Today is the 73rd birthday of Italy’s all-time top-scorer and Cagliari legend Luigi Riva.
Riva was born in Leggiuno, Lombardy; a small town near the border with Switzerland on November 7, 1944.
His father, Ugo, was tragically killed in a factory accident when young Gigi was only nine. A piece of metal became detached from the machinery and struck Ugo in the stomach.
After that tragedy his mother, Edis, began to work as a maid and Riva was sent to a catholic boarding school.
“They were very strict,” Riva tells John Foot in his book ‘Calcio: A History of Italian Football’. “They forced us to pray and only then would they give us bread to eat. They humiliated us because we were poor, and I ran away more than once”.
The young man then began working in a lift factory, where he began to play football, with his mother passing away shortly after.
In 1960, Riva began playing for local Lombardy side Laveno Mombello, scoring 66 goals across two seasons before moving to Legnano in Serie C.
He made his debut on October 21, 1962 and went on to score six goals in 23 games at the age of 18.
After just one season in Serie C, Riva made the move to Cagliari in Serie A, and it was in Sardinia that he would truly achieve legendary status.
His nine goals in his first season helped the Isolani to avoid relegation, before eleventh, sixth, and ninth place finishes in the league between 1965 and 1968, during which Riva became Capocannoniere in 1967 with 18 goals in 23 games.
He also made his Italy debut on June 27, 1965; becoming the first Cagliari player to represent the Azzurri when he replaced Ezio Pascutti after eight minutes.
In 1968 he was a member of the victorious European Championship squad, returning from a broken leg to score in the replay of the final against Yugoslavia.
The 1968-69 season once again saw Riva crowned as Serie A’s top-scorer, and Cagliari finished second in the league, as well as losing the Coppa Italia final to Roma.
The prowess of Riva attracted other top players to Sardinia, and Cagliari were legitimate Scudetto contenders for the 1969-70 season.
With six games remaining the Isolani were top of Serie A, and they faced second-placed Juventus in Turin.
The island side twice fell behind, but both times Riva equalised, including a penalty with eight minutes remaining which allowed his side to remain top.
With three games remaining Cagliari beat Bari 2-0 - with Riva opening the scoring - and Juve lost 2-0 at Lazio to hand the Rossoblu their first, and so far only, Scudetto.
During this period the striker had also established himself as a mainstay of the Italy side, scoring 19 goals in his 16 caps and scoring a diving header at the San Paolo to ensure qualification for the 1970 World Cup.
After failing to score in the three group games, Riva scored twice against Mexico in the second round, before scoring in extra-time during the 4-3 win over West Germany in the ‘Game of the Century’. It was his 22nd goal in 21 caps.
Unfortunately, that match took a lot out of the Italian side and they were thrashed 4-1 in the final by Brazil.
Cagliari’s defence of their title started well, with Riva’s two goals away at Inter earning him the nickname ‘Rombo di Tuono’ or ‘Rumble of Thunder’ for his fearsome left foot. His shot was so powerful that it once broke the arm of a nine-year-old spectator, who the striker later visited in hospital.
However, after the positive start to the campaign, he broke his leg while on Italy duty in October and the Isolani slumped to seventh place.
Riva returned the following season to hit 24 goals in 34 games across all competitions, before nothing 20 and 15 in the following campaigns.
Despite his exploits Cagliari struggled, but Riva famously turned down what would have been a world record transfer to Juventus.
Unfortunately a series of injuries limited the striker in later seasons, and he made just eight Serie A appearances in the 1974-75 season.
The following campaign saw Riva make only 15 appearances, and despite coming back to score six goals in eight games at the end of the campaign, Cagliari finished bottom of Serie A and were relegated.
While the Isolani’s talisman attempted several comebacks in the subsequent 18 months, he was forced to retired in 1978 at the age of just 33, having made his final appearance at only 31.
Riva ended his career having scored 207 goals in 374 appearances for Cagliari, and he remains the most revered figure in the club’s history.
He also established himself as Italy’s all-time top goalscorer, a record he retains to this day, with 35 goals in 42 appearances.
His goals tended to be crucial too, with 17 goals between World Cup qualifiers and the tournament proper.
Riva was on Marcello Lippi’s staff as Italy won the World Cup in 2006, and Cagliari retired his number 11 shirt in 2005.
In total, he scored 248 goals for club and country throughout his career in 439 appearances.
Italy caps: 42
Honours: 1968 European Championship, 1970 Serie A
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