“Scoring is what gets you through the week.” – Gigi Riva
by Dona Velluti
At 18, Gigi Riva had already made a name for himself in Varese and its province. He was born on November 7, 1944 in Leggiuno, a small village of about 3,500 population, near Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, and had been playing football for coach passes and, later, for blocks of butter and wheels of cheese for local teams, but the Varese football team, at the time playing Serie B, had shown some interest in engaging him. So he was dreaming big: Varese, Milan, Turin and one day, perhaps, Juventus, the biggest of them all… When his club agreed his transfer to Cagliari (Sardinia), he said, he felt scared.
Sardinia was considered a place of exile, almost a penal colony, disconnected from mainland Italy by 120 miles of Mediterranean Sea. Not a place you could drive to. The nearest city was Rome, but unless you had a lot of money for a plane ticket, you would be facing a 13-hour crossing (if the weather was good) on a dingy ferry. The slow process whereby its middle class would sell the region out (together with their soul) for a small piece of the action for themselves had already started, but the island hadn’t yet learnt how to market its rugged, wild and unspoilt beauty through tourism, the only industry it currently hangs onto (and you cannot stay rugged, wild and unspoilt when you start building ugly tourist villages on the beaches). It was (and still is) one of the poorest Italian regions, with very little industrial development to speak of (the lion’s share of the post-war development funds targeted at the island was pocketed by corrupt administrators and industrialists) and an economy based on coal mining (now long gone), agriculture, sheep rearing and dairy production. Many found that their only option was migrating to the industrialised north.
Unlike Britain, where accent is linked to class, in Italy it only identifies geographical origin. An accent from the north is associated with wealth and distinction. A Sardinian accent was synonymous with poverty and coarse, underdeveloped peasants and shepherds, and mocked as such. Sardinians responded with an ill-concealed minority complex. Except for the central mountains, where, amongst the shepherds, bandits, feared as much as secretly admired (and romanticised), held sway: landowners and industrialists were not safe there and would be kidnapped for ransom.
Bandits and shepherds: to an 18-year-old kid from a village in northern Italy, it must have looked like the Wild West – and not in a good way.
Cagliari is the capital of Sardinia. In the spring of 1963, when Gigi Riva arrived, it was a very pretty (but not yet conceited), narrow-minded, very conservative but generous town, controlled by the Catholic Church and the merchant classes which had not yet managed to contaminate everybody with their cynicism. Cagliari had a major port, a small airport, two fishing villages, a wonderful beach with white sand dunes, colourful beach huts and blue clear water, a modest amount of fancy clothes shops, one record shop, and huge pressure to conform. Corruption was already rife, as well-connected cowboy builders were starting to help themselves to the white sand of the beach with the cover of the night and local politicians – the dunes of the ’60s are also long gone – but it wasn’t endemic yet, and the kind public office worker who would help you through the diabolical maze of bureaucracy was still the rule and not the exception. When Riva first arrived at the Cagliari FC training ground he found out, as a confirmation of his worst fears, that it was a dirt pitch – not one single blade of grass.
Life had been hard for Gigi. One of four kids, he came from a poor family. His sisters remember going to bed hungry. His father worked as a tailor and a barber, his mother worked in a textile mill. His father died when Gigi was nine, and he was sent to a boarding school for boys from poor families. He was expelled from two schools as he couldn’t stand the discipline, and he finished his middle school in a third. One of his younger sisters was hospitalised for a rare medical condition she soon died from, and another sister was run over by a car while going to the hospital and was paralysed for 5 years. When Gigi left school at 14 he went to work in a factory, and used to steal away two afternoons a week to go to football practice. His mother died when he was 17, and as of the two surviving sisters one was still paralysed and the other was in hospital giving birth to her first child, Gigi was alone when he followed his mother’s hearse to the cemetery.
It’s not surprising then that the teenager who arrived in Cagliari in 1963 was a polite, introverted, melancholy loner who didn’t talk much, struggled to make personal connections, was painfully homesick and couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there and get back to civilisation.
He was, of course, also extremely talented, extremely driven and not afraid of hard work – of the “first-in-last-out” type the goalies tried to get away from as he wanted to keep practising when everybody had gone home. He played fair, had brilliant ball control, impressive pace and skilful dribbling ability. He was fearless, daring, very powerful, left-footed and could kick the ball at almost 80 mph. It wasn’t long before a popular journalist in the national press nicknamed him Rumble of Thunder, and the moniker stuck.
When Gigi Riva arrived at Cagliari FC, the club was rooted in Serie B. He dragged them into Serie A, dominated by Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Fiorentina. Cagliari was under the under-underdog. As their coach Manlio Scopigno said when a Juventus official claimed that the mafia had ensnared Riva (the mafia had no presence in Sardinia), “Juve and the Milan clubs have had the wealth and contacts to ensure that they’ve had things their own way for far too long. If Cagliari should win Serie A, I’d imagine it will be the first honest championship victory for years.”
The town was already in love with Riva, and the love was a real, practical, warm embrace from humble, generous people. They didn’t worship him from afar, nor did they crowd him: they respected his privacy and his shyness, but they would stop him and talk to him in the street, they would take him to the nearest bar and buy him an espresso or a beer. Fishermen would take him home for family meals. This was a pre-selfies era when celebrity obsession was still unknown, and Riva never behaved like a star. His modesty and slight awkwardness struck a chord. The town adopted him. And when he talked about the town or Sardinia, he said “we”, in his strong northern accent.
Recovering from a fractured fibula, Riva led Italy to win the European Championship in 1968, the first win of any kind since the end of WW2, and at the end of the match against Yugoslavia everybody at the Rome Olympic Stadium lit a newspaper and turned the place into a gigantic candlelight celebration (Health & Safety has never been a concern…).
Then Cagliari FC strengthened the team around him, and in 1970 Riva led them to win their first (and only) scudetto. For the town that was it. You can hear this new, unknown pride in their voices in archive footage, when they shout into the microphone that he is the greatest footballer of all time. They are saying, “now you can think what you want about us, we don’t care anymore – we have Gigi Riva.”
“I couldn’t just say, ‘Thanks for everything, have a nice life,’ and leave”
He returned the love in spades. In his club career, wearing the now legendary No. 11 jersey, he played 373 matches and scored 207 goals. He was the top scorer in three championships (1967, 1969, 1970). His record with the national side, 35 goals in 42 caps, is still unbeaten. None of this went to his head, and when on the principle of “if you can’t beat them, buy them”, Inter Milan and AC Milan tried to buy him and Juventus harassed him for a year offering him huge amounts of money to play for them (Juventus and FIAT owner Agnelli was said to have issued his officials with the order “Grab that sheep boy by his ear and drag him to Turin”), he said no every time – he was not for sale. He told his team-mate and Cagliari sweeper Pierluigi Cera that they were offering too much, that nobody should be paid that amount of money, and he wouldn’t have been able to play under a burden like that. But above all he said he didn’t think that in big towns he could find the “family environment” that he had found in Cagliari, and that leaving a town and its people that had given him so much just wouldn’t have been right. So he stayed.
He later said, “I would have earned triple. But Sardinia had made me a man. It was my land. In those days, they called us shepherds and bandits around Italy. I was 23 and the great Juve wanted to cover me in money. I wanted the scudetto for my land. We did it, the bandits and shepherds.”
In 2010 a party was thrown to celebrate the scudetto 40 year anniversary. The entire old team turned up, happily noting they were all still alive, but mourning the passing of Scopigno and the two masseurs. When interviewed about how football had changed, Riva said, “There was an emotional bond with the supporters. You could feel them in Cagliari. We could feel them when we played away matches in the north, when all the Sardinians who had emigrated up there would come to the stadium. They were asking us to win so that they could go home and feel proud. We could feel them.”
Always shy of the limelight once he was off the pitch, he again turned down an offer of astronomical amounts of money, this time from acclaimed film director Franco Zeffirelli, to play the lead role in Saint Francis’s biopic Brother Son, Sister Moon. He even turned on his heels and left when, arriving at the stadium in Turin where he had been invited to test a machine that measured the power of a shot, he realised that an audience had been allowed in. He said, “I’m not a freak show”, and left.
But the gods were not done with Riva. In October 1970, during a match against Austria at the Prater stadium in Vienna, a nasty challenge by the defender Hof (no Italian who was alive at the time will forget that name) resulted in a fractured tibia and fibula. Images of his team-mate Domenghini running up to him and sinking his face in his hands at the sight of the broken bone sticking out of Riva’s shin are etched in the memory of those who remember Hof’s name.
Without him, Cagliari was eliminated from the European Cup and started slipping down the Serie A table. He fought back and recovered and in the 1971/72 championship bagged 21 goals in 30 games and revived his team’s fortunes for a bit, but Cagliari’s steady decline had started. In spite of that, Riva remained loyal and stayed with his team. Until February 1976, when, during a home match against AC Milan, he injured his right thigh adductor. He never fully recovered and never played again. In 2005, Cagliari FC officially “retired” his jersey and handed it to him during a special ceremony: nobody will ever wear the number 11 jersey in Cagliari again. That’s Gigi Riva’s for all time.
FOOTBALLERS AND MEN
He still lives in Cagliari, with no fuss. When he retired he bought a petrol station, and founded the Gigi Riva Football School. On their website he wrote: “When back in 1976 I decided to create a football school, initially my main purpose was probably to train ‘footballers’. But I soon realised that the aim of an initiative like that should not be to find the champion, but rather to support young people’s growth on the formative and social level through the discipline of a sport that helps them to feel better with themselves and with others. So the objective changed radically and our slogan became ‘forming the man before the footballer’”. The school has an average of 250 registered children a year. The website quotes the German theologian Dorothee Solle: “How would you explain what happiness is to a child?” “I wouldn’t,” she answered, “I would give him a football.”
He’s often seen having a coffee in the afternoon at the bar where he has always gone to have his afternoon coffee. He never married, but has two sons and three granddaughters he dotes on.
He was never involved in any of the corruption/match-fixing scandals that have plagued Italian football over the years, and he declined the usual huge wads of money that he was offered to become a TV pundit. When Berlusconi offered him to stand for the regional elections a few years ago, he declined saying that he didn’t feel it was his place. Later, in an interview with the national press he denounced the way Sardinia had been exploited and was being left to die by an incompetent and corrupt political class, and encouraged young people to pay attention to politics.
In a recent interview Gigi was asked about the glory, awards and recognition that his greatness has brought him. With one of his shy smiles he said, “lots of beautiful things happened to me thanks to football, but I would sacrifice some of that gladly if it could help to mend my childhood a little.”
I used to see Riva on my way back home from primary school, in the takeaway pizza place where they had his framed signed photo on the wall behind the counter. Like everybody else, I had exercise books with his photo on the front cover, like this one >
On February 1st, 1976 I was a few yards away, with my dad, when during that match against AC Milan in Cagliari Riva screamed in agony and fell holding the inside of his right thigh. I heard the scream and the collective gasp in the whole stadium – none of us breathed as he was taken away on a stretcher.
And I used to see him going into the small restaurant attached to my swim club, Rari Nantes Cagliari, when I was a teenager, after he had retired.
Years ago, in a pre-mobile phones era, I was teaching English at the same school in Cagliari where one of his sons, Nicòla, was a student. Nicòla wasn’t in one of my classes, but his class was one of the three that took part in a school trip to Rome that two of my colleagues and I were in charge of. Needless to say, when we arrived at the hotel the kids ignored the way rooms had been allocated and re-arranged themselves to share a room with their best mates. I knew where each of them was at the end of this reshuffle, the hotel reception didn’t. So when very early one morning reception called me to say that a parent was trying to locate his son and could I help by taking the call, although annoyed and half-asleep I said yes. I recognised his voice instantly and, suddenly awake, I automatically stood to attention (you don’t sit when Gigi Riva is talking to you, do you?). He didn’t say, “This is Gigi Riva, do you know where my son is?”. He said, very politely, “This is Nicòla Riva’s father and I can’t find him – can you help me, please?”. Nicòla Riva’s father. That’s Gigi Riva for you.
About the author
Independent Working Class Association activist Dona Velluti has lived in England for the last 23 years, but she was born in Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia, and grew up there when Gigi Riva was at the height of his powers.
This article first appeared on the IWCA Athletics Club website.