Heart of Football

The tragedy of Luciano Re Cecconi

Picture the scene. It’s a rainy Lancashire afternoon at Bacup & Rawtenstall Grammar School. The main building is reminiscent of HMP Wandsworth and is located at the top of a small mill town in Rossendale, known for literally nothing and, excitingly, having nothing to do. In fact, Sky recently chose it as the ideal place to film a new comedy called ‘Brassic’. I think that gives you an indication of the type of place we’re talking about here. As such, my fellow 15-year-old classmates and I have to make our own entertainment. 

Who doesn’t love a prank? From something as innocent as throwing another students shoes on the roof (happened), or the 6th form rugby team picking up a teacher’s Robin Reliant from the staff car park, and placing it in the middle of the rugby pitch (also happened), to wrapping someone in sellotape, putting them upside down head first in a wheelie bin and then pushing them down the very long, and very steep hill (also happened but only once, and not anyone’s finest moment), harmless pranks are, and always will be, a part of anybody’s growing up.

Lazio’s Luciano Re Cecconi (pronounced Ray Check-o-nee) knew a great prank when he saw one. Unfortunately his friend Bruno Tabochini didn’t share that same sense of humour.

Re Cecconi, or L’Angelo Biondo (The Blond Angel), as he was known to the Tifoseria Laziari, was an Italian box-to-box midfield ‘mediano d’appoggio’ (essentially a player that sits just ahead of the defence but provides support to the attack). Born in Nerviano, a small town in the North of Italy, he was the son of a farmer, and he mimicked that incredible farmer’s work ethic.

On the pitch he was strong, fast, athletic, tenacious, technical and above all a serious adversary. Capable of driving runs from the heart of midfield, he caused opposition defences countless headaches with his ability to dispossess attackers, then power through tackles on his way to delivering that killer ball in the final third.

He was part of a fairy tale Lazio side that in 1972/73 finished an incredible third and challenged for the Scudetto until the final day. All this in their first season back in Serie A following promotion from Serie B; pretty impressive. That’s akin to second place in the Championship finishing second in the Premier League the following season…

It’s 1973/74, and a side that possessed talents such as captain Giuseppe Wilson, Mario Frustalupi, and the volatile top scorer Giorgio Chinaglia (think the original Christian Vieri but with Zlatan’s ego; I know, frightening isn’t it?), alongside the heartbeat of Re Cecconi, the Biancocelesti won the Scudetto, beating previous champions Juventus by two points and leaving third placed Napoli nine points in their wake.

Conceding the fewest number of goals that season, Lazio relied on a staunch defence and the support of their defensive midfielders. The system they used was an Italian version of Total Football. Lazio coach Tommaso Maestrelli was a fan of Rinus Michels and sought to adapt the Dutch tactic to one of dynamism and constant movement.

Re Cecconi was the ideal centrepiece for this. Prior to joining Lazio, Maestrelli had been in charge of Foggia and won promotion to Serie A in the 1969/70 season. One of the key players in that promotion winning run? Luciano Re Cecconi. When Lazio came knocking, Maestrelli wanted his ‘mediano’ to follow him.

A sprinkling of British talent helped cement this side into Lazio folklore. Giuseppe Wilson was born in Darlington, the son of a steel worker, whilst Giorgio Chinaglia grew up in Wales, a hat trick hero for Cardiff Schools before joining Swansea, then moving back to Italy at 19 years old.

However, this ultimately talented team was also fractured and the 1970s saw the Lazio dressing room split in two. At the time, the club was known for its extreme right-wing facist sympathies. The team said to have been favoured by Benito Musolini contained numerous players who openly supported Il Duce, and even more brazenly, half the squad carried guns. To pass the time when staying away from home, some players were known to shoot out of their hotel rooms, lamp posts, birds, anything they could take aim at. 

We’ve all heard the stories of fans turning up at the opposition team’s hotel, igniting fireworks, chanting, singing, setting off fire alarms etc, anything to give your side ‘the edge’. Lazio’s Sergio Petrelli wasn’t a fan of this and decided to get his own back on the noisy supporters.

When staying at a hotel before the Derby della Capitale, Roma fans were carrying out this age-old tradition. Petrelli, one of the gunslingers of the side, literally not figuratively (he was a right back) shot at the streetlights to scare the fans away. There are even rumours that during one stay, he was too lazy to get out of bed to turn off the bedroom light, so just shot it out instead.

That, my friends, is ingenuity. Ingenuity and down right craziness. I once broke a mug in a hotel chain well known for looking after the founder of comic relief, and felt embarrassed telling the receptionist that I fell over whilst drunk and knocked it off the side. How do you explain shooting a light bulb?!

The barbarity wasn’t only reserved for opposition fans. On 16 September 1970 after a European cup game (Lazio 2 -2 Arsenal), the two sides met at a restaurant in Rome for a post-game meal. Afterwards, a brawl broke out in which players from both teams got involved. Brawls were already a staple item on the menu at Lazio, only this time it was the opposition instead of themselves.

The unabashed behaviour of some hot-headed members of the squad caused genuine concerns. The split within the side was so severe that Lazio used two dressing rooms to prepare for matches. That Maestrelli managed to get the team playing coherently was a miracle in itself, but to win the Scudetto, that required divine intervention.

L’Angelo Biondo was the bond that held the side together, both on the pitch, and at times off it. His sense of humour helped break down barriers within the club. He was Lazio’s Gazza before the actual Gazza. Regardless of conflicting personalities or differing political viewpoints, Re Cecconi saw everyone as fair game. His humour no doubt helped defuse situations and allowed Le Aquile to prosper on the field and win their first ever Serie A title.

That summer, the title-winning exploits of Lazio saw Chinaglia, Wilson and Re Cecconi called up to La Nazionale. Re Cecconi, however, failed to make an appearance in a side featuring talents such as Romeo Benetti, a tenacious defensive midfielder plying his trade at AC Milan, Fabio Capello, who before he was non-English speaking manager of England, was a deep lying playmaker capable of spraying the ball around the Stadio Comunale where he earnt his crust with Juventus, and Gianni Rivera, Italy’s Golden Boy and one of the greatest players of his generation. An attacking midfielder, again at AC Milan, he was elegant and efficient, and capable of the sublime due to his incredible passing accuracy and football intelligence.

The previous World Cup, four years prior in 1970, saw Italy progress to the final after the semi-final ‘Game of the Century’ against West Germany. In contrast to the highs of that tournament, 1974 in West Germany was a real low, and the end of a cycle of international successes. The team were unable to get out of the starting blocks, knocked out in the first round by Grzegorz Lato’s Poland, who went on to win the Golden Boot.

The following season, 1974/75, Lazio continued to perform admirably amongst the traditional big boys of the league, Napoli, Milan and the all conquering Juventus. Sound familiar? Even in the 1970s Juventus were winning the league five times a decade. Finishing fourth, Re Cecconi managed to play 29 of the 30 games, providing the drive from midfield he had now become synonymous for.

If 1974/75 was a valiant yet unsuccessful attempt at a title defence, 1975/76 could only be classed as an utter disaster. Lazio finished the season in an unlucky – but also slightly lucky – 13th, avoiding relegation only by goal difference. Chinaglia, previously the go-to goalscoring talisman, managed a measly eight goals, with the previously unassailable defence leaking 40 goals over the course of the campaign.

Maestrelli, however, wasn’t the manager for the full season. The miracle-making coach was diagnosed with terminal cancer and stepped down from his role. He would sadly pass away on the 2nd December 1976. In his place, Giulio Corsini would step in as caretaker manager for the remainder of the games.

Without Maestrelli to help solidify the fractured squad and provide the forward momentum to make the side title challengers, enough was enough for Chinaglia. Adored by the Tifoseria Laziari and in the prime of his career, he packed his suitcase and flew to America to join New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League, alongside icons of the game Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Moore in the twilight of their careers (a separate story for a separate day). Another blow shortly followed as talented midfielder Mario Frustalupi was sold to Cesena.

The close season saw another disciple of Rinus Michel’s Total Football take over the team in a league and era dominated by catenaccio, Luís Vinício. A Brazilian who’d spent his entire playing and managerial career in Italy, Vinício managed to finish the 1976/77 season in a very respectable 5th place, although the final standings somewhat masked the output of the side. Only seven points separated the Brazilian’s Lazio and the best performing relegated side, Sampdoria.

Perhaps it’s a little unfair to assume that Vinício didn’t do a great job looking in from the outside though, given the extenuating circumstances of January 18th 1977.

Bruno Tabochini was a jewellery store owner in Rome. That Tuesday evening, Giorgio Fraticcioli (a perfumer and friend of Re Cecconi), Pietro Ghedin (a defender for Lazio), and the all-round funny geezer Luciano Re Cecconi were taking a stroll down Via Flaminia Vecchia. As they came to the store, Fraticcioli entered first, genuinely interested in the merchandise on offer and a friend of Tabochini himself.

Re Cecconi and Ghedin hung back, formulating what they thought to be a perfect prank. Burst in, faces covered, the old ‘finger guns’ in pockets, scare ’em half to death before revealing themselves to be local icons and all round fun guys, Re Cecconi and Ghedin. Bruno will probably swear at us, then we’ll all laugh together and we can tell this story in the pub later on. What could go wrong?

“Mani in alto questa è una rapina!!”

Re Cecconi and Ghedin burst through the door, jackets pulled over their faces for maximum effect.

“Mani in alto questa è una rapina!!”

For those that don’t speak Italian, which includes myself (thank you Google Translate), that means ‘Hands up, this is a robbery!!’.

Bruno Tabochini was jumpy, in an instant he reached behind the counter, something Ghedin spotted immediately, causing him to throw his hands straight up in the air. Don’t forget this is 1970s Italy. Re Cecconi however, didn’t see this, and persisted. After all, it’s a prank, and Bruno is no doubt going to feel so silly once this is over…

Re Cecconi continued moving towards the jeweller, who had now lifted his hands from behind the counter. Within a split second, Tabochini had pulled the trigger of the firearm he kept hidden that was currently trained, at point blank range, on the midfielders chest. 

Luciano dropped to the floor, the colour of his cheeks starting to vanish and slowly resemble the blond of his hair. 

“Era uno scherzo, solo uno scherzo!!” (use Google Translate, I had to…)

An ambulance was called but unfortunately arrived too late to help. Rushed to San Giacomo hospital, Luciano Re Cecconi, The Blond Angel, passed away within 30 minutes of his final prank aged 28. He left behind a wife and two children, one daughter and one son.

If you talk to any comedian, one of the best pieces of advice they can give you is to know your audience, and a prank is essentially a form of comedy. Re Cecconni, in this case, didn’t do that research. 

Tabochini wasn’t a sports fan, nor did he often buy a newspaper, so he didn’t recognise Ghedin’s face or those rare luscious blond locks of Re Cecconi. He also, crucially in this story, was robbed ten nights prior on January 8th 1977. Understandably concerned, paranoid and jumpy, the jeweller began keeping a firearm behind his counter for self defense.

Bruno Tabochini was arrested and held for 18 days before being released without charge. The respected judge Severino Santiapichi declared that the death was a combination of self defence, and a terrible accident.

Since that date, as with all terrible tragedies, many questions and theories have surfaced around the actual events of that fateful crisp January evening; Tabochini recognised Re Cecconi, who hadn’t carried out a prank, and equally had done nothing to provoke the retailer, who shot him anyway.

Fellow shopkeepers requested that the jeweller be released arguing that they had a right to defend their property, and a charge would smother that right. If Luciano had played for Juventus, the outcome of the investigation would have been different for Tabochini. Re Cecconi was a local celebrity, famed for his blond hair, and strolled down Via Flaminia Vecchia regularly, so surely Tabochini was aware of this local icon? How could he never have met him?

Stefano Re Cecconi, Luciano’s son, carried out his own investigation into the death of his father on January 18th 1977, and subsequently released a book (Lui Era Mia Papa – 2008) questioning the official version of events. Similarly, Italian investigative journalist Maurizio Martucci released his own version as late as 2012 (Non Scherzo. Re Cecconi, la verità calpestata). For what it’s worth, both books have been discredited by ex Lazio teammates of Re Cecconi. But again, who knows?

Bruno Tabochini retired in 2002, maintaining his declaration that he had never seen a game of football. Although we’ll likely never know the full truth of what transpired in that jewellery shop in Rome, four truths will always prevail.

Losing both Maestrelli and Re Cecconi was the beginning of the end for Lazio. It would take until the turn of the Millennium for them to win another Scudetto (2000). The years that followed 1977 saw Lazio relegated from Serie A twice, destined to spend six years in Serie B, and a good portion of the remainder as a mid-table Serie A side. 

Football lost an incredible talent, a man who unified a broken dressing room and turned pranks into points on the field.

The Tifoseria Laziale were left almost as broken hearted as the Re Cecconi family. To this day, L’Angelo Biondo adorns banners and flags around the Stadio Olimpico on match days. A legend of the club, he will be forever remembered as one of the driving forces of that first ever Scudetto.

And finally, pranks have, and always will be, a part of anybody’s growing up. Just please promise me one thing, know your audience…

Luciano Re Cecconi – 01/12/1948 to 18/01/1977

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