Lazio vs Barcelona 1975: When Football Is Politics by Other Means
There is a growing chorus of calls from some fans to move the UEFA Champions’ League Final from Istanbul in 2020. Despite attempts by clubs and governing organizations to separate football and politics, the two are inseparable. In fact, one might argue football is simply politics by other means. Such has always been the case. Football, as the global sport, has its roots in British colonialism.
Almost 45 years ago, Lazio was at the center of an oft-forgotten gesture of political solidarity. Unusual in its self-sacrifice, the club took a principled stand against one of Europe’s most notorious authoritarian regimes of the day. In October of 1975, Lazio was a year removed from winning their first Scudetto. The team’s core remained unaltered – Giorgio Chinaglia, newly promoted to Captain, continued to lead the likes of Pino Wilson, Vincenzo D’Amico and Lorenzo Re Cecconi. Though the mercurial and fiery Lazio striker was in the midst of his wayward drift from the club. His family had already relocated to New York. Lazio had finished fourth the previous year and so qualified for the European Cup.
In the second round of that year’s UEFA Cup, the Biancocelesti drew Spanish giants Barcelona. The Catalan squad had finished a distant third the previous season but boasted the likes of Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens. However, the draw came in the midst of heightened political tensions in Europe which overshadowed the matches.
On September 27, the Franco regime had executed three members of FRAP (The Anti-Fascist Patriotic Revolutionary Front) and two members of the Basque nationalist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna). Already deeply unpopular globally, the 40-year-old fascist regime of General Francisco Franco was a pariah state within Europe. The executions touched off a firestorm of popular protests. Demonstrations erupted all over Europe and many nations took the step of withdrawing their ambassadors. The Spanish embassy in Switzerland was occupied by protesters, the embassies in Portugal and Brussels were burned to the ground. Even the Pope appealed directly to Franco for clemency in his Sunday address to the faithful in St. Peter’s square but in spite of the historical affinity between the regime, its aging dictator and the Catholic Church – the appeals were ignored. Franco rejected the backlash as part of an ‘international conspiracy’. These were the ‘years of lead’ in Italy and political tensions between left and right were already at fever pitch; assassinations, bombings, and violent clashes were frequent. In light of the circumstances a visit to Rome by a Spanish club on October 22 for the first leg, would be seen as a provocation to many within the left.
In Rome, the popular backlash against the Spanish regime had been particularly sharp. When Lazio drew Barcelona, the Roman side’s American-Italian president Umberto Lenzini, who had received some exhortations from within the Italian government, saw an opportunity to make a statement. On the weekend prior to the match against Barcelona Lazio faced Sampdoria at Marassi. Lenzini convinced the Genovese to hold a moment of silence in support of the murdered separatists. It was an important and obvious sign of his support.
In the days leading up to the match against Barcelona with pressure from the political world mounting, Lenzini took his concerns about the match to the FIGC. He argued it would be an important sign of solidarity to the Spanish people to suspend European matches against Spanish teams. He accepted that this might have repercussions including fines and suspensions for the club, but he felt it was “the duty of UEFA to decide that games involving the Spanish teams should be stopped” and that Lazio would be “comforted by the justice of such a decision which would represent an important endorsement for civil order and democracy.” His players agreed with him. So did the rest of the club’s administration. For good measures, Lenzini also made appeals to public safety and the security of his team, particularly in light of the club’s actions on the preceding weekend. For their part, Artemio Franchi – then UEFA and FIGC president – and Franco Carraro – then president of the Serie A and B – agreed with him but convincing the other FA’s would not be easy.
Lazio was in a difficult predicament, having just come off a lengthy UEFA ban after incidents linked to a European match against Ipswich. Lenzini recognized that another mishap might well meet with serious disciplinary consequences for his team. Lenzini managed to work out a compromise. Lazio would forfeit the match in Rome but agreed to travel to Barcelona for the second leg to avoid a stronger sanction. Barcelona was awarded a 3-0 win and got their home match and the gate sales. The Catalonians would go on to win the match 4-0. The Catalan club, for their part, were disappointed with the reaction since Catalonia and Barcelona remained a hotbed of opposition to the regime.
Soon after the match, Franco fell ill. The Fascist dictator never recovered and died on November 20, 1975. His regime did not outlast him.