Alasdair Mackenzie Date: 20th April 2020 at 11:42am
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I was born and brought up in the Highlands of Scotland. I have no Italian blood on either side of my family. Neither of my parents are football fans.

As such, I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to explain how I became a Lazio fan.

I’ve now managed to boil my answer down to a relatively concise summary. But the story always has the same beginning: Leeds United v Lazio. 14 March 2001. Elland Road.

On the face of it, this was a bizarre time to start following the Roman club. Lazio had won their second-ever Scudetto the previous summer, as well as the Coppa Italia. They won the Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Super Cup a year before that.

But by March 2001, they were nine points behind Serie A leaders Roma in third place, while their Champions League campaign was over before a ball had even been kicked in Yorkshire.

These were the days when Europe’s top club competition featured two group stages. After progressing from the first, Lazio’s hopes of continental glory were dashed with three consecutive defeats at the start of the second: at home to Leeds and away to Anderlecht and Real Madrid.

By the time Dino Zoff’s much-changed side took to the Elland Road pitch for their final fixture, they knew they were only playing for pride.

And with Leeds already safely through to the quarter-finals, it was little more than a glorified friendly.

But this context was completely unknown to 11-year-old me. At the time, my family was on holiday in England, and my brother and I had been left with one of my mum’s friends while my parents went out for the evening.

We were spoiled. There were snacks in front of us and football on the television. We were even allowed to stay up until full-time. Paradise.

I was completely clueless about the impact what happened next would have on my life.

My brother turned to me. “I’m supporting Leeds,” he said.

“Fine,” I replied. “I’ll support Lazio”.

It’s amazing what a bit of sibling rivalry can do.

The game itself only strengthened my conviction. Zoff fielded a second-string side – not that I had a clue at the time – leaving Hernan Crespo and Marcelo Salas on the bench, while the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Angelo Peruzzi, Giuseppe Favalli, Juan Sebastian Veron and Diego Simeone didn’t even make the trip, with a big Serie A game against Juventus coming up on the weekend.

But the fact there was nothing to play for made the match more compelling than it had any right to be.

With the pressure of failure stripped away, what remained were the perfect conditions for the kind of ding-dong battle that makes you fall in love with the game in the first place.

There was something about this team that gripped me. They were exotic, exciting; from the silver-haired Fabrizio Ravanelli, whose every touch was met with a chorus of boos, to the twinkle-toed Pavel Nedved, whose mop of hair bounced whenever he surged forward from midfield.

And then there was the fascinating, moody figure of Sinisa Mihajlovic, skulking forward from defence to take charge of every set piece.

The feeling that anything could happen at any moment was summed up by a range of outrageously speculative efforts, from left-back Emanuele Pesaresi’s wayward 40-yard volley to Ian Harte’s awful free-kick attempt from a similar distance.

Goals soon rained down in a frantic eight-minute period midway through the first half. Nedved – electric, restless, inventive – worked a nice passing move to find some space on the right wing before dropping a pinpoint cross onto the grey head of Ravanelli for the opener.

Leeds were soon level with a moment of magic from Lee Bowyer who, with his back to goal, dinked an outstanding lob over Luca Marchegiani from a tight angle.

But Lazio were in front again before the broadcasters had even stopped showing the replays. Ravanelli raced onto a long ball and went down under Dominic Matteo’s clumsy challenge, allowing Mihajlovic to dispatch a penalty in typically decisive fashion.

On the brink of half time, the erratic, floppy-haired Fernando Couto tried to shepherd a loose pass out for a goal kick but ended up knocking it out for a corner while under pressure.

Lazio had looked shaky at set pieces, but the defending for Leeds’ equaliser was simply atrocious: a corner swung to the back post was met on the volley by the unchallenged Jason Wilcox, and the shot squeezed through Lucas Castroman’s legs on the line for good measure.

Set pieces were Lazio’s downfall again when Leeds took the lead for the first time shortly after the hour mark, when Mark Viduka held Mihajlovic at bay to nod in a Harte free-kick delivery. No wonder I was gripped.

Salas eventually came off the bench, by which point I was convinced that long, floppy hair must be a legal requirement in Italy. His introduction sparked some life into the visitors, as a Mihajlovic free-kick was pushed away by a diving Paul Robinson before Salas’ low shot thumped the foot of the post.

But this was all just the prelude to an ending that was suitably dramatic for such a chaotic, fiery and fun game of football.

Nedved somehow won the visitors a free-kick on the edge of the box in stoppage time, despite forcing Alan Maybury off injured after planting his studs in the Leeds defender’s knee.

What followed now sounds predictable, but to an 11-year-old experiencing his first Lazio game, it was anything but. It was mesmerising.

Mihajlovic stepped over the dead ball, and this time there was no doubt. With his left foot, he sent a shot swerving into the top corner.

It was the kind of goal that can make you fall in love. And that’s exactly what it did.