Padraig Whelan Date: 14th October 2011 at 5:26pm
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He is known as the Golden Boy of Italian football and is a legend of calcio in every sense of the world. Quite simply, Gianni Rivera is one of the world’s greatest football players.

In his long and storied career in the game he won three Serie A titles, four Coppa Italias, five continental trophies, the European Championship and the European Player of the Year award and won 60 caps for his country. It always seemed that the youngster was destined for great success in the game as anyone who watched him in the streets as a young boy in his hometown of Alessandria will attest to.

His hometown club then snapped him up as a 13 year-old after he put on a display of fine passing and tricks at a trial for the team in which a big crowd gathered to watch this fascinating young boy.

Just two years later he made his debut in Serie A against Inter and did not look out of place in the slightest. In fact, in that first season at such a young age in one of Europe’s best leagues, Rivera was a standout talent and hit six goals in almost 30 appearances which immediately brought about interest from the bigger clubs.

Alessandria had resigned themselves to losing their star player after just one year and so it was that when AC Milan needed to replace Juan Schiaffino they decided to put their faith in the quick, classy young player and he joined the Rossoneri that summer for a record 90 million lire.

It took just two seasons for Milan to secure the Scudetto with their new man who had now moved into the middle of the park behind the strikers and was responsible for providing the passes for Jose Altafini up front. At the age of just 17 he had become one of the most important players in the team and was becoming one of the most promising footballers in the game so it was no surprise then that he received his first Italian call-up a year later to the World Cup squad and actually made his debut in the opening game of the competition against West Germany.

Many would have felt the pressure of such an occasion but Rivera seemed unfazed by it and was in fine form. However, he didn’t play any more games at the tournament and suffered from controversy within sections of the media, some of whom (led by famed journalist Gianni Brera) claimed he was a luxury player who was only good in attack and wouldn’t defend or tackle and was a player which a team could do without although others argued that he was a player who had to play because of his excellent range of passing, skill on the ball and ability to change the game in an instant.

Thankfully for Milan though nobody could keep Rivera out of the side for season 1962/63 as they set about trying to retain the league title and began their assault on Europe. Rivera was in sensational form during this season and made 40 appearances overall for club and country and managed to hit double figures for Milan as well. Despite falling short in the race for the Scudetto, Milan managed to reach the European Cup Final against Benfica.

The game, held at Wembley, cemented the youngster’s place as a star player as he tortured the Portuguese defence with his range of skills, quick feet and sublime passing. It was two of his passes that helped the Diavolo to victory as Altafini found himself on the end of two of his passes to win Milan the European Cup. So impressed were the continent by Rivera and his outstanding performances that, at just 19, he finished runner-up in the race for the Ballon d’Or losing out to Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin.

After this excellent run of success at the outset of his Milan career, trophies became harder to come by for Milan especially after the departure of manager Nereo Rocco for Torino and the side struggled in the wake of his departure. The Scudetto was thrown away in 1965 in dramatic fashion to their city rivals as the Grande Inter side’s era of dominance began to take shape and the Rossoneri found the going to be tough against the old enemy.

Rivera still turned in typically classy performances with his play taking on a very elegant style but for all his terrific displays, his team could not give the fans at San Siro the trophies that he and his teammates perhaps should have been able to win. It does say a great deal about just how strong the league was at that time though. Unfortunately, the national side could not carry over their club side’s impressive form into the 1966 World Cup and, despite the gifted playmaker having a decent tournament by all accounts, Italy crashed out to North Korea in a game nobody needs reminding of.

The Golden Boy did help bring about another golden period for his side though when, in 1967, Nereo Rocco returned to the Giuseppe Meazza to manage his former club, and immediately set about rebuilding the team with Rivera being pinpointed as the main man and the focal point of the attack. His impact was immediate as season 1967/68 saw the Rossoneri secure a magnificent double by wrestling the title back from Inter and even winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup with a 2-0 win over Hamburg in the Final. Milan certainly were back at the top of the Italian game and it was the midfield man who was one of the main reasons for the success.

Enjoying the freedom of the midfield and the responsibility that Rocco had placed upon his shoulders, Rivera flourished and an equally impressive season the following campaign resulted in him gaining that wonderful individual honour of the European Player of the Year award that he had missed out on in 1963. The Rossoneri also won another European Cup in Madrid that year by destroying a young Ajax side at the Bernabeu in a game in which Rivera put in a performance which many believe was one of his best on a football field.

There was absolutely no questioning that he deserved it this time around especially after also magnificently winning the European Championship in 1968 for his country but picked up an injury in the semi final against the Soviet Union which also ruled him out of the Final against Yugoslavia. Despite his disappointment on missing out on the game itself, he was deserving of his gold medal for all of the hard work he had put in with the national side.

Going into the World Cup in Mexico in 1970, Rivera was the greatest hope that the Azzurri had of winning a third world title but he argued constantly with the coaches and his mentor Rocco had to be flown out to Mexico to dissuade the midfielder from leaving the squad. This would have been a disaster if he had and there was no way the side would have reached the Final without him not least because of his glorious winning goal in the thrilling semi final win over West Germany, a game in which he was sensational.

However, manager Ferrucio Valcareggi, who until the final had been playing his star playmakers Rivera and Mazzola for one half of the game each due to the searing heat in Mexico, left Rivera out for the biggest game in decades for Italy. His decision backfired in horrible fashion as his team crumbled to a 4-1 defeat and Rivera was only brought on for the final six minutes of the game.

Back in Italy after the tournament there was uproar in Rome upon the team’s arrival home where they were met by jeers and cries and banners of “Viva Rivera” as the public let the management know exactly where they thought the Final had been lost. Sadly for the Azzurri fans a similar incident would occur at the World Cup four years later when the Golden Boy was left out of a must-win game against Poland and sure enough, Italy were sent home early.

Gianni had always suffered this strained relationship with those involved in the national setup and for such an iconic national player, captaining his country on a mere four occasions says it all about how difficult a relationship he had to endure with those in power within the Azzurri squad.

Rivera refused to feel sorry for himself in the wake of the disappointment of the World Cup and instead focused on giving his best for Milan and despite being fantastic for the club during this time, the club finished runners-up in the race for the Scudetto on three successive occasions.

This failure for a club as big as Milan was a major disappointment to Rocco who shouldered the blame for being unable to win back the title and left the club for the second time in 1973. Not long after the departure of Rocco, the management attempted to persuade Rivera to leave the club but the captain refused and wanted to stay at the club where he was adored by the Rossoneri fans.

Despite his advancing years Rivera was still an integral part of the team and played in another Cup Winner’s Cup win and one defeat and also won a series of Coppa Italia trophies although he sat out some of the games through suspension after claiming Italian referees were biased in favour of Inter and Juventus. This did single Rivera out for more criticism from those who claimed he was a luxury player by now accusing him of paranoia but Rivera stood by what he believed was “psychological bias” by the referees.

Rivera managed to play on until the 1978/79 season which he announced would be his last before retirement. To prove his eternal class, at 36 years old he still managed to play in half of the games that season and ensured that his career would end in the same way that it started – on a high as his side won the Scudetto for the 10th time in their history and thus were crowned with the famous gold star on those famous red and black stripes.

One of Italy’s greatest players, the Golden Boy, had called time then on a magnificent career and although many expected him to move into management after retiring, he decided to join the backroom staff at Milan although it was a turbulent time in the history of the club as they were found guilty of match fixing and demoted to Serie B. In 1986, with the arrival of Silvio Berlusconi, Rivera was forced out of the club after standing up to the media mogul and paid for it with his job. He then moved into politics and has remained keen on it, giving him a focus in life outside of football but to calcio fans, he will always be the Golden Boy.

For more Legends of Calcio don’t forget to check out the Classic Calcio section of Forza Italian Football.

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