ROME (Reuters) - When Lazio faced Olympiakos Piraeus in an important Champions League tie in November, Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport published a photograph of their 2000-01 squad.
The aim was to inspire the players to emulate their predecessors, the last Lazio team to qualify from their group in Europe’s premier club competition.
All the photo actually did was underline how far the Rome side have fallen.
Seven years ago, Lazio had Argentina’s Hernan Crespo up front and his compatriot Juan Sebastian Veron in midfield alongside Pavel Nedved. Alessandro Nesta and Angelo Peruzzi, who went on to be members of Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning squad, led the defense and kept goal respectively.
The picks of today’s side are Switzerland right back Valon Behrami, midfielder Stefano Mauri, forward Tommaso Rocchi and his Macedonian strike partner Goran Pandev — good players but not exactly the leading lights of international football.
First-choice goalkeeper Marco Ballotta, meanwhile, celebrates his 44th birthday in April.
Lazio were beaten by Olympiakos, crashed out of the Champions League at the bottom of their group and are now just two points above the Serie A relegation zone.
Amid fan unrest, the fortunes of the 2000 Italian champions are sinking and taking President Claudio Lotito’s brave bid to defy the economics of football down with them.
Lazio had already sold most of their prize players when Lotito took on the debt-laden club in July 2004.
He promised a new approach after former owner Sergio Cragnotti won a league title and a European Cup Winners’ Cup at the cost of driving Lazio to the verge of bankruptcy.
“It is necessary to change policy in football,” Lotito told RAI radio. “The theory that who spends most wins is no longer valid. The winner is the one who carries out a proper project, based on values.”
Lotito stopped Lazio going to the wall and dropping down to the minor leagues by striking a deal with Italian authorities to repay a 140-million-euro ($203-million) tax bill over 23 years.
He set a salary cap of 500,000 euros and cold-shouldered players whose wages he deemed too high, such as defender Paolo Negro and goalkeeper Matteo Sereni, until they left.
After a close shave with relegation in his first season, Lotito gave coach Delio Rossi the job of fashioning a silk purse out of a squad assembled on a tight budget.
Rossi, who had almost saved Atalanta from relegation in 2005 after taking on an impossible task, produced impressive results.
In his first season he guided the Romans to sixth, which would have earned UEFA Cup qualification if it had not been for their points deduction in the 2006 match-fixing scandal.
Last term he led them to third spot and a place in the Champions League, despite another three-point penalty.
Lotito’s project ran into problems off the field, however.
He alienated Lazio’s ultra fans, infamous for their right-wing and sometimes violent elements, by cutting benefits they enjoyed under the old regime.
These included the right to use the club’s name to merchandise their own products.
He upset them further in 2006 by dumping former West Ham United striker Paolo Di Canio, a childhood Lazio fan who had become a liability after giving Fascist salutes during matches.
The situation got so bad that Lotito was given police protection after receiving threats from ultras who were allegedly trying to intimidate him into selling to a consortium led by former Lazio player and president Giorgio Chinaglia.
The fans involved are standing trial, while Chinaglia is a fugitive of Italian justice in the United States after prosecutors brought charges of market rigging linked to his bid.
Lotito has legal headaches of his own. He too faces market-rigging charges over his handling of Lazio’s shares with another stakeholder.
His administration has been guilty of some foul-ups. Ballotta is still pushing his ageing limbs to the limit because the club’s bid to buy River Plate’s Juan Pablo Carrizo stalled after documentation problems. Lazio bought Uruguayan Fernando Muslera instead but he was dropped after a series of blunders.
While the results kept coming, Lotito could count on the support of various non-ultra sections of the fanbase.
However, his failure to invest in the transfer market in the close season left his squad overstretched when faced with the double challenge of Serie A and the Champions League this term.
Now even loyalists are deserting him. Gates have fallen below the 20,000 mark, a massive drop from 2003-04 when season-ticket holders alone numbered 41,000.
Lotito has shown courage in standing up to the ultras and done well to put the club on a healthy financial footing.
The time may have come, though, for him to revise his salary cap and transfer policy if he wants to attract new talent and hang on to players such as Rocchi and Pandev.
Otherwise he risks having to practise his low-cost model of football club management in the second division.
Editing by Clare Fallon