Gigi Riva: The silence before the thunder

“Knocks from defenders are like caresses when compared to the beatings of mourning, loneliness and deprivation.”

Those strong and poignant words were uttered by a man better known for his skill as a footballer than his proficiency as a rhetorician. However, in that one sentence, former Cagliari striker Luigi ‘Gigi’ Riva eloquently portrayed the silent suffering of an isolated childhood that would later manifest itself as a glorious roar of thunder on the field of play.

A tragic beginning

The origin of that torment can be traced back to a day in February 1953, when eight-year-old Gigi Riva first heard the news that his father Ugo would not be coming home from work that day – or any other day.

The Riva family lived a modest life in the quiet village of Leggiuno on the banks of Lake Maggiore. Ugo had originally worked as a barber; then as a tailor, before he eventually settled into a job at the local foundry. It was during a routine shift at the factory that the father-of-two met his untimely end.

A piece of metal became separated from a faulty machine and struck him in the stomach, slicing it open from one side to the other with fatal consequences. From that day on, life for the young Riva family would never be the same again.

Deprivation and isolation

Prior to his father’s death, Gigi’s mother Edis had worked as a housewife; but now, the grieving widow had little choice but to seek out full-time work. She took on a job at a local mill and further supplemented her income by cleaning the homes of wealthy neighbours in the village. However, the pay was very low and she had trouble making ends meet.

Still stricken by grief and with mounting financial problems, Edis Riva eventually took the decision to send her son away to a college in nearby Viggiù. The institution was run by priests and only admitted the most deprived children in the area. To the young Gigi Riva, the college was more like a prison. A daily routine of prayer in exchange for bread, water and basic provisions, combined with feelings of humiliation and desperate loneliness, prompted the young boy to run away on more than one occasion. The icy walls and sombre atmosphere were not the ideal environment for a young boy struggling to cope with bereavement and rejection.

A new life

After several years of this desperate existence, 15-year-old Gigi was finally old enough to quit the college.  With his mother still struggling financially, he went to live with his sister Fausta and soon landed a job as an apprentice mechanic. This role suited him because he had always been fascinated with cars and was a huge fan of the Argentine racing driver Manuel Fangio. In fact, when he was at college he would often daydream about driving and fixing cars as a way of escaping the daily misery.

With a comfortable roof over his head and a steady job that he enjoyed, Gigi Riva finally had some stability in his life and no longer felt alone. His sister acted more like a mother figure and he felt more calm and relaxed under her wing.

It was at this time that he also started playing football at the weekend. His powerful left foot soon caught the eye of onlookers and one night, after a few drinks in a night club, he agreed to join an amateur side based in Laveno-Mombello.  During his first two seasons at the club, he scored 63 goals and became something of a local hero.

In the summer of 1962 (after a failed trial at Inter), he moved to Serie C side Legnano, and on October 21 of the same year, he made his debut against Ivrea. In his first season, aged just 18, he netted six goals in 23 appearances, playing from the left wing.

During that first season in Serie C, he was scouted by several clubs including second-tier side Cagliari. There were some concerns that Riva was too thin and one-footed, and the player himself was not too keen on moving so far away from home. Nonetheless, in the summer of 1963, a 37 million lire deal was agreed and Riva made the move across the water to Sardinia where he would spend the rest of his playing career.

Anger and regret

Riva always felt great sympathy for his mother and never blamed her for sending him away. In fact, he always dreamed of one-day being able to offer her financial security. Unfortunately, she died shortly before he embarked on his professional career and he was unable to fulfil this pledge. Still unable to come to terms with the cruel hand that life had dealt him, he arrived in Cagliari full of anger and resentment.

In his first season on the island – under the tutelage of Arturo Silvestri – Riva made an impressive contribution of eight goals. Cagliari finished second in the league and were promoted to Serie A for the first time in their history. Riva also made a good impression playing for Italy’s youth team and featured in the side that reached the semi-finals of a UEFA youth tournament in 1963.

The following year, Riva netted another nine times in the league for Cagliari as they eased their way to top-flight survival. He was rewarded with a call-up to the senior national team, then coached by Edmondo Fabbri. On June 27, 1965, at the age of 20, he made his full debut for Italy in a friendly against Hungary, becoming the first ever player from Cagliari to don the shirt of the Azzurri.

In March 1966, Riva played again for Italy in a 0-0 friendly against France. The game was a preparation match for the World Cup in England, and although he was not included in the final 22-man squad, the Cagliari front man was invited to join the team on their trip in order to gain experience and integrate into the camp.

In the 1966-67 season, Gigi Riva’s impressive rise continued. He bagged 18 goals for his club and finished the season as Serie A’s top scorer for the very first time. His tally could have been much higher had he not missed the last two months of the season because of an injury picked up on international duty.

The 1968 European Championships

In 1968, the European Nations’ Cup was still in its infancy (although it took nearly thirty years of planning to get the event off the ground) and was about to be played for a third time, with Italy chosen as hosts. However, before the qualifying rounds for the latest edition began, the organisers decided that a name change was in order.

Now known as the European Championship, the tournament was contested by four teams who progressed via a two-stage qualification competition. A total of 31 nations took part in the qualification process with England, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Ferruccio Valcareggi’s Italy prevailing in the play-offs.

Luigi Riva was a regular starter during the qualifying campaign and made a significant impact, scoring a hat-trick against Cyprus and three goals in two games against Switzerland before a broken leg halted his campaign. He was still in recovery when the final stages of the tournament got underway in June 1968, but returned to score the vital opening goal in the replayed final match against Yugoslavia at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on June 10.

Riva’s goal was the quickest of the tournament (at just 12 minutes) and set the tone for the game. Italy totally dominated and Riva should have scored more but it was fellow frontman Pietro Anastasi who added a second after 31 minutes.

Having booked their place in the final with a coin toss after a semi-final stalemate against the Soviet Union, Italy were crowned European champions and the man dubbed “Rombo di Tuono” (Thunderclap) by renowned Italian journalist, Giovanni Luigi Brera, became a household name.

The league title

In the league, Cagliari continued to progress, adding the likes of Enrico Albertosi, Roberto Boninsegna, Mario Brugnera and Pierluigi Cera to their ranks. In 1968-69, they came close to winning their first ever Scudetto but were narrowly beaten by Fiorentina.

The addition of Angelo Domenghini and Sergio Gori in the summer on 1969 further enhanced the squad, and Cagliari developed a devastating counter-attacking system that made full use of Riva’s fast and aggressive forward play. With this set-up, they were able to secure the clubs one and only league title in the 1969-70 season with Riva once again finishing as the league’s top scorer.

Loyal to the end

Luigi Riva went on to become Italy’s leading all-time scorer and finished as a runner-up in the 1970 World Cup. At domestic level, he scored over 160 goals for Cagliari and remained with the club for the rest of his career, despite receiving generous offers from other teams including Italian giants Juventus.

Riva was the leading scorer in Serie A on three occasions and runner-up in the Balon d’Or once, in 1969. However, further trophies eluded him and he finished his career with just two honors to his name. Despite his modest haul of silverware, Luigi Riva he is still regarded as one of the greatest strikers of all time.

His career was often hampered by injury, so it seemed almost poetic when it was also ended that way. After rupturing a tendon in his right thigh in a league match against AC Milan in February 1976, he made several unsuccessful attempts to recover, before finally retiring in 1978, having never returned to the field of play.

Inner turmoil

Luigi Riva was a man full of anguish – he later admitted suffering from depression during the dark days of his troubled youth and celebrated every goal as if he was being momentarily liberated from a painful burden. The difficult years of his early life filled him with anger, and football became his release. Throughout his career, he enjoyed smoking, drinking and listening to music, and learned to savour every moment of his new-found freedom. However, emotional attachment did not come easy and he never married, preferring to live alone – even after becoming a father of two.

When Riva quit football, he remained in Cagliari (where he opened a soccer school in 1976) and later became President of the club. He has since worked in various executive roles at both club and international level, most notably a 23-year spell as part of the Italian national team’s management set-up.

In 2005, the No. 11 shirt was retired in his honor by Cagliari. The final jersey was presented to him by Rocco Sabato – the last ever player to wear the shirt for I Sardi. A ceremony was held and many of the 1970 Scudetto-winning squad were in attendance.

Many years after leaving his home town, Gigi Riva demolished his parent’s old house in Leggiuno and had a new one built. Despite the painful memories, he still likes to spend time there, visiting the local bar and hanging out with his old friends. After all, it was there, by the shores of the Lake Maggiore, that he first kicked a football into a goal made of stones.

Words by Neil Morris: @nmorris01