Few names resonate more powerfully in the history of AC Milan than that of Gianni Rivera, I Rossoneri's 'Golden Boy'.
In addition to his handsome list of titles, Rivera is also remembered fondly for his fascinating rivalry with Sandro Mazzola, his gifted counterpart at Inter Milan. Rarely can a single nation have boasted two men with such sublime talent playing in identical positions during the same period.
Originally hailing from the Piedmontese town of Alessandria, Rivera took his first steps in football at local outfit ASD Don Bosco, where he caught the eye of Franco Pedroni. A former Milan midfielder, Pedroni was working as an assistant coach for Alessandria at the time, and Rivera joined the then Serie A side's first-team ranks in 1958 before making his top-flight debut on 2 June the following year.
Soon afterwards, Milan swooped to sign the exciting youngster, and although they promptly loaned him back to Alessandria for a season, they were made to regret the decision when Rivera made his first trip to face his future team-mates on 7 February 1960.
The midfielder introduced himself to the Milan faithful with a fantastic strike in a 1-1 draw, and by the end of the campaign had added a whole new dimension to his game, learning to position himself better on the pitch as he racked up figures of six goals in 26 outings.
With legendary coach Nereo Rocco in the dugout, Rivera then kicked off his Rossoneri career in a 5-1 defeat of Bologna on 9 October the same year. It was to prove the start of a wonderful association between the two men, the promising newcomer and the wilful coach forging a powerful connection.
"He was an unforgettable character who radiated such joie de vivre, tremendous vitality and incredible humanity," said Rivera. "He had all the best qualities that a human being can have. He was like a father or an older brother who always gave the right advice."
Above all, in an era dominated by city neighbours Inter, the duo – along with the likes of Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni – helped Milan recover from losing a number of departed legends to restate their credentials.
In the early stages of his spell with Milan, Rivera was taken aside by club icon Juan Alberto Schiaffino and told that any player hoping to become a complete footballer needed to score goals, orchestrate moves and help out in defence.
The newcomer took those words to heart, and during his 19 years with Il Diavolo he would drag his team to victory almost single-handedly when necessary, while letting his exceptional technique do the talking if circumstances permitted.
Boosted by their No10's all-round ability, Milan soon had the silverware to prove it too, amassing a healthy collection of trophies in the Rivera years, including three Scudetti, two European Cups and an Intercontinental Cup.
In personal terms, the schemer plundered 128 Serie A goals (122 for Milan) and 173 in all competitions from a total of 527 games, but beyond the bare statistics it was his response to a challenge and sheer influence on proceedings that impressed the most.
Quite simply, all eyes were on Rivera as he patrolled the pitch, in an era when the No10 shirt was the exclusive domain of the fuoriclasse (extraordinary players), their role being to pull the strings in midfield and set the tempo of a game – not just for their colleagues but for the entire stadium as well.
"I've never seen myself in another player," explained Rivera recently, in the lead-up to his 70th birthday. "There have been other great No10s in Italy like [Roberto] Baggio, [Alessandro] Del Piero or [Francesco] Totti, but each of them have their own style, their own characteristics.
"In any case, a copy is never as good as the original. That shirt number just doesn't have the same significance today. For me, the end of that mythical number is also the end of a heroic and nostalgic football age."
Perhaps, but Rivera's heyday is far from forgotten, and for Italian football fans his name remains indelibly linked with that of his great rival Sandro Mazzola and the 1970 FIFA World Cup Mexico™.
Rivera made his Italy bow in a 3-1 win against Belgium on 13 May 1962 and picked up the last of his 60 caps (14 goals) when La Nazionale drew 1-1 with Argentina on 19 June 1974. In between, he helped his country triumph at the 1968 UEFA European Championship and took part in four World Cups, contesting nine finals games.
Nevertheless, the tone for much of his international career was dictated by Ferruccio Valcareggi, Italy's brilliant coach from 1967 to 1974, who was convinced that Rivera and Mazzola could not play together. As a result, Italy's regular line-up at the time featured 12 names: Albertosi; Burgnich, Bertini, Rosato, Facchetti; Cera, Domenghini, Mazzola (then Rivera), Boninsegna; De Sisti, Riva. In this scheme, Mazzola lined up at the start of matches before being replaced by Rivera after half-time.
Opinions on Valcareggi's infamous staffetta (relay) were divided to say the least, but the system tended to work well, with Rivera coming on at the break to notch Italy's last goal in extra time during their 4-3 World Cup semi-final win against West Germany on 17 June 1970. Four days later, La Squadra Azzurra took on Brazil in the showpiece, and the two sides went in with the scoreline level at 1-1 after 45 minutes.
With everyone expecting to see Rivera stride out for the second half, eyebrows were raised when Mazzola resumed his role, and the Milan man had to keep the bench warm until the last six minutes, after Brazil had already added goals via Gerson, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto. Angered by the 4-1 reverse, and the treatment of Ballon d'Or winner Rivera, Italy's supporters rained rotten tomatoes down on the squad when they touched back down on home soil.
Life after retirement
Milan's Golden Boy ultimately called time on his playing days after facing Lazio on 13 May 1979, a week on from winning his final Serie A title under Nils Liedholm. Having long since earned himself legend status at the club, Rivera was swiftly appointed Vice-President, and he held the post for seven years until Silvio Berlusconi took over the presidency. "It quickly became clear that it would be impossible for me to continue in my role while having a different outlook to his," said Rivera, who subsequently withdrew from football.
Instead, he switched his focus to politics and set about experiencing success in a whole new realm, entering Italy's parliament and serving as an under-secretary for Defence before becoming a member of the European Parliament. Then, on 4 August 2010, after being put forward by Giancarlo Abete, the President of the Italian Football Association (FIGC), Rivera was appointed head of the FIGC's youth and schools sector. Back involved in the game, he has since been passing on his formidable knowhow.
Of course, Gianni Rivera never forgot the football family during his years away, and in particular he retains fond memories of Nereo Rocco, never missing a chance to pay tribute to his former coach, who passed away in 1979.
Did You Know?
During Rivera's trial with AC Milan in 1960, several of the club's officials harboured doubts about his physique, the youngster having yet to finish developing. It took the intervention of Milan's legendary captain Juan Alberto Schiaffino – who quickly spotted the talent before his eyes – for Rivera to be offered a contract.
He was one of the co-founders, in 1968, of the Italian Footballers' Association (AIC), along with several of his gifted contemporaries including Giacomo Bulgarelli, Giancarlo De Sisti, Sandro Mazzola and Antonio Juliano.
Rivera was the first Italian, after the Argentinian-born Omar Sivori, to receive the Ballon d'Or, winning the prize in 1969 to make up for being pipped by Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin in 1963.
"He's an elegant young player with a remarkable touch," enthused Giuseppe Meazza after watching Rivera play for the first time in an AC Milan shirt.
Gianni Rivera made his Serie A debut on 2 June 1959, scoring the equaliser for Alessandria in a 1-1 draw with Inter Milan at the age of 15 years, nine months and 15 days. He is still the second youngest player to have graced Italy's top flight behind Amadeo Amadei, who was younger by just nine days.