Instantly you think of names like Ryan Giggs, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Del Piero and Matt Le Tissier to conjure up the image of the one-club man.
It was all so different of course, back in the old days. Back then there seemed to be no major financial gain from moving to club to club because of the cap on player’s wages.
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, another one-club wonder, recently stated that, “winning one Premier League title with the Merseysiders would be like winning 10 with any other club”. Heartfelt sentiments, of course, from the heartbeat of the modern day Liverpoolside, but Gerrard’s comments, although refreshing, are nothing new.
Luigi Riva, or ‘Gigi’, as he was more commonly known, was a player who would have happily shared Gerrard’s viewpoint during his career.
Born on the November 7, 1944 in Leggiuno, in the province of Varese, Lombardy, this fearsome striker nicknamed ‘Rombo di Tuono [Roar of Thunder]’ would become the best Italian striker of his generation and a legend at lowly Cagliari.
Before his move to Sardinia he made his professional debut for local side Legnano in 1962. In total he made 22 appearances and scored five goals. Not bad, but nothing to predict what was about to happen.
The season following his debut, Cagliari came calling and for a fee of around 37 million Lire (£12,000) the Sardinians secured his services. Riva made his debut for Cagliari in 1963 in Serie B where they achieved promotion in his first season. He banged in eight goals in 26 appearances.
Cagliari started the following season in Serie A poorly, and halfway through the season they were propping up the rest of the division with only nine points to show for their efforts. Suddenly, playing for the local side didn’t seem such a bad thing.
However, the Sardinians, and Riva in particular, were made of sterner stuff. Sick and tired of being the Serie A whipping boys they staged a remarkable turnaround. The club somehow dragged themselves off the floor and by the end of the season they ended up in a very respectable, and unlikely, seventh place.
With a resurgent second half of the season, Cagliari were looking to push on the following year and establish themselves as a top flight team who could contend for honours.
Riva did his part in the following couple of seasons by bagging 20 goals in 60 games. Again, they are not spectacular numbers for a striker, but it showed consistency and the then Rossoblu coach, Arturo Silvestri, showed great confidence in his man, clearly expecting what was to come next.
International recognition cemented Riva’s status as a player of genuine class and quality. He made his Azzurri debut in June 1965 in a 2-1 defeat to Hungary. If, as Silvestri believed, Gigi was a time-bomb goal machine waiting to explode then now was as good a time as any.
Making good on his coach’s belief, the 1966/67 season proved to be the big breakout year for Gigi as he helped himself to 18 goals in 23 appearances. His left foot now becoming something of a formidable weapon, allied with his composure and clinical touch. Ariel ability is also a useful attribute to have as a striker, and he wasn’t short in that department either.
Suddenly it appeared that all of the planets had aligned and that Gigi Riva would now become not only one of the best strikers in Italy, but also the world.
With Serie A defences frightened and international opponents also suffering from the jitters when faced with the presence of ‘the Roar’, the goals kept on coming. Another 33 goals in the two seasons that followed added to his growing reputation. Yet, for all his efforts, he had little in the way of medals to show as part of a vastly improving Cagliari side.
One of Riva’s great qualities beside his football abilities was his work rate and full blooded commitment. Former England captain and Manchester United legend Bryan Robson was a man of a similar mental approach to the game. Both paid the price for their fearlessness with a string of career threatening injuries.
Riva suffered with a two broken legs, a broken foot and ruptured tendons, the latter eventually forcing his retirement.
Whilst he wasn’t laid up with injuries he continued to do what he did best, scoring goals. If the previous two or three seasons were good for Riva from a personal point of view, then collectively Sardinia and Cagliari were about to be blown away by what was to follow.
The 1969-70 season was to become the highlight in the proud but modest history of the Isolani. The previous season saw them come very close to lifting the Scudetto as they were involved in a three-way battle with eventual champions Fiorentina, and AC Milan.
Bolstered by new signing Angelo Domenghini they would dominate Serie A and run away with the Scudetto, losing only two games in the whole season and conceding a paltry 11 goals, a European league record to this date.
Riva’s goals had at last brought some silverware to Sardinia. Personal triumph also ran alongside the team achievements as for the third time in four seasons Gigi ended up as the season’s top goalscorer.
Riva was also joined in the Italian 1970 World Cup squad by teammates Domenghini and Pier Luigi Cera, a mark of how far this little team had come.
At the peak of his powers, Riva was courted by all of Serie A’s major clubs, and to his credit, although his trophy cabinet may disagree, he refused them all. He preferred instead to cement his legacy in Sardinia.
Despite club not being able to repeat the feats of that magical season, Riva continued to score goals. Injuries would hold him back for a while, but each time he would make a triumphant return to the team and remind everyone why he was regarded as the finest striker of his era.
All good things must come to an end, and that end came for Gigi in 1976. A ruptured tendon in his thigh effectively closed the curtain on his career, although he would not officially retire until two years later. Typically attempting several comebacks and refusing to give up despite repeated advice and warnings to the contrary.
He finished his Cagliari story with over 160 goals, a Scudetto and a thousand great memories.
Aside from his club career there was also the matter of international football. Riva was honoured with wearing the Azzurri shirt on 42 occasions and, in keeping with his club scoring record, he managed 35 goals and is the top all-time scorer for the Italian National Team.
He also has the second best percentage strike rate of any striker for Italy of 83 percent, behind only the great Silvio Piola whose 30 goals in 34 games give him an 88 percent return.
Amongst Italian football’s most celebrated moments is Riva’s celebration of his goal in the “Game of the Century” – the 4-3 semi-final triumph over West Germany in 1970. Down on his knees in sheer exhaustion and happiness it was an enduring image that lives long in the hearts of tifosi across the country.
As recognition of his service to Cagliari they retired his number 11 shirt in honour. There is no more fitting tribute to the man who Roared with Thunder every weekend in Serie A.
For more Legends of Calcio don’t forget to check out the Classic Calcio section of Forza Italian Football.