Gigi Riva and the unstoppable thunder of Serie A

Gigi Riva and the unstoppable thunder of Serie A

“My only real regret was not being able to share my life and success with my parents. If anyone could help me with this problem I would say to him: bring them back to life. I had suffered from depression for a year and a half at the time but this is now just a memory for me.”Gigi Riva was broken. Broken that he could not share his success, his growth, his life with his parents. His career encompassed a sole club in the heart of Sardinia – Cagliari. The Bianconeri came knocking. No answer. The Nerazzurri soon followed. No answer. The Rumble of Thunder was upon Serie A, and he wanted the Scudetto.

Lake Maggiore is a tranquil place. It is a picturesque setting for the start of many a fairy tale, and the place of birth – or more specifically, Leggiuno – of Riva.

Ugo Riva, father to young Gigi, went from trimming hair to metal castings during his working days. The upbringing he gave his son was overshadowed by a career in foundry, but Ugo would not make it beyond 1953. Gigi was left without a father figure for the majority of his childhood, bereft of someone to look up to, someone to aspire to emulate and make proud.

Riva found his antidote in football. “Football was an outlet for me,” he told Corriere della Sera. “My uncle told me to find a real job, but football was the one for me.”

Coupled with working as a mechanic, Riva had been slowly but surely impressing for local side Legnano in his spare time. The then-coach of Italy’s national junior side, Beppe Galluzzi, took it upon himself to call Riva up to a qualifier with Spain. It was a chance to fly away from his troubles, and create a new beginning for himself. But that was not Riva.

He stuck to his roots, determined to make his parents proud. Going elsewhere in Italy would not deter him from his childhood memories, as he never forgot where he came from. His mother had also crossed the divide and reunited with her husband, leaving Gigi and Fausta – his sister whom he called ‘mum’ – to create their own destiny.

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High in the sky, alongside his mother and father, Gigi’s career changed. It was as if a break in the void of the world had come to pass, combining a meeting of three loved ones to experience the same outcome. Riva had been sold. “To whom?” he enquired. “Bologna? Inter – the team in my heart?” “No, Cagliari.”

Crestfallen, he retorted: “I could never go.” To Riva, it was if the plane had fallen, crushing his dreams as his desire to share such a special moment with his mother and father was cast out into the winds. The Thunder was brewing.

On his return, as he sat with his sister Fausta, she asked him to reflect upon the offer and to contemplate the importance of securing the 37 million lire deal to Cagliari. Compromises were made, and Riva was invited to visit Cagliari to test the waters. “From the plane, it seemed like going to Africa,” was his response on travelling to Sardinia. Gigi was going to see if this place, of all places, was where he could call home.

“I was without a family,” Gigi told La Repubblica in 2004. “I [then] found so many: that of the fisherman [Martino] who invited me to dinner [and] that of the butcher, Pastor. When we were playing in Milan, in Turin, there were five or six thousand Sardinians coming from Germany, Switzerland and France. We were a strong solid group. We represented the whole island, we knew it and we liked it.”

Cagliari became that home. The leap from Serie C to B aged 19 was seamless, almost as if he had been there his entire life. The Thunder engulfed the league – eight times the roar could be heard when ball met net. Forty years of waiting for so many Sardinians was over on Cagliari’s return to Serie A, but Gigi was just getting started. Serie A was afoot, a daunting new challenge for any fine footballer, especially that of a 20-year-old.

It is 1964. The Beatles held the top five spots in the Billboard Top 40 singles charts, Elizabeth Taylor married Richard Burton (for the first time) and Martin Luther King Jnr was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Elsewhere, off the coast of Italy in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Rombo di Tuono was beginning to settle in his new surroundings. He soon jetted off east to the capital, Rome, for his league debut. Ricciotti Greatti – another who joined Cagliari in 1963 alongside Riva – netted a goal for both sides, culminating in a 2-1 Giallorossi win.

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Three weeks is all it took Riva to score his first goal in Serie A. Albeit cancelled out 60 seconds later by Sampdoria’s Paolo Barison, the goal was the signifier. The signifier – if you paid attention during semiotics class in school – was the meaning behind the goal; a sign of things to come being the appropriate saying to use on such an occasion. The switch from Legnano to Cagliari was complete; from Leggiuano to Sardinia; from troubled childhood to Serie A goalscorer.

However, a goal is not always as significant as that. Gigi had suffered from depression during his younger days, opening up to Corriere della Sera that both sadness and depression has had its grip on him all those years ago. “It happens from time to time,” Riva stated. “I [did] not have a great childhood, everything is from there.” But he battled. He stayed strong throughout his entire footballing career, achieving greatness from nothing and becoming the person so many in Sardinia loved then and now. Cagliari finished sixth that season despite a less-than-convincing start.

His habit for scoring never dwindled. In his early days in Sardinia, without a driving license, Gigi was left clinging onto a tram – a daily commute for the 19-year-old. Driving secretly around the stadium’s track in a Fiat 600, the instructor told him: “If [you] score on Sunday, I will give you a license.” A brace duly followed against Verona, and he had his desire.

The Rossoblu were establishing themselves as high-flyers in Italy’s top league. Roberto Boninsegna – famous mainly for his time at Inter that included being struck by a Coca-Cola can against Borussia Mönchengladbach – joined up with Gigi in Cagliari’s forward-thinking side. Supposed controversy between the two was never backed up in detail. Gigi has spoken of his great friendship with ‘Bonimba’, only tugging at the strength of their cord of friendship when having gone for a drive with Roberto. The latter said how Gigi “[took] corners on two wheels,” leaving the soon-to-be Inter man having to “take out life insurance.” Questions on the driving license took centre stage with the Italians.

The latter paragraph must be read ironically, for Riva’s tenacious levels of play on a football field left him with many injuries. An injury sustained against Portugal in 1967 saw him out of action for half a year – a price to pay for the skill and substance he oozed on the pitch. It proved to be just the start of such trials and tribulations, but not something that would halter Riva’s Scudetto ambitions.

Eventually, 1969 rolled around the corner. This was just another year for many, but not for Sardinians. Boninsegna had been sold to Inter – his ‘beloved’ – the same club also supposedly loved by Riva; but Gigi would not leave. Juventus still came calling, in a literal sense – Giampiero Boniperti spoke of how he endeavoured to bring Riva to the Bianconeri every time he played in northern Italy – but Gigi always turned his back. The weather remained sunny in Turin, whilst Cagliari continued to be under a cloud of roaring thunder.

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As Roberto packed his bags, said his farewells, and went to start his own fairy tale in black and blue, Riva was about to complete his. With the added acquisitions of Cesare Poli, Angelo Domenghini and Sergio Gori from the Boninsegna deal, Cagliari were ready to finally embark upon the climb to the top. Their Mount Everest if you will, or maybe The Alps – something a little closer to the most famous word in Riva’s dictionary: home.

Riva had been crowned Capocannoniere twice already in his career, but he was never a man fixated upon individual honours. Although he had spent much of his life alone, he wished to share his success with his teammates, coach Manlio Scopigno, and all who supported him at Cagliari. Once his left foot connected with the ball in their 2-1 win over Lanerossi Vicenza, it was the beginning of something truly incredible in Italy. In a campaign where just two losses were chiseled into their Serie A standings, where only 11 goals went against Riva and his teammates, the Scudetto was theirs on 12 April 1970.

The Stadio Amsicora was packed. “When I saw at 11am that the stadium was already full,” Riva told Gazzetta dello Sport, “I knew that for Sardinians, football was everything.” Cagliari were playing Bari that day, and a win would give them the Scudetto. Riva and Gori did the rest. History was made. L’Unione Sarda sold 125,000 copies the following day, an unprecedented amount for an unprecedented footballing achievement. The Bandits and The Shepherds had done the unthinkable in Sardinia, a third Capocannoniere to boot with 21 goals for the man from Leggiuno. This was not ‘his’ moment, but Cagliari’s.

Gianni Filippini spoke of Cagliari’s title win, saying: “[Cagliari came] from the bottom of the leagues up to the top to dominate the scene. But for the Sardinians this force that drives them is enthusiasm beyond sport.”

Such success would not be revisited by Gigi as the injuries returned. His leg had been broken whilst on duty for the Azzurri by the Austrian defender Ronald Hof, calling a close to his career in 1976. “I no longer go to the stadium,” Riva stated to Corriere della Sera. “Too much anxiety I suffer. Even when I was sent off in the past, I never stayed in the stands. I took the car and drove to Costa Rei or Muravera. Now I listen to the final result and the next day I watch the game.”

Gigi is never too far away from the Rossoblu’s home, probably walking in the Ogliastra forests, one of his favourite parts of Sardinia. “I walk there for 20 minutes without seeing the sky.” It was his place to think, to reflect upon his success, and if you listen really closely, you can still hear that faint sound of rumbling thunder.

By George Rinaldi  @GeorgeRinaldi

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