Pitchside Europe

Mutinous fans leave Lotito’s Lazio reign at tipping point

For years, Claudio Lotito has dismissed the rumblings of discontent surrounding his ownership of Lazio as representative of nothing more than “a haggard minority.” He can do so no more. On Sunday, 6,000 supporters held a protest march to the game against Sassuolo at the Stadio Olimpico. Unfurled by those on the front line was a banner. It read: 'Absolute majority.'

Inside the ground, the stands were packed. Attendance was close to 50,000, a high turnout. For Laziali this wasn’t so much game-day as an unofficial election day. Another unrolled sheet of cloth made that abundantly clear. Daubed onto it in blue spray paint were the words 'We’re voting for S.S Lazio.' Not Lotito.

Sat in the Monte Mario stand, the next hour and a half must have been most uncomfortable for him. The Curva Nord had prepared their take on a panolada, the mass white hanky-waving seen at the Bernabeu whenever Real Madrid fans are exasperated. This instead was a fogliolada. Pieces of A3 and A4 paper were thrust into the air. Printed on them was the slogan: 'Libera la Lazio.' Free Lazio.

Across from Lotito in the Tribuna Tevere a placard referred to him as a 'dream thief.' Below him, fans responded to calls from the other sections of the Olimpico to chase the president from his seat with chants of “Fuori! Fuori!” Out! Out! Lotito stayed in his place. There was a game going on after all, a great game too.

Lazio beat Sassuolo in a back-and-forth 3-2 thriller. Stefan Radu’s opener was one of the goals of the weekend, a 30-yard screamer. But how many people saw it? Even the action on the pitch couldn’t match that in the stands. “It’s you or us,” the crowd sang.

In reaction, La Repubblica’s Fabrizio Bocca, was moved to write: “Ownership in football is perhaps one of the rare applications of pure Marxism. Ownership isn’t private but collective.” A touch ironic isn’t it that fans of Lazio, who are often associated with the right of the political spectrum were acting like those on the left might be expected to. Disappointingly for them, Lotito insisted afterward that he is going nowhere.

“I am Irreducible,” he said, poignantly invoking the name of Lazio’s historic ultras group, gli Irriducibili, and using it against them. “I’m not selling Lazio. I’ll leave it to my son,” he said. Gabriele Romagnoli, also in La Repubblica, imagined the scene. “‘Look!’ Lotito tells his boy. ‘One day all this will be yours’. For a moment, pure terror is depicted in the young Lotito’s eyes’.”

Behind the protest, the Lazio owner claimed to see occult forces at work. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Eight years ago, the late Giorgio Chinaglia, an icon of Lazio’s first Scudetto-winning side in 1974, acted on behalf of a consortium from Hungary whose apparent intention it was to buy the club. Wishing to see ‘Long John’ back at Lazio, a group of ultras set about intimidating Lotito to accept and sell up. He refused. A criminal investigation called ‘Operation Broken Wings’ later alleged that the money offered to purchase the Aquile was dirty and belonged to the Camorra who were looking to launder it through Lazio.

So you can perhaps understand Lotito having suspicions about the motivation and possible manipulation behind Sunday’s demonstrations. But the inconvenient truth here is that their origins lie in nothing more than his unpopularity. It goes back much longer too than the sale of Hernanes to Inter at the end of the transfer window, the failure to find a convincing replacement for him and the disappointing results that followed: defeat to bottom of the table Catania and to Ludogorets Razgrad from Bulgaria in the Europa League.

From the outside looking in all this must appear strange. What are the Laziali complaining about? Didn’t Lotito save the club a decade ago? Lazio were €300m (£247m) in debt. Their funeral was being held when he arrived. “I interrupted it,” Lotito said, “but the club is still in an irreversible coma.” Years of austerity and prudent management were to follow. Lotito did a deal with the inland revenue to pay back what Lazio owed over a 23-year period. In the meantime, they’d have to live within their means.

And yet, relative to their investment, Lazio have been successful. They’ve finished on the podium in Serie A, qualified for the Champions League once and the Europa League in four of the last five seasons. In that time Lazio have also won the Italian Super Cup once and the Coppa Italia twice, famously beating rivals Roma in the first ever final to also be a Derby della Capitale last season. It was one of the greatest moments in Lazio’s 114-year history. Integral to that success was a big-name signing Miroslav Klose [though he cost nothing from Bayern Munich].

So what’s the problem? On the one hand, some fans will never be happy. In Ultimo Stadio, a book about the experiences of a Roma and a Lazio supporter, the latter reflects on his team’s last Scudetto in 2000. “It wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” he says. On the other, that era, the Cragnotti era when the Lazio eagle flew high and up close to the sun only to burn its wings, continues to cast a shadow on the club and over Lotito. Because at least then they dared to dream (quite literally) breaking the bank and repeatedly threatening to break the world transfer record. Unlike now.

Asked by Il Tempo if Lazio should really expect to be qualifying for the Champions League every year, one fan replied: “More than that!” There’s a refusal to accept mediocrity among the Lazio supporters and that’s where they feel they’ve slid under Lotito, even with the trophies won.

To an extent you can understand their frustration. Lazio fans aren’t asking for the moon. They just want a show of ambition. Selling one of your best players isn’t one. Neither is failing to buy a decent striker in January of each of the previous three years when one would perhaps have made the difference between finishing in a Champions League place and the Europa League one Lazio got. No wonder Lotito is known as Lo-tirchio. Tirchio incidentally means ‘tight’.

'You can’t run Lazio like one of your cleaning businesses' declared another banner on Sunday. Why not, Lotito would counter? It has brought Lazio three pieces of silverware. His unwillingness to listen grates. When he says: “It’s my club and I’ll do what I want”, fans get disillusioned. People give up holidays and other luxuries to pay for their Lazio season tickets. They deserve more respect.

He shouldn’t treat them all as hostile either. Sure, you can understand why he does. Lotito has lived under police escort for much of the last decade, regularly receiving bullets in the post and other death threats after stripping the ultras of the privileges they received under Cragnotti. But not all Laziali are like that even if Sunday’s events might make that harder to believe.

For now, the protests look set to continue. Rumours abound that all Lazio fans will boycott the next home game against Atalanta. The Olimpico will be more or less empty. The silence deafening. It’ll be a time for serious contemplation. And you wonder if, while sat there, Lotito will ponder reconciliation. It seems unlikely. But if he wants to be loved, he needs to listen.

James Horncastle - @JamesHorncastle