Serie B is now a very real possibility. After losing at home to Catania, Lazio slumped to third from bottom in Serie A, and the club which as recently as 2000 were champions of Italy are in the thick of a struggle to avoid relegation.

Last May the Biancazzurri won the Coppa Italia, beating Sampdoria on penalties after a long drawn out battle in front of their faithful at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. This season promised more of the same, perhaps even a better campaign some thought as Lazio saw off champions Inter in Beijing to lift the domestic curtain raiser the Supercoppa. Club president Claudio Lotito was on top of the world.

But what could have been a fairytale suddenly vanished as the new season saw problem after problem rock the capital club.

In the middle of the summer, Lotito began a struggle with what he saw as two riotous players, the Macedonian star Goran Pandev and his Argentine team-mate Cristian Ledesma. Both wanted to exit the Stadio Olimpico for more lucrative contracts elsewhere and pressed their cases for departure. But president Lotito would not accept what he considered as blackmail, and soon the duo had been banished from the first team.

Sure enough a war began with Pandev, Ledesma and their lawyers on one side and Lotito and his lawyers on the other. Just before Christmas Pandev won his court battle and joined Inter on a free transfer. Ledesma lost the same appeal however and was reintegrated into the first team over the following weeks. But the long drawn out battle had been damaging, nowhere more so than on the pitch, with the team robbed of these stalwarts.

Lazio, under new coach Davide Ballardini – who impressed last year in charge of Palermo – began to lose games, lots of games, both in Serie A and the Europa League. Ballardini’s boys went out of Europe at the group stage and couldn’t climb clear of Serie A’s drop zone either.

At the same time, the Irriducibili, the ultra group of Lazio fans, famous for racial abuse and delivering monkey chants to visiting black players, continued their own fight against Lotito. Lazio’s president attracted the group’s hostility because of an episode which occurred more than six years ago, when the Irriducibili had their control over the sales of some merchandise and tickets removed. This so called “black market” had prospered in the time of previous president Sergio Cragnotti, who invested millions leading the club to success before he lost his empire, including the companies of Ciro and Del Monte.

Lotito would not accept the growing power of the club’s ultras and refused to enter into negotiations with the group. The struggle continued over the years that followed when the Irriducibili launched a campaign to bring back Biancazurri legend and ex-player Giorgio Chinaglia as president: Chinaglia had held the presidency in the 1980s, when Lazio were a yo-yo team and even once endured the humiliation of a playoff to avoid relegation to Serie C.

Chinaglia convinced an improbable Hungarian group to help him buy Lazio from Lotito, but in the end the bid went wrong as accusations of a local Mafia group using the Eastern Europeans as a front to gain the club for money laundering purposes swirled around. The former president was condemned by an Italian tribunal and now lives in New York having ended his interest in the presidency.

Troubles off the pitch were only replicated on it as Ballardini failed to instil a winning spirit in his new charges and stars like Tommaso Rocchi and Mauro Zarate publicly criticised the coach. In the winter transfer window Lotito bought Sergio Floccari, a striker from Genoa, and the situation did seem to improve. Floccari scored three goals in four games, but Lazio were still only able to beat small Livorno at home and also went out of the Coppa Italia, losing 3-2 away to Fiorentina.

On 7th February, Lazio plumbed a new low, losing at home to relegation battlers Catania who bypassed the Laziali in the league. Lotito was criticised by the club’s support for the entire match and after the final whistle blew beat a hasty retreat from the Stadio Olimpico. The situation was getting worse.

The following Tuesday more than 1,000 fans assembled outside Lazio’s Formello training base and tried to assault the club’s players. Training was cancelled, but the ultras wouldn’t leave and attacked the police. When the dust settled six people had been injured and 11 arrested. Unfortunately business as usual for the Italian game.

As the club’s training ground was under siege president Lotito was deliberating over a change in the dugout. Eventually Ballardini was sacked and Lazio moved quickly to appoint Edy Reja, the Hadjuk Split coach who had been in charge of Napoli until last year. The 65-year-old brings a wealth of experience to Rome, having managed in Naples whilst the team was in Serie C, guiding them to a quick return to Serie A.

For Reja the situation at Lazio is sure to be a challenge and there will rarely be a dull moment, either on the pitch or off it. Lotito must hope he is up to the task and that worries over a drop to Serie B are soon a thing of the past.


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