Happy Birthday, Champion: 7 November, Gigi Riva | Cagliari


I've never seen him play Gigi Riva. When I approached football as a child, he had just stopped, tired and sad after yet another serious injury. I have always loved him, as if he were a divine entity, a sort of progenitor to be worshiped in the family. As a child I lived in the neighborhood of San Benedetto and often happened to meet him: in via Satta, where I lived, there was and there is a small parking lot, wedged between the buildings, where (then we still played in the middle of the street) me and another forty children chased a ball in games that never ended.

Riva visited his accountant in a nearby building. When he arrived, Rumble of Thunder, the games stopped. Timidly (I), more boldly (the others) came to him for an autograph, a word, a gesture of admiration. And he, though serious and staid on the edge of the surly, always had gentle ways, especially towards the younger ones. It was (and is) a myth. It seemed strange to me that a player of that caliber could live in Cagliari, a fairly marginal city, especially in the 1970s. Having never seen him in the field, I have documented myself over time, I absorbed articles and newspaper clippings concerning his exploits. I was impressed by the numbers that revolved around Riva: 42 games (very few) in the National team, 35 goals (nobody ever managed to do better, something absurd if you think how much you play now), a promotion from B to A, a Scudetto , three times he won the ranking of the top scorer in Serie A, he ranked once second and once third in the ranking for the Ballon d'Or, with the jersey of the National won a European Championship and came second in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

As a blue manager he was World Champion in 2006. In Serie A he achieved 156 goals in 289 matches, with an average goal of more than one goal every two races (more precisely 0.54 goals per game – like Beppe Signori – better like media, among those that precede it as networks, have done only Gunnar Nordahl, Giuseppe Meazza and Gabriel Batistuta). He received the Gold Collar, the highest sporting award in Italy. Despite everything, Riva is always the same. Lonely, shady: the same restaurant for a lifetime, the same people, the same meetings, the same daily actions, since he abandoned the football he played and then the managerial one.

When I looked at his photos as a child, I remained enchanted: his elevation, his movements in the field recalled those of a Homeric hero, so different from current players. Later I also discovered that that man had had a difficult childhood (he lost his parents very young) and that above all he had a brain, a dignity, a thought that went far beyond simple football games. That man was and is a Lombard who became Sardinian. Respectful, close to the needs of a people, the islander, who has never had so many reasons to be happy. Poor as a boy, he never forgot his origins. For this reason he always remained, on the right side, on the side of the weak, the needy, people without ambition (he himself, beyond the character, was a person without great ambitions). A man. When he arrived very young (and Inter fan), in an Elmas airport that looked more like an ultralight landing strip, in 1963 he immediately thought of escaping. Previously he had only played with Laveno Mombello, on Lake Maggiore, a team from the town that was next to his (Leggiuno), where he also worked as a mechanic, and with Legnano, in Serie C. He never left again. He never listened to the sirens of the big teams that would have gone crazy to get him. He always wanted Cagliari. And so it was.

In the field he was a force of nature: natural left-handed, he played with the number 11 shirt, he acted on the left and then centralized. Terrifying shot, impressive aerial skills, Riva had exceptional courage. The supporters of Cagliari and the National team adored him, the technicians, the opponents, the teammates respected him. Gianni Brera coined the nickname for him "Rumble of Thunder", while the Cagliari fans called him "Arrogadottu"(" Rompitutto ").

A fantastic, exciting, moving player. Like few others. His life, his initial difficulties, his explosion, his victories, his accidents, his rebirth have an epic taste. When as a boy I read in his Gazzetta dello Sport Illustrata his exploits I was struck: for me Riva had nothing to envy to Ulysses, Achilles, Hector and all those Homeric heroes who filled my thoughts as a child before falling asleep. Today Riva is 75 years old. As a journalist, I happened to have something to do with him, for an interview or a thought about some person related to "his" Cagliari. A few times he has opened up: he has always preferred to open up and smile with those close to him, the dear ones or the humble ones, the people, the life. For which he has always had a predilection. Like Fabrizio De Andre, whom Riva admired, reciprocated.

Now his life is small things, the things of a 75-year-old man, children, grandchildren, simplicity. Simplicity that has always been one of his beliefs (Zeffirelli even offered him the role of San Francesco, which he immediately refused). When he won it Scudetto with Cagliari made an entire people happy. The Sardinians, thanks to him, in part, interpreted that sporting victory as a ransom. It has never changed, not even in the face of political or advertising enticements. He preferred to stay on the side of the shepherds, layoff workers, emigrants by necessity. A junior national coach said: "Riva puts his head where others find it hard to get their feet in."
Happy Birthday champion.

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