In 1997, a loser took charge of a bunch of losers with the aim of winning Serie A. At least those were the reputations that stalked Sven-Göran Eriksson and Lazio that summer, when the Swede returned to Rome for another shot at the scudetto. Eriksson had spent 10 years trying to win the Italian title – with Roma and Fiorentina in the 1980s, then Sampdoria in the 1990s. People had taken to calling him Il Perdente Successo, ‘The Successful Loser’. “There were whispers among journalists that Eriksson would never win the league,” Eriksson later wrote. “I hated that.” 

Eriksson was not supposed to be at Lazio. He had signed a contract to manage Blackburn but had then backed out of it. Part of the reason was that the club’s owner, Jack Walker, had refused to meet the wage demands of Roberto Mancini, whom Eriksson wanted to take with him from Sampdoria. When Lazio offered him the job, Eriksson persuaded Walker to tear up the contract and hire Roy Hodgson instead. “It was the chance of a lifetime,” Eriksson said of the offer. “I had to take it.” 

The history books offered Eriksson few reasons for such excitement. When he arrived, he felt Lazio were “still seen as losers”, and he was not just talking about a squad that had won little. Lazio had won Serie A only once. That had been in 1974, when Tommaso Maestrelli drew on his superb man management and love for Total Football to turn a mercurial squad from relegation fodder into champions. The title could have started a golden era for Lazio, but within three years Maestrelli had died of stomach cancer, the star striker Giorgio Chinaglia had fled to New York and the influential midfielder Luciano Re Cecconi had been shot dead by the owner of a jewellery store who realised too late that his attempted robbery was meant as a joke. In 1980 Lazio were relegated after some of their players had been involved in the Totonero betting scandal. Seven years later they needed a play-off to stave off relegation to Serie C. 

What mattered to Eriksson, however, was that Sergio Cragnotti had become president. As the owner of the agribusiness company Cirio, the charismatic Cragnotti had bought Lazio in 1992 and pumped in money. One of the first things he did was to sign Paul Gascoigne. The fresh investment propelled Lazio from mid-table to the top five, but neither Dino Zoff nor Zdeněk Zeman ever came close to the title. Which is why Cragnotti turned to Eriksson. 

Eriksson inherited a strong squad that included the experienced goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani, the precocious centre-back Alessandro Nesta, the industrious playmaker Pavel Nedvěd and Giuseppe Signori, Serie A’s capocannoniere in three of the previous five seasons (sharing the title with Bari’s Igor Protti in 1996). Yet Eriksson felt he lacked winners. He told Cragnotti that if they bought three players – Mancini, Siniša Mihajlović and Juan Sebastián Verón – they’d win the league. Eriksson knew the trio from Sampdoria, but Cragnotti was sceptical and gave him only Mancini. Not that Eriksson could complain: along with Mancini came the tough-tackling defensive midfielder Matías Almeyda, the powerful striker Alen Bokšić, the versatile defender Giuseppe Pancaro and the composed midfielder Vladimir Jugović. 

With so many players needing to gel, Lazio stumbled out of the blocks. Part of the problem, Eriksson felt, was Signori, whom he believed infected the squad with a negative attitude. Eriksson would claim that Signori had said that Lazio would never win the league. But when Eriksson benched him, fans climbed the walls at the Formello training ground in protest, leading the police to advise Eriksson to flee through the back door. Eriksson refused and drove out of the main gate, only to have his car besieged by fans shouting Signori’s name. Still, Eriksson shipped Signori off to Sampdoria. Lazio duly went on a 16-game unbeaten run in the league, but they took a solitary point in the last seven rounds to slide down to seventh. 

While Lazio did win the Coppa Italia that season and made the final of the Uefa Cup, where they suffered a 3-0 defeat to Inter, their league finish appeared to make Cragnotti doubt Eriksson. The president would later admit that he got in touch with Fabio Capello, who was keen on the job but eventually said no. Yet Cragnotti resolved to back his coach. He gave Eriksson the second of his three wishes, Mihajlović, plus the centre-back Fernando Couto, the winger Sérgio Conceição, the midfielder Dejan Stanković and the playmaker Iván de la Peña. Cragnotti also believed the team needed a proper striker. Not only did he sign the Chilean predator Marcelo Salas; he also forked out a reported £18m, a huge sum at the time, for Christian Vieri, who had scored 24 league goals in as many games for Atlético Madrid. 

Those signings should perhaps have been enough for Eriksson to clinch his first scudetto. Lazio did win the last edition of the Cup Winners’ Cup that season, beating Mallorca 2-1 in the final at Villa Park. In Serie A, however, they topped the table from early February onwards before a draw at Fiorentina in the penultimate round let Milan sneak past. On the final day Lazio needed Perugia to fell Milan. They didn’t, and Milan clinched the title by a point. 

The slip-up might have led other presidents to lose faith in the project. Cragnotti decided to spend even more. But that summer he and Eriksson had a problem: they were about to lose Vieri. The club claimed that Vieri had made wage demands that Cragnotti likened to blackmail, and Eriksson described Vieri as “a restless person” who “liked money”. What was true was that Vieri had changed clubs eight times in eight years and that Massimo Moratti was offering him big money to join Inter. Cragnotti cut a deal with Moratti that was worth £28m and involved Diego Simeone going to Lazio. When the world-record fee came out in the press, the Vatican daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano slammed the deal as “an offence against poor people”. 

By all accounts Eriksson was happy with the transfer. The cash helped him persuade Cragnotti to spend £18m on Verón, the last of his three wishes. Cragnotti also signed the defensive stalwart Roberto Néstor Sensini and the striker Simone Inzaghi, the younger brother of Filippo. Lazio started the new season by beating Manchester United 1-0 in the European Super Cup, a win that led Alex Ferguson to tip them for the scudetto. 

Eriksson knew he had one of the strongest squads in Europe. Ahead of Marchegiani he played Nesta and Mihajlović, flanked by Pancaro and Paolo Negro. The two holding midfielders were permed from Almeyda, Sensini and Simeone. They supported Verón, with Nedvěd and Conceição out wide and Salas up front. If that was the template, however, Eriksson liked to vary system and personnel, keeping his players happy and his rivals guessing. In a league season comprising 34 games, only Verón made more than 28 starts. Eriksson could play two up front, handing minutes to Bokšić, Inzaghi, Mancini or Fabrizio Ravanelli, who would arrive in the winter. Mancini, by then 35, often came on as a sub, which Eriksson presumably preferred to having him start and taking him off. “I had to block my ears whenever I subbed him off,” Eriksson would say. 

Lazio started the Serie A season well. They went unbeaten in their first nine games, of which the highlight was a 4-4 draw at home to Alberto Zaccheroni’s AC Milan that featured two own goals in two minutes and an Andriy Shevchenko hat-trick. But in November, Lazio lost 4-1 away to Capello’s Roma. By early December, they shared top spot with Juve and Roma, closely followed by Inter, Parma and Milan. 

Eriksson had installed discipline and harmony. At Formello, the staff planned the daily schedule to the minute and dished out fines to latecomers. On the pitch, Lazio were playing some of the best football in Europe. But their rivals were not bad either. Juve, led by Carlo Ancelotti, had Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro del Piero, Filippo Inzaghi and Antonio Conte. At Roma, Capello could call on Francesco Totti and Marco Delvecchio. At Inter, Marcello Lippi had a squad featuring Vieri, Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio, Álvaro Recoba and Iván Zamorano. At Fiorentina, Giovanni Trapattoni was watching Gabriel Batistuta score for fun. As for Parma, Alberto Malesani could count on Hernán Crespo, Ariel Ortega and Márcio Amoroso up front, as well as Gianluigi Buffon, Lilian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro at the back. 

Over the following months the title race remained close. By March only Parma had fallen behind. But Lazio stumbled to a stalemate at home to Inter and, while Eriksson might have been relieved that most of their rivals had blips as well, there was an exception. Juve had shipped 11 goals in 25 games. When Lazio then lost 1-0 away to Verona, Juve had gone 22 games unbeaten. The Old Lady led the table by nine points. 

At that stage most of the title candidates collapsed. In the last eight rounds Roma won only once, Inter lost four and Milan too ran out of steam. Only Lazio keep going, avenging their earlier loss to Roma with a 2-1 win at the Stadio Olimpico. When Juve lost 2-0 at Milan, thanks to a Shevchenko double, Lazio had a rare chance to bring the title race back to life. They met Juve away the following week. In a tense game, the Juve defender Ciro Ferrara was sent off, before Simeone stormed into the area to flick a lofted Verón pass into the bottom corner. Lazio won 1-0. The gap was down to three points. 

What had looked a lost cause suddenly resembled a golden opportunity for Cragnotti and Eriksson to win the scudetto. Lazio could have come even closer to Juve in the next round. They beat Perugia 1-0, only to see Juve sink Bologna with two goals in stoppage time. Lazio then travelled to Fiorentina. They seemed to have won the game when Mihajlović scored a penalty in the 89th minute, but Batistuta fired home a stunning free-kick in stoppage time to make it 3-3. At the Giuseppe Meazza, Juve beat Inter 2-1. The gap was back to five points, with four games remaining. 

Eriksson knew Juve would be hard to catch. That same week Lazio tumbled out of the Champions League round of 16 against Valencia. When Lazio and Juve both won in the following round, the title looked all but lost; Juve had to drop five points in three games to give Lazio a chance. Yet Eriksson had wanted winners in his squad and they did not give up, least of all Simeone, who hit a spell of magical form during the final weeks. Having struck the winner at Juve and added another against Piacenza in the previous round, Simeone hit the opener as Lazio saw off Venezia. Meanwhile Juve suffered a shock 2-0 defeat at Verona. 

The gap was down to two points. 

In the penultimate round, Lazio travelled to Bologna. The hosts had signed Signori, who inflicted more pain on Eriksson with a brace. But Simeone scored once more to help Lazio win 3-2. Having done their job, they waited to see how Juve would do at home to Parma. 

Up in Turin, Juve seemed to be cruising towards a 1-0 win. In the 90th minute, however, Cannavaro rose to head in a corner. The equaliser seemed to have cost Juve the title, but the referee, Massimo De Santis, blew for a foul in the area. Cannavaro ran back holding his head, smiling in disbelief. The replay showed no sign of a foul. Juve won 1-0. 

The disallowed goal ignited a national debate about the integrity of Italian football. “We’re sorry, but it’s a scandal,” said the cover of Corriere dello Sport. “I have seen a colossal injustice,” wrote its editor, Mario Sconcerti. The replay was shown on television for days, while accusations of corruption were levelled at Juve and their general manager, Luciano Moggi. Among the many critics was Cragnotti. 

“Our football has to be completely rebuilt,” Cragnotti said. “Everybody, whether they are fans or not, saw what happened in Turin, and no one is able to explain why that goal wasn’t allowed. Everything that led up to it was perfectly normal. If anything the Juventus players were committing the fouls. But the referee disallowed it. Why, I don’t know. Once again there’s been a lack of sportsmanship and also a lack of professionalism by those who carry out certain duties.” 

On the final weekend Lazio were favourites at home to Reggina, but nobody expected Juve to give up points away to Perugia. The team that had done Lazio no favours a year earlier looked even less likely to do so now; Perugia had nothing to play for. The Guardian had reported that the disallowed goal had “effectively handed the Serie A title to Juventus.” Before the final round some Lazio fans marched through Rome carrying a black coffin to mark the death of Italian football. 

Yet the Lazio fans had clearly not given up entirely. They packed the Olimpico in case the impossible should happen. They saw Lazio race into a 2-0 lead at half-time, thanks to one clear penalty and another given after Pancaro collapsed following a slight touch on the arm. In Perugia the score was 0-0. Then the inexplicable happened. After a first half that had been played out in glorious sun, the heavens opened above the Renato Curi stadium. A thunderstorm drenched the pitch. In Rome, a two-hour car journey south, the sun was still shining. “Nowhere else that soccer was being played in Italy seemed to have the downpour, the hailstones, the thunder and lightning that rained down on Perugia,” reported the New York Times. 

The rain forced the referee, Pierluigi Collina, to suspend the game for more than an hour. At some point Collina, considered the best in the world at the time, walked out at the Renato Curi with an umbrella and tested how the ball would react to the surface. The ball hardly bounced. Juve tried to get the game abandoned but Collina decided that the game would go on. And so, 82 minutes after it should have started, the second half got underway. 

By then Lazio had beaten Reggina 3-0, with Simeone adding the third. Hardly anyone had left the Olimpico. Fans turned on their radios to hear that Juve were only just starting their second half, with the score at 0-0. The Lazio fans who knew their history might have been particularly hopeful: in 1976, Juve had lost the league title on the final day in Perugia. 

As Lazio fans waited in the stands, the players took shelter in the dressing room, where they listened to the game on the radio. Nobody took a shower. Nobody said anything. Nobody watched the television. Some did not even want to listen to the commentary. Cragnotti walked back and forth between the dressing room and the directors’ box. Even Eriksson was pacing around. Then the Olimpico exploded. Four minutes after the break Perugia had swung a free-kick into the box, where a poor Conte clearance had fallen to the 33-year-old centre-back Alessandro Calori, who lashed the ball into the bottom corner. 

Juve knew they had to win. They threw everything at Perugia. Even after Gianluca Zambrotta had been shown two yellow cards by Collina, they kept pressing. But chances went missing and the soaked pitch made it hard to play. Perugia won 1-0. 

Lazio were Serie A champions. 

Bedlam broke out at the Olimpico. Fans stormed the pitch shouting, hugging, waving flags. Up in the stands, men cried. An overjoyed Cragnotti was embraced by friends and fellow directors. Down in the dressing room, the players were dancing and singing. About the only one to keep his calm was Eriksson, who gave an interview to a television crew as if he were conducting a routine press conference. “Your first scudetto in Italy...” the reporter put to him. “Yes,” Eriksson replied, adjusting his glasses as celebratory drinks rained down on him. “I hope it won’t be the last.” 

The triumph killed his nickname as ‘The Successful Loser’. Lazio would also win the Coppa Italia that season, beating Inter in the final, but the scudetto was the one that mattered to Eriksson. The same went for Cragnotti and the fans. “I never thought it would be this beautiful,” Eriksson said. 

That afternoon had everything for Lazio, apart from the actual trophy. “I guess it was kept in Perugia,” Eriksson would note. “No one suspected that we would be the ones to win it.” 

In Perugia, Juve were cursing their luck. Ancelotti would write that they had been “beaten by a rainstorm”. Moggi was anything but gracious. “Now that Juventus have lost the title everyone will be happy... Only if Juventus had won would the title have been invalid. Congratulations. They’ve all got what they wanted. There you are. Those are my special powers.” Perhaps the heaviest burden fell on Conte, who would later describe the afternoon as one of the most painful of his life. He would go straight on holiday to Egypt, where he would not sleep for five nights. 

Back in Rome, the Lazio players took the bus to Formello, where they dispersed to get to the victory party that would be held at a club in Rome later that night. Eriksson drove home. On the way, his car was halted by delirious fans and police needed to intervene. Later that night, at the party, Eriksson thanked Cragnotti for his support – with a twinkle in his eye. “I joked that he should have listened to me,” Eriksson wrote. “If we had bought the three players I wanted at the start, we probably would have won the scudetto three times.”