Lazio need Reja's resolve
Fabio Capello, the head coach of England, believes football in his native Italy is too influenced by "ultras", or highly-mobilised, and often aggressive, fans. So said Capello in a talk to students at Parma University, a speech delivered the same day as his best friend in football, Edy Reja, was starting work at Lazio. No doubt the two men had been in touch. Reja has just joined a club where players were unable to practice last week because of threatening demonstrations by ultras at the training ground at Formello.
Capello and Reja grew up together in football, learned their profession in the north east corner of Italy and formed a bond that has lasted almost half a century. Capello does not have many close friends in the game, but it is safe to say, that, beyond the deliberate reference to ultras, he would have been directly in touch about Reja's new and challenging task. Lazio are in deep trouble, and they have turned to the veteran coach to scrape them out of the relegation zone as swiftly as possible.
Following last week's departure of Davide Ballardini, Claudio Lotito, the Lazio president, was looking for someone to "restore the unity of the team". Reja was in two minds, having been in his job at Hadjuk Split, in Croatia, for less than a year. "The head said stay, the heart said go", he explained. A bonus for saving Lazio's Serie A status that would take his first season's salary to about ?1 million (Dh5m) may also have persuaded him to return to Italy, where until the middle of last season he was coaching Napoli.
Reja's achievements in Naples remain a strong recommendation for his ability to galvanise a wounded giant. He took Napoli up from Serie C to the top-flight. He had also secured promotions earlier in his career with Brescia, Vicenza and Cagliari. He has never been in a position to be as picky about his jobs as Capello, but like Don Fabio, he has ridden into lacklustre Lazio with an immediate declaration of his authority: Reja looks likely to select Cristian Ledesma, who had been marginalised since August, in his first XI against Parma today.
Ledesma's absence from the side has been one of several confusing and damaging sub-plots in Lazio's wretched campaign. The Argentine is involved in a long contract dispute with the club, and was effectively persona non grata under Ballardini since the summer. Ledesma last played an official match for Lazio 259 days ago. As his exile came to end on Friday, Lotito declared: "Reja has carte blanche in picking the team as far I am concerned. I am always at the service of the coach."
That, certainly, was not the impression Ballardini, nor several of the angry fans, have had. Lazio's problems are many - only bottom-of-the-table Siena in Serie A have won fewer matches, only Livorno scored fewer goals - but their crisis can in part be put down to the fractious relationship between the president and at least two of the more talented footballers in the squad. Goran Pandev, the striker, also spent the summer and autumn in dispute with the club over his contractual status, and, after the issue went to court, left for Inter Milan without a transfer fee being paid. Each goal - and there have been three already since Pandev switched to San Siro last month - reminds the laziali, ultras and moderates, of how effective Pandev used to be there.
At the same time, there is some sympathy for Lotito's determination to rein in costs and take on restless players' agents. The trouble is, his principles are seen as hurting the club. Reja's job is to limit that damage. Less than a decade ago, Lazio were Serie A champions, huge, and, as it turned out, irresponsible spenders. They have proved a resilient outfit in the austere period since, and they urgently need some of that spirit again.
"Lazio have the quality to get out of this situation," believes Reja, "I look at it as a great challenge." firstname.lastname@example.org Parma v Lazio, 6pm, Aljazeera Sport +7