8 Gianni Rivera
Watching football matches from several decades ago is an amusing pastime. The tactics and techniques appear very unrefined, and if the match is old enough for the recording to be in black and white, the athleticism is reduced to a brutal, almost primordial act. Gianni Rivera is the signpost for the phase of transition from football as a matter of strength to football as a matter of technique. Compensating for his frail physical constitution with an elegance and an acumen of play which were unprecedented in Italian football (and arguably known nowhere else than in Brazil), Rivera stands as the first true fantasista in the peninsula’s history – a role which would later become the most noble, beautiful and enduring of all Italy’s gifts to the sport.
Rivera started his career as a half-wing, although he was displaced to more central positions with the passage of time. Defining his tactical role presents some difficulties, and these were amplified for his Coaches at the time – Rivera’s game was so far ahead of its age that his own trainers struggled to find the right way to use him. His style was built around tactical rather than physical solutions, and his trenchant, visionary passes almost pre-empt the coming of Francesco Totti by 30 years. The innovative style of his football was internationally rewarded in 1969 with the Ballon D’Or – an honour of particular worth since he was the first Italian ever to win this prize.
The incongruity between Rivera’s football and the times he played in may explain why, despite being a hugely successful player for Milan, the man should have struggled to leave a greater mark on the national team. Yes, Rivera did win the European Cup in 1968, but if we consider that he played in four editions of the World Cup (1962, 1966, 1970, 1974) the fact that he can boast no more than a final – spent on the bench – is a little underwhelming for one as talented as him. This is in fact the only reason why Rivera does not make it into the top five of this list. Technically speaking, the man has almost no peers among the Italians – his skill and sheer grace with the ball were a symphony, one the likes of which has almost never been heard since his time. Unfortunately his precociousness may have been precisely the weakness which later fantasisti did not suffer from. Rivera was light and frail, with very limited capacities for defensive coverage and a disinclination to spend a full 90 minutes on the run. These weaknesses eventually damaged his whole teams more so than they did his personal game, which is perhaps the reason why the national team sometimes benched him in favour of less gifted, more gritty players. Even so, these limitations should not overshadow the real transitional value of Rivera’s scintillating and brilliantly original game – it signals the passage from football as a sport of crude and simple nature to one where aesthetics come into the equation, a paradigm shift which is perhaps the most important in the history of the game. The bridge between these two eras was being built not by Rivera alone but by several different players from multiple nationalities (foremost among these, of course, Pelè). But the insular culture of Italian football gave way to an architecture of its own, and the bridge which it built led towards stars of a very different light from those of the Brazilian dancing school. And if that bridge has a name in Italy, then that name is Gianni Rivera.
Top 20 Azzurri players of all time