When Gigi Riva first stepped off the plane onto the island that he would come to call home, he was not best impressed.
“Sardinia seemed like Africa to me: the island where they sent people in order to punish them,” Riva later quipped. For the boy from Lombardy, this outpost of changeable weather and rough seas seemed like some sort of exile.
The reaction of the Italian media when Riva first represented the national team a few years later was one of similar disdain. On just his second cap, his performance against France was harshly criticised by noted journalist Gianni Brera, who said that the 21-year-old Riva was ‘one-footed’ and ‘an incomplete player’.
From ignominious beginnings began a tale of two loves. Overcoming his initial reservations, Riva took Sardinia and its people to his heart. And the international career which had started with criticism and doubts would become one of incredible goals and broken records. As for Gianni Brera…well, we’ll get to that.
Born into a poor family in northern Italy, Riva was struck by tragedy at just nine-years-old when his father, Ugo, was killed in an industrial accident. He was sent away to a strict religious boarding school, after which he was forced to take a job in a factory.
Fate is a cruel mistress, but she also has a benevolent side, and just as Riva’s life seemed to be heading down a familiar path, he discovered his liberation: football. He signed his first professional contract with Legnano in 1962, and within a year he was moving up the pyramid as Cagliari splashed out 37 million lire to secure his services.
Despite his negative first impressions, Riva settled quickly in Sardinia. Eight goals in his debut season helped the Rossoblu to their first ever promotion to Serie A, and they followed it up with a sixth-place finish the following year. Riva’s performances earned him an international call-up, making him the first Cagliari player to represent Italy at senior level.
Over the next four years, Riva’s career went from strength to strength with both club and country. By the end of the decade he’d already scored 16 goals for Italy, including one in the Euro 1968 final replay, which Italy won 2-0 to clinch their first major honour since the 1938 World Cup.
Meanwhile, Cagliari were strengthening from a team of plucky underdogs to a genuine force to be reckoned with. A queue of more prestigious suitors began to form for Riva’s signature, with Juventus at the front and the Milan clubs behind. He turned them all down. “I would have earned triple,” Riva later revealed. “But Sardinia had made me a man.”
To the island about which he had been dubious when he first arrived, Riva was now a one-man tourism brochure. Enrico Albertosi, Angelo Domenghini and Giulio Zignolo were all tempted to Sardinia by the prospect of playing alongside the country’s deadliest striker, and by 1969 Cagliari had assembled a side capable of challenging for the Scudetto.
All roads pointed to 1970: the year when Riva could cement himself as a legend. Cagliari led Serie A at the turn of the year, and braced themselves for a title fight which never came. Inter, AC Milan and Juventus could all boast riches beyond Cagliari’s wildest dreams, but none of them had Riva. He scored 21 of Cagliari’s 42 league goals, including one on the day that the Rossoblu beat Bari to clinch the title with time to spare.
@Vivo_Azzurro legendary striker "Rombo di Tuono" #GigiRiva in action v. Israel (at his first and till now last participation to a World Cup) in the third match of Group stage 2 #Toluca #WorldCup1970 #Mexico70 (Italy v. Israel 0-0) pic.twitter.com/jz6SMOKo0S— francesco mistrulli (@framis74) March 10, 2018
“We have given all Sardinians something of which they can be proud,” beamed Riva. But his job was only half done. The World Cup awaited, where an Italian victory would surely guarantee Riva the Ballon d’Or. He failed to find the net in the group stages as Italy scored only once, though they progressed thanks to three consecutive clean sheets.
The knockout rounds allowed them to stretch their legs and they thrashed Mexico 4-1 in the quarter finals, with Riva scoring twice. This set up a last four meeting with Germany – a match which would go down in history as the ‘Game of the Century’.
With the teams tied at 2-2 in extra time, Riva was the difference maker. He controlled a cross from the left and took it past Karl-Heinz Schnellinger before firing low into the bottom corner. "The best goal of the best game of the best sport in the world,” wrote Mario Grismondi of Riva’s strike. Italy went on to win 4-3 and booked their place in the World Cup final.
If there is one day in his career that Riva would choose to have over again, it would probably be the day of the final. Although in truth, Italy could have played that match one hundred more times and lost every one. There was no shame in losing to Brazil, who boasted arguably the best team of all time. Riva was anonymous as the tired Italians were blitzed 4-1 in Mexico City.
The dream of the perfect year was over. Riva returned to Sardinia with a silver medal, and the Ballon d’Or went to Gerd Muller instead. Injuries started to catch up with Riva in the years to follow and neither he nor Cagliari could replicate the success of 1970 as they slipped back into midtable.
In 1973 he added the Italian goalscoring record to his Cagliari record, both of which he holds to this day. He remains a god to the people of Sardinia, and in 2005 his number 11 jersey was retired by Cagliari – the only player to be honoured in this way until the recent passing of Davide Astori.
And what of Gianni Brera? In a distinguished journalism career, his criticism of the young Riva was a rare faux pas, but one for which he would eventually redeem himself. In 1970, as Cagliari won 3-1 at the San Siro, Brera delivered a verdict on Riva that would resonate throughout the ages. "I baptise him Rombo di tuono [thunder-clap],” he wrote. “One of the most extraordinary athletes ever produced by Italian football." Preach, Gianni.