a delayed schedule (perhaps even, as he suggested on Monday, by splitting the games across two seasons). If that is not possible, then the league will either need to declare this season vacant, set the current standings as final or hold some form of play-off for the top positions and relegation.
None of those options would be universally popular, and tensions between clubs with competing interests are rising. Lazio’s president, Claudio Lotito, is reported to have argued with his Juventus counterpart, Andrea Agnelli, during a conference call on Friday over the prospect of players returning to training before the country’s lockdown is lifted.
In the midst of a pandemic with a rising death toll, the hope must be that all parties can find a common ground that places public health as the greatest priority. But it is clear that for some people, at least, the scars of 1915 are yet to heal.
“The fear is that the current season will come to the same end as the one interrupted by the Great War, and, just like back then, the interruption will become an occasion to deny Lazio the recognition of a Scudetto won on the pitch,” wrote Lazio’s head of communications, Arturo Diaconale, in a long Facebook post on March 9, shortly before Serie A was suspended.
“This syndrome of the denied title from 1915 is spreading almost as much as the epidemic from China. Because it releases that old fear that, in a situation of maximum uncertainty provoked by a health emergency paralyzing our country, the interests of the big clubs can be turned to the damage of the Biancocelesti.”
His crass (and, bluntly, incorrect) framing drew condemnation even from many of his own followers. Diaconale followed up with a clarification two days later that his social media posts represented only his own views rather than those of the club or Lotito.
There are plenty of Lazio supporters, though, who share at least some part of his sentiment. Their team has played brilliantly this season, mounting its most compelling title challenge since 2001. No conspiracy theories are required to understand why a fanbase might feel frustration at the prospect of seeing a great season end without resolution for the second time in their history, due to events beyond anyone’s control.
The Guardian Sport