Considered one of the best strikers, if not the best, in the history of Italian football, Luigi Riva has had just two loves in his career: Cagliari and the Azzurri. In the colours of Italy, he proved this by setting an international scoring record to rival those of Pele, Gerd Muller and Ferenc Puskas. However, in spite of being powerful, technically gifted and blessed with a fearsome shot, Riva accrued nothing like as many honours as his talent deserved.
Gigi Riva, as he was more commonly known, was famously a one-club man, his long and serene journey with Cagliari only blighted by the serious injuries he sustained playing for La Nazionale.
Born in a small Varese village with a population of just 3,500, Riva was enthralled by goalscoring from a young age. Playing for Laveno Mombello, a modest team based in Lombardy, he scored 30 goals in 1961 and 33 the following season, before making his professional debut at just 18 for Serie C side Legnano-Ivrea.
His undeniable talent in front of goal did not go unnoticed by Serie A sides. Shy and taciturn off the pitch but deadly on it, the teenager was soon persuaded to join Cagliari by the then club president Enrico Rocca. In his first season there he found the target eight times as he helped his side seal promotion to the country’s top flight.
Before long, Riva had become enchanted by the beauty of the region and the quality of life in Sardinia. Believing he had found his spiritual home, over the course of 13 years Riva consistently turned down incredible offers from the powerful clubs of the north, notably Juventus. He went on to amass 164 goals in 315 games in all competitions, scoring in 13 consecutive seasons and earning the moniker Rombo di Tuono (Roar of Thunder) along the way.
It was this sense of loyalty that earned him the fans’ unconditional love as well as the respect of his adversaries. However, that bold career choice deprived him of the chance to add a significant number of trophies to his list of personal accolades.
Fit and furious
Naturally left-footed, this No11 reigned supreme on the left wing despite his tendency to drift inside in search of goals. Solidly built, at 1.80m and 80kg, he was never one to shirk a tackle and frequently turned games with his impressive pace, skilful dribbling, aerial prowess and exquisite ball control. His most potent weapon was undoubtedly his formidable shot – the product of a left foot that was both unerring and powerful.
Between 1967 and 1970 he was the most consistent striker in Italian football. As well as winning the Serie A top-scorer award three times, his 21 goals in 1970 helped Cagliari to the only scudetto in their history.
At a time when Italy were struggling to accommodate rival midfielders Gianni Rivera and Sandro Mazzola, Riva slotted in neatly on the left wing. He made his international debut on 27 June 1965, aged just 20, in his side’s 2-1 friendly defeat to Hungary. However, he would have to wait until his fourth cap to net his first international goal during a 5-0 win over Cyprus in Cosenza.
Despite being an integral member of the squad and scoring frequently, Riva was not among the 22 chosen to represent Italy at the 1966 FIFA World Cup England™.
Talking about this exclusion, Riva said: "I'd rather not know why [Italy coach] Edmondo Fabbri didn't pick me. Instead he forced me to come with the group as an additional player. I put everything I had into the training games between the starters and the subs, as it was the only way I could let off steam. And I was scoring goal after goal. I was in great shape and I was furious." His anger heightened further when Korea DPR's Pak Do Ik scored the only goal in his country's historic victory over Italy at the tournament, wearing the No 11 shirt. "Wearing my number as well!" Riva grumbled.
Left then right
A few months later on the 27 March 1967, by which time he had finally nailed down a starting role, Riva fractured his left tibia and fibula playing against Portugal. But it would take more than that to derail the adopted Sardinian, and he was soon back in the limelight, enjoying make the most successful period of his career from 1967 to ’70.
During that time he won the UEFA European Championship with Italy then finished runners-up in the league with Cagliari in 1969. The following year, he claimed the aforementioned scudetto and a runners-up medal at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. In terms of individual accolades, he would come second behind Gianni Rivera for the 1969 Ballon d'Or and third in 1970.
During those glory years Riva scored 22 goals in just 21 appearances as he led the Squadra Azzurra to victory at EURO 1968, memorably netting the first goal after 12 minutes in their 2-0 victory over Yugoslavia in the final. Then at Mexico 1970 he was on the score-sheet in Italy’s historic 4-3 semi-final victory against Germany, when he was at the very peak of his powers and popularity.
However, Lady Luck was soon to deal the battling forward another cruel blow. On 31 October 1970 in Vienna, he suffered yet another tibia and fibula fracture, this time in his right leg, sustained in a challenge from Austrian defender Norbert Hof. Without their top scorer Cagliari were eliminated from the European Cup and slipped down the domestic table. Yet once again, Riva fought back from injury. In the 1971/72 season he plundered 21 goals in 30 games and helped Cagliari return to the upper echelons of the table.
Despite the exploits of their striker, the Sardinian club fell into a steady decline and struggled to remain in the top flight. Yet Riva remained loyal until the end, which came when an adductor injury in February 1976 finally brought the curtain down on his career.
Three years earlier on 20 October 1973, as Italy recorded a 2-0 victory over Switzerland in a qualifier for the 1974 World Cup in Germany, Riva had surpassed Giuseppe Meazza's old record by scoring his 35th goal for his country. The feat made him Italy’s all-time leading scorer, a record he still holds to this day.
Did You Know?
Giampiero Boniperti, the then president of Juventus, asked the Cagliari directors what they would want for the transfer of Riva. The Sardinians replied: Roberto Bettega, Franco Causio, Claudio Gentile or Antonello Cuccuredu, plus Loris Boni from Sampdoria. Unsurprisingly, Juve never followed it up.
In 1976, Gigi Riva founded the first school of football in Sardinia, which bears his name.
On 5 January 2005 Cagliari retired Riva's No11 shirt. As the last ever player to wear the number, Rocco Sabato handed over his shirt to Riva at the ceremony.
Over the course of his club career Riva played 338 matches and scored 170 goals. He also netted 35 times in 42 appearances for La Nazionale.