Born in 1944 in Leggiuno in the province of Varese, Lombardy, Luigi (or ‘Gigi’) Riva displayed both artistry and power in a career spanning 15 years. An iconic footballer, who was once described as the most handsome man on Earth, became a legend to all followers of the beautiful game.
His playing career started in 1962 with Leggiuno, his local provincial club in Lombardy where he was to accrue five goals in his 22 appearances. The following season he was acquired by Cagliari where he was to spend the rest of his career. His debut for the Sardinians was on 12 September 1964, memorable for all the wrong reasons as the islanders were humiliated 12-1 by Roma. That first campaign in the top flight was truly a season of two halves. Languishing rock bottom with nine points at the halfway mark, the club transformed itself from Christmas with the help of the emerging Riva with victories against giants Juventus and AC Milan. Cagliari finished a remarkable seventh amassing 34 points. Riva’s star was rising, within two seasons he was to finish as the club’s top scorer, knocking in 18 goals in 23 appearances as Cagliari established themselves in the top flight.
During this time Riva made his international debut on June 27 1965 in a 2-1 defeat to Hungary. Little did anyone know that this fresh 21-year-old debutant would go on to become the Azzurri’s leading marksman of all time, an incredible record of 35 goals in 42 appearances cementing his place in the history books. Riva was set to make his mark in the 1966 World Cup in England, but a sickening break to his left leg against Portugal, shortly before the start of the tournament, robbed the public of seeing this goal scoring phenomenon. However, it would not be long until the world discovered a new superstar. In 1968 Italy hosted the European Championships, progressing to the final where they would face Yugoslavia. After the first match finished 1-1 the replay took place just two days later. Riva was targeted as one of the jewels in the Azzurri side, a predator around the penalty area – it was obvious that the Yugoslavs would have to cut off the supply line to him. They managed it for just 12 minutes, as a through ball finished at the left foot of Riva who dispatched his shot with typical ruthlessness past the helpless goalkeeper. The Azzurri were on their way to their first European title, a 2-0 final score giving the hosts the prize, and Riva was now firmly established in the hearts of the tifosi.
It was a halcyon period for club and country for Riva, in the 1969/70 season his 21 goals in 28 appearances secured Cagliari their one and only Scudetto, a truly magnificent achievement for the Sardinians. Even more incredible was that they only lost two matches all season. With the outstanding Riva leading the front line and a watertight defence only conceding 11 goals all season (still a European record), the championship was won by four points from their nearest challengers Inter Milan. Riva finished the season as Capocannoniere for the third time in four years. That summer the world’s best arrived in Mexico for the 1970 World Cup, the Azzurri having high hopes of following their success in the European Championships two years earlier. With Riva in the form of his life, the tifosi were confident that Italy could become world champions for a third time. The Azzurri started slowly netting only one goal in their three group games but finished as group leaders to easily qualify for the quarter-finals. The Azzurri would face the hosts Mexico in Toluca, where a fabulous display from Riva, netting two goals in 13 second half minutes, helped the Italians to a 4-1 victory. In the semi-final they would be pitted against West Germany. In one of the most dramatic matches in World Cup history, in the unforgiving heat of the Azteca stadium, Riva was instrumental in helping the Azzurri to a 4-3 victory after extra time, scoring a classic left foot strike, a trademark Riva goal. In an unforgettable season for the boy from Leggiuno he would now play in a World Cup final against Brazil. Once again the match would be played at the Azteca stadium. With the scores level at 1-1 the exertions of the semi-final began to take their toll, the Italians wilted as the second half went on with Riva unable to continue his remarkable goal scoring form as Brazil ran out comfortable 4-1 winners. Riva finished the tournament as the Azzurri’s top marksmen with three goals. Consolation for Riva lay in the chance to lead his club into the European Cup for the first time.
Sadly, Cagliari’s European adventure ended at the second round stage with defeat to Atlético Madrid, in a season where Riva had more heartache heaped on him. Again on international duty he suffered a broken leg, his right one on this occasion, in a match against Austria which robbed the Sardinians of their top marksman for the rest of the campaign. Riva’s value to the team was beautifully summed up in this season. In only 13 starts he still netted on eight occasions and without his contribution to the side, the islanders slumped to seventh finishing the season a full 16 points behind eventual champions Inter. It seemed that Riva was single handedly dragging the club forward, his unbelievable pace and power on the ball and his awesome aerial ability giving sleepless nights to defenders all over the peninsula. It was inevitable that after almost 10 years at Cagliari, one of the powerhouses of Italian football would make an offer to lure the big number 11 away from the island. In 1973 Riva, now 29 turned down a lucrative move to Juventus. Staying with his beloved Cagliari earned him respect across the footballing fraternity, but injuries were starting to take their toll. In the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany Riva, along with many of his teammates, failed to replicate the form of four years earlier. He was dropped for the final game against Poland as the Azzurri’s campaign came to a shuddering halt. In 1976 whilst playing for Cagliari against Milan, Riva ruptured a tendon in his right thigh, an injury which he struggled to recover from. Despite many attempted comebacks he was forced to face the reality of retirement, and officially ended his career in 1978.
Riva was made an executive of the club and his famous number 11 shirt was retired in honour of his remarkable achievements. Prior to the 2006 World Cup Riva was appointed to the management team for the Azzurri. Marcelo Lippi recognised his achievements in the game and hoped that the maestro could pass on his invaluable experience to the current crop of players before the tournament in Germany. Being part of a World Cup winning squad seemed a fitting finale for Riva who had given so much to the game whilst retaining his dignity throughout a wonderful 14 year career devoted to his art. It was the famous Italian sports journalist Gianni Brera who gave Riva the nickname “Rombo di Tuono” (thunderclap). Brera made no secret of his admiration for masculine physical players. In a golden age for the beautiful game with strapping six foot players sporting bushy sideburns in tight fitting club shirts, Riva was the superstar. His chiselled facial expression looking like it had been constructed from granite, his speed and agility in front of goal captured beautifully on grainy black and white film from a bygone age. A true legend of the game, Riva has earnt his place in Calcio’s hall of fame.
Past Lessons in Calcio
Alessandro Del Piero