THE LUIGI RIVA STORY
BY Vince Cooper
RARELY has one man had such a huge effect on one team as Luigi Riva, who passed away recently, had on Cagliari. In fact the reverse is also true, as moving to the Mediterranean island turned a lonely boy into a hero.
Riva, nicknamed ‘The Roar of Thunder’ was known for his aerial skill, strength on the ball and powerful left-footed shooting at a time when football in his homeland was replete with the ‘catenaccio’ style epitomised by deep and tough defending. He led the Sardinian team into Serie A and helped them carry off the ‘Scudetto’ in the 1969-70 season. Riva was also the leading light for the Italian national team, helping them reach the World Cup final in 1970.
Luigi ‘Gigi’ Riva was born in the north Italian town of Leggiuno, overlooking Lake Maggiore and close to the Swiss border on 7 November 1944. Father Ugo had a number of jobs including that of hairdresser and tailor but was working in a factory when he lost his life in a work-related accident. Gigi was just nine at the time. Mother Edis then took a job as a maid at which time her son was sent to a religious boarding school.
Sadly Edis also passed away when Gigi was a youngster and he would later say; “My only real regret was not being able to share my life and success with my parents”.
Orphaned, with only sister Fausta who he called “Mum” as immediate family, the youngster turned to football as his means of escape. “My uncle told me to find a real job, but football was the only life for me” he would later say.
A schoolboy line-up with Gigi third from the left in the front row
Gigi’s first team was amateur side Laveno Mombello in his home province of Lombardy and after finding the net 63 times in just two seasons as a 17 and 18-year-old he moved up the ladder joining Serie C team Legnano-Ivrea, also in Lombardy.
Riva of Laveno
It was another brief stay and although he scored just six time in 22 matches he came to the attention of a number of top flight teams including Inter, the team he had supported as a boy. But it was Cagliari president Enrico Rocca, whose team were then in Serie B, who snapped him up for the not-inconsiderable sum of 37 million Lire (roughly a little over £21,000) before the start of the 1963-64 season.
Riva was wary of moving to the island, far away from home, later saying that on his first visit he felt like; ‘it was a place they sent people in order to punish them’. But, with encouragement from Fausta, he visited Sardinia again, met some locals, was greeted with open arms and soon took to the place, eventually becoming a proud ‘adopted son’. It became a perfect combination of an island looking for a hero and a lonely young man searching for home.
The Sardinians had never risen above Serie B in their 40-year history but, helped by Riva’s 8 goals in 26 appearances (he missed a number of games in the middle of the season through injury) and a watertight defence that conceded just 21 times they finished runners-up to Varese to reach the top flight for the first time.
On their debut season in the top tier Cagliari, attracting huge support from displaced Sardinians wherever they played (“We were like a huge family”, Gigi would later say, perhaps reflecting on the one he had lost when young), finished a creditable 6th, although some way adrift of champions Inter who also eliminated them at the quarter final stage of the Coppa Italia. Gigi, still just 20, top-scored for the team with 12 goals in all competitions as he quickly built a reputation.
The 1964-65 Cagliari team
And he was clearly making an impression among the big guns. A number of Italy’s biggest clubs started showing an interest in the powerfully-built youngster and, having represented Italy at youth level, Gigi was handed his first international cap in the summer of 1965, coming on as an eighth-minute sub in the 2-1 friendly defeat to Hungary.
But when given his first start for his country, he failed to impress in a goalless draw with France in Paris in March 1966 with one noted journalist calling him ‘one-footed’ and ‘an incomplete player’.
1965-66 also proved a slightly less impressive, if stabilising season for his club as they finished 11th in the table although Gigi again top-scored with 11 goals.
For the 1966 World Cup in England, Gigi was somewhat surprisingly left out of the Italian squad although coach Edmondo Fabbri did bring him over for experience and he saw his team suffer an early exit which included a humiliating loss to North Korea.
For the 1966-67 campaign Cagliari added Roberto Boninsegna, later to be a national teammate of Gigi, to their line-up and also brought in the Brazilian Nene who would go on to play over 300 times for the club. The additions, plus the improved form of Riva who found the net an impressive 18 times in just 23 matches to top score in the league, saw them climb back up to 6th in Serie A with a nine-point gap to champions Juventus.
They might have finished even higher, and Gigi might have scored even more goals, had his season not been brought to an abrupt end when, in March 1967 and on his third international appearance, against Portugal, he suffered a broken left tibia and fibula which left his club without his services for the run-in.
The injury also forced him to miss a chance to play in America as Cagliari competed as the Chicago Mustangs in the NASL.
In total the broken leg led to a six-month absence from football but once he returned to the line-up Gigi, whilst perhaps not quite at his best, showed that he hadn’t lost his touch in front of goal, scoring 13 times in 26 starts although his team dropped back slightly in the table finishing 9th in the 1967-68 season.
In the summer of 1968 Italy hosted the final stages of the European Championship. Riva, now established in the squad, starred in the qualifying group finding the net six times as the Azzurri emerged unbeaten from a section containing Romania, Cyprus and Switzerland. A two-legged quarter-final win over Bulgaria sent Italy through to the final where they were joined by Yugoslavia, England and the Soviet Union.
Italy were drawn against the Soviets in the last four and after the end of extra time saw the pair still goalless the Italians went through when skipper Giacinto Facchetti called ‘tails’ in the dressing room they went through to the final.
Dragan Dzajic got the only goal of the other semi to send Yugoslavia through over World champions England
The final took place at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome and Dzajic gave the Yugoslavs a first-half lead before Gianni Rivera equalised with 10 minutes remaining. Extra time failed to find a winner and this time instead of a coin toss deciding the outcome, the teams met again at the same venue two days later.
Riva strikes against Yugoslavia
Riva had been left out of Italy’s first three matches of the finals with coach Ferruccio Valcareggi preferring Pietro Anastasi and Pierino Prati as his strike pair. But for the replay, Riva replaced Prati and he took just thirteen minutes to justify the call-up, firing home after an Angelo Domenghini corner fell his way.
Giacinto Facchetti with the European Nations trophy
Anastasi doubled the lead in the second period and Italy were crowned champions of Europe, going some way to eliminating memories of that disastrous ‘66 World Cup.
Riva carried his Euro form back into Serie A for the 1968-69 season with his club, top-scoring in the league with 21 strikes in 29 matches as Cagliari finished the season as runners-up, four points adrift of champions Fiorentina. He also top-scored in the Coppa Italia, netting eight times as The Islanders finished runners up to Roma in the final group stage.
Enrico Albertosi in action against Milan
Cagliari had made a major signing in the summer of 1968 with the capture of Italian international goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi from Fiorentina and, under the guidance of coach Manlio Scopigno, ‘il Filosofo’, they made another bold move before the start of the 1969-70 campaign allowing Italian international Roberto Boninsegna to join Inter.
The title-winning team
In return the Sardinians got Angelo Domenghini, Sergio Gori and Cesare Poli from the Milan giants and whilst the newcomers all had an impact it was Riva whose goals and performances were the difference-maker as the side swept to the first (and still only) Serie A title.
Riva salutes the fans
With his new supporting cast, Riva led the way again. Roared on by fans at the Stadio Amsciora and that fervent away support on his travels, he found the net 21 times to finish as the league’s leading scorer for the third time That, allied to a cast-iron defence which conceded just 11 times in 30 matches (they lost just twice) was good enough for Cagliari to finish four points ahead of Boninsegna’s Inter and claim the Scudetto.
Visiting Danilo Piroddi in hospital
Proof if any were needed of Gigi’s powerful left foot was given when he fired in a wayward shot in training that broke the arm of young fan Danilo Piroddi. He later visited the youngster in hospital to apologise.
With Cagliari coach Manlio Scopigno
The club’s first European adventure had ended early with a 3-0 aggregate 2nd Round defeat to East German side Carl Zeiss Jena in the Fairs Cup and they missed out after qualifying for the final group of the Coppa Italia but none of this could take the shine off the title win.
With the league season ending in April there was a short rest for Gigi. During 1968 and 1969 he had scored seven times in four matches (including a hat-trick against Wales) as Italy comfortably qualified for the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico from a three-team group that also included East Germany.
Most of Riva’s goals in qualification were scored in similar vein. He had an innate ability to shoot with power and precision with his left foot from some distance (12+ yards) and also had the strength to hold off defenders before creating space.
As European champions Italy went to Mexico among the favourites to challenge the strong South American contingent led, of course, by Brazil and Pele.
With Milan rival and Azzurri teammate Gianni Rivera
Alongside Riva in the squad there were five other Cagliari players in the squad in Enrico Albertosi, Pierluigi Cera, Comunardo Nicolai, Angelo Domenghini and Sergio Gori. Elsewhere, coach Ferruccio Valareggi could call upon former Islanders star Roberto Boninsegna, Dino Zoff in goal, Giacinto Facchetti, Gianni Rivera and Sandro Mazzola among others.
In action against Israel
Italy were drawn in Group 2 alongside Sweden, Uruguay and Israel. They got things underway with a 1-0 win over the Swedes thanks to a Domenghini goal and followed this with a pair of goalless draws giving them a 1-point advantage at the head of the group.
This set up a quarter-final against hosts Mexico and after falling behind to a Jose Gonzalez goal they luckily drew level when a tame shot from distance was deflected past his own ‘keeper by Javier Guzman and the teams went into half-time all square.
In the second period Riva, criticised in the notoriously hard-to-please Italian press during the group stage, took over, his brace of goals coming either side of one from Gianni Rivera to see the Azzurri advance to the last four.
The memorial stone for the ‘Game of the Century’ at the Azteca Stadium
There they met West Germany, conquerors of England and the pair produced a match which has gone down in history as a World Cup classic. In fact, the classic was the 30 minutes of extra-time. The late, great Franz Beckenbauer would later say of the match: “People forget how ordinary the first 90 minutes were”.
Robert Boninsegna gave Italy the lead after eight minutes in front of 102,444 at the Azteca Stadium and millions more watching around the world on T.V. The Italians then held out staunchly and looked to be heading for the final until the 92nd minute when defender Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, ironically of Milan, popped up in the Italian box to slot the equaliser home.
Franz Beckenbauer: Strapped-up
Beckenbauer had dislocated his shoulder in a challenge with Giacinto Facchetti but with the Germans having already used their two subs he was strapped up and forced to soldier on.
Four minutes into the extra period, goal poacher supreme Gerd Muller poked home from close range to put the Germans in front but then another defender, Tarcisio Burgnich levelled again.
Rivera and Riva celebrate Gigi’s goal against the Germans
Before half time in extra-time Riva put Italy ahead after being set up by Rivera but in the second half of the extra period Muller struck again with a header that Gianni Rivera could, and probably should, have cleared off the line to make it 3-3. “I told myself there’s no other alternative for me”, Rivera would later say. “but to get the ball, take it past everyone and score”.
Although it wasn’t quite that dramatic, the redemption was swift. German fans were still celebrating their equaliser when, less than 60 seconds later, Boninsegna broke down the left and pulled the ball back to the penalty spot where Rivera was on hand to slot home what proved to be the winner.
The 1970 World Cup final
Uwe Seeler said after the loss that if the German had to play the final four days later they would ‘probably lose by five’. As we now know Italy lost that final 4-1 to a scintillating performance by Brazil but they – and Riva – can take great credit for the part they played in both the final and in the tournament as a whole.
Back in domestic action and Cagliari dropped to 7th in the table 14 points behind champions Inter. but an injury to Gigi had a major effect on the team’s hopes.
The team had made an impressive start to their defence including a 3-1 win over Inter at the San Siro where Gigi scored twice, after which he was given the nickname ‘Rombo du Tuono’ (Thunder Clap or Roar of Thunder) by Italian journalist Gianni Brera. The effusive Brera also wrote: “He is one of the most extraordinary athletes ever produced by Italian football”.
But the season was soon ruined for both player and club when Riva broke his leg for the second time in his career, again on international duty, this time whilst playing against Austria at the end of October, an injury that left the champions without their star until April.
The European Cup adventure ended with a 2nd round defeat to Atletico Madrid. Riva had scored three times in the competition, twice against St Etienne and once in the 2-1 home win over the Spaniards. But a 3-0 loss in Spain came with the now-injured Gigi on the sidelines.
Due to the injury Riva’s Serie A goals total fell to just eight although the overall total including cup competitions was 19.
When Gigi took his first tentative steps back into the side there was a rare chance to face English opposition with his team competing in the Anglo-Italian Cup. His first outing was at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace and the only goal of the match came Bobby Tambling who fired the hosts to a 1-0 win.
The star also failed to score at The Hawthorns where Cagliari earned a 2-1 win over West Bromwich Albion but he did grab both goals in a 2-0 revenge win over Palace at home. Cagliari also beat West Brom in the return match but failed to progress to the final with Bologna taking the Italian place (they lost to Blackpool).
There were also goals for Gigi in the Coppa Italia and the ‘Trofeo Armando Picchi’ (Italian League Cup) but the Sardinians finished the season trophyless.
The following, 1971-72 season was better. Cagliari moved back up to 4th in the table just four points behind champions Juventus and qualifying for the UEFA Cup. Riva scored 21 times in 30 matches one behind former teammate Roberto Boninsegna at the head of the scoring charts.
An end-of-season friendly brought Santos and Pele to Sardinia. Riva scored twice and so did Pele with an own-goal by Fabrizio Poletti edging it for the Brazilians.
On the international front a 2-1 aggregate defeat to Belgium at the quarter-final stage saw Italy lose their grip on the European Nations Trophy.
Cagliari had another crack at Europe in 1972-73 but it lasted a single round as they at the hands of Greek side Olympiakos.
Spinning some discs
Domestically, the decline set in. Two 8th-placed finishes were followed by a 10th and then, in 1975-76 an ageing team finished bottom of the table and were relegated to Serie B.
Riva managed to continue finding the net at a good rate in the first two seasons but another injury, this time a calf problem cut short his 74-75 campaign after just eight games and when he ruptured a tendon and tore an abductor muscle in February 1976, a great career finally came to a close.
Several comeback attempts failed so his last match had been at just 31 years old. He had made 397 starts for The Islanders, scoring 213 goals.
He had remained a regular in the national side, making a total of 42 starts for Italy. A goal in the June 1973 win over Brazil saw him equal the record of the legendary Giuseppe Meazza and he would go on to record an extremely impressive 35 strikes for his country, a mark that still stands. It is fair to say that all of his totals would have been even greater but for the two broken legs which, along with the other injuries suffered, limited his playing time.
Throughout his time with Cagliari Riva was linked with moves to Italy’s biggest clubs with Juventus the most regular suitors. He later admitted that a move to Turin would have tripled his salary but that he couldn’t be tempted away from the island; ‘that made me a man’.
Gigi on national team duty
Riva remained in his adopted Sardinia and continued to be strongly involved in football after hanging up his boots. He set up a soccer school on the island, served as president of Cagliari for a brief time and took on various roles with the Italian national team including being a member of the technical staff when they won the World Cup in 2006.
In January 2024 Riva was hospitalised with heart problems. It was suggested that he undergo surgery but after deciding to delay it his condition suddenly deteriorated and he passed away in the 22nd of January. The father of two sons, Nicola and Mauro, Giga also left behind five granchildren.
Sardinia would later go on to produce its own famous footballing sons with the likes of Marco Materazzi, Gianfranco Zola and more recently Nicolo Barella some of the most famous ‘exports’. But even these cannot come close to matching the impact on the island, and on Italian football of their adopted hero, the ‘Roar of Thunder’