Cagliari legend Luigi Riva spent his entire career with the Rossoblu, making over 300 appearances. Marco Jackson looks back at the career of one of Italy’s finest forwards.
When Fabrizio Cammarata slid in to nod home Cagliari’s first goal against Vicenza in May 2004, he marked the end of an era. As he wheeled away in delight, it wasn’t immediately obvious but on closer inspection, one could see that Cammarata was wearing the number 11 shirt. No Cagliari player has worn the shirt since he left, and that was its final goal.
The reason for that was an anomaly, a singular talent who made that shirt his own – not just during his career, but in eternity. He is approaching his 71st birthday, but still nobody has scored more goals for the Rossoblu than Luigi ‘Gigi’ Riva. Far from being a hero just to the people of Cagliari, nobody has scored more goals for Italy than Riva. He was, around the turn of the 1970s, supreme.
Born in Lombardy in the far north of Italy, Riva was initially hesitant after his move from first club Legnano, describing Sardinia as an island ‘where they sent people to punish them’. He was wrong about that, though arguably not for long.
With Riva at the fore, Cagliari grew. From a perennial Serie B side, the Isolani rose. First to Serie A, for the first time ever and then, as other players were added to the squad, up that table, too.
Riva was always the star, but by the time of the 1969/70 season, he shone as others twinkled. Goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi was a Scudetto winner with Fiorentina. Sergio Gori arrived from Inter as part of the deal that also brought Angelo Domenghini, but only to allow Roberto Boninsegna to go the other way.
That season, the last at Cagliari’s Stadio Amsicora, is the one for which Riva is best remembered. He scored 21 goals – his highest figure ever, and 10 more than the Rossoblu conceded. By the time April came around, Cagliari knew that a win against Bari would seal the Scudetto should second placed Juventus come up short against Lazio.
Riva, inevitably, opened the scoring but at half time the Bianconeri were holding firm in Rome. During the second period, Gian Piero Ghio and Giorgio Chinaglia earned the points for Lazio and Sergio Gori did the same for Cagliari.
For Juventus, it would have been a particularly bitter blow; they had relentlessly courted Riva, a quest coming to a head in 1967, when the player himself shunned the Turin giants. He had become part of the landscape and decided to stay.
“I would have earned triple,” he later explained, “but Sardinia had made me a man. It was my land. In those days, they called us shepherds and bandits around Italy. I was 23 and the great Juve wanted to cover me in money. I wanted the Scudetto for my land. We did it, the bandits and shepherds.”
Taking the Scudetto to Sardinia was as unlikely as it was impressive and, as with other teams who have performed such improbable feats, their legend far outlives their success. This is why Riva’s shirt has been retired. For Cagliari, there is no other number 11 – it is Luigi Riva’s shirt.
Riva was able to find the net in all kinds of ways. A good many of his goals were rifled in by his piston-like left foot, a weapon that earned his sobriquet ‘Il Rombo di tuono’ (‘the Rumble of Thunder’) from journalist Gianni Brera. Yet he was powerful in the air, lithe and versatile.
Being the best in Italy was one thing, but Riva showed he had the both the desire and ability to impose himself on the international game too.
His goals fired Italy to a first international trophy in 30 years, the 1968 European Championship – he scored in the final. Two years later in Mexico, despite heavy criticism that he wasn’t at his best, Riva found his form with a brace in the quarter-final.
In the semi-final, he proved himself again. Italy beat West Germany 4-3 in ‘the Game of the Century’, with the Cagliari man’s goal later being described as ‘the best goal of the best game of the best sport in the world’. Maybe suffering after such a draining final, Italy were torn about by, perhaps, the best team in the best sport in the world, Brazil, in the 1970 World Cup Final.
The goals Riva scored, it has to be noted, came at a cost. Missing 35 games in the five seasons up to 1971, injuries mounted up as his career went on, taking their toll as he grew older. He ended with a flourish of six goals in eight games in 1975/76; despite that, the Rossoblu finished bottom and were relegated.
As they went, he went, but the stories live on.
Luigi Riva is 71 this week. In Cagliari, he remains timeless.