Thursday, August 4, 2011

Club Spotlight : Cagliari 1964 1976 Un Sogno Rossoblù

 Before Gigi Riva joined them, Cagliari were a provincial club who had won nothing, and had spent most of their time in Serie B. With Gigi Riva in the team, Cagliari won a historic championship - in 1969-1970 - and also finished second and fourth in the same period. A big new stadium was built as the team became more successful, and was ready to host Cagliari's first and only season in the European Cup in September 1970. After Riva left, in 1976, Cagliari returned to the anonymity of the 1950s. Riva was Cagliari for more than ten years - one Sardinian fan of Gigi remembers seeing a game at a roadside in the island where all 22 players wore Riva's number eleven shirt, and his myth lives on in Sardinia. A great player at a small club, Riva was not linked to Sardinia by family or regional ties. He was born into a poor family in the lakeside town of Leggiuno,14 near the Swiss border in northern Lombardy, during the last winter of World War Two. 'My father', Riva later said, 'had survived three wars, was a hairdresser and a tailor ... at the end of the war he found a job in a local factory ... a piece of metal flew out of a machine and hit him in the stomach. They took him to hospital, but there was nothing they could do for him. I was nine. My mother had to go to work ... I was sent to a religious school, away from home.' The school (known as a collegia in Italian) was sadistically strict. Many Italian children ended up in these places, especially around wartime. Gigi hated it. 'They forced us to pray and only then they would give us bread ... they humiliated us because we were poor. I ran away more than once.'

After three years in the horrible collegia, Riva found a job in a lift-factory and continued to play football. In 1960 he signed up for a local side, and in 1962 he was spotted by Legnano, a much bigger team who had had spells in Serie A but were by then languishing in Serie C. In 1963 Cagliari paid 37 million lire for him, a big fee for a nineteen-year-old. At that time he was unconvinced about Sardinia: 'It seemed like Africa to me: the island where they sent people in order to punish them!' Tall, strong and (later) powerfully built, Riva was a physical icon in the 1960s and 1970s. He was also good-looking, the pin-up of the 1970s. Bars and bedrooms were plastered with photos of Riva, and not just in Sardinia. Numerous statues of the centre-forward were sold and placed in bars all over the island. One can still be seen in the Bar Marius in Cagliari - where fans gather. This wax statue is life-size, and Riva was a tall man. Local journalists worked full-time on Riva, following him everywhere. Gianni Brera gave Riva the perfect nickname: Rombo di tuono, 'Thunder', which only added to the myth.15 The legend of his strength led to a series of stories. In October 1970 a nine-year-old boy, Danilo Piroddi, was standing behind the net during a training session in Rome when a Riva shot broke his arm. His shot was timed at 120 km an hour. Cagliari's goalkeeper would often skip training to avoid parrying hundreds of powerful shots, leaving this unenviable task to the reserve keeper. Much has been written about Riva's left foot. One of the best books about the Cagliari side of 1969-1970 is called A left-foot shot. At elementary school, his teachers had hit Riva on the hand to stop him writing with his left. Later, at religious college, he had to 're-learn' to write.

He was a superman, but a very fragile one. Riva's style, and his bravery, led to so many injuries that in one of the many books about him, his doctor is interviewed. Reams and reams of newsprint were spent analysing Riva's injuries in gory detail. He first broke his leg in March 1967 against Portugal, after a clash with the goalkeeper, and was out for the rest of that season. He then went on to score 31 goals in two seasons, and became the first-choice number nine for Italy. Meanwhile, at Cagliari, a team was being built which - against all the odds - would be ready to challenge for the title. Apart from Riva, Cagliari signed Italy's goalkeeper - Ricky Albertosi - as well as the excellent Domenghini on the right, and the silky Brazilian Nene. At the back the stars were Niccolai, a strong central defender with a penchant for spectacular own goals, and Cera, who played as a kind of modern sweeper - in front of the defence rather than behind it. The team played a form of'total football' and was run by 'The Philosopher', Manlio Scopigno, a witty and intelligent coach from the Friuli region of north-east Italy. In the 1969-70 championship season, Riva scored 21 goals in 30 games, whilst Cagliari only let in a miserly eleven goals - a record. Many players claimed - as with Napoli in 1987 - that one championship with Cagliari was worth ten elsewhere. Riva was a spectacular player. His goals came from powerful long shots, overhead kicks and crashing headers. One goal for Italy against East Germany in 1969 was shown countless times on Italian TV, and became part of the credits sequence of the most popular sports programme, Sporting Sunday. A cross came in from the left and Riva launched himself at the ball, reaching it with a diving header when his body was completely horizontal. The ball flew into the net. In the photo that caught the moment, Riva has his eyes open, watching the ball. The goalkeeper's dive began only as the ball entered the goal. Riva's battles with a series of central defenders were nothing short of epic, such as those with Inter's Tarcisio Burgnich — who was known as 'The Rock'. In one game, Riva broke one of Burgnich's teeth, and the Inter player spent the rest of the game looking for revenge. At the end of the game, Riva recalls: 'We embraced. He still asks me where that tooth is, whenever we meet.'

For Italy, Riva was a key if controversial player for nearly a decade. Left out of the 1966 World Cup16 - he was 'taken along' for the experience, but was not in the playing squad - Riva led Italy to the 1968 European Championships, scoring in the final. In the 1970 World Cup he scored three times as Italy again reached the final, although more was expected of him after Cagliari's extraordinary season. Heavily criticized in the press, his private life was placed under great scrutiny17 and only with the semi-final goal against West Germany in extra-time did he fulfil his potential. Journalist Mario Gismondi later called that goal 'the best goal of the best game of the best sport in the world'.18 In the final itself, he was exhausted, and also missed a good chance in the first half. By 1974, his career was more or less over, and his performance in the finals that year was poor. He even suffered the indignity of being booed by Italian fans in Germany. Riva sacrificed his career for the national team — twice. In 1967 he was badly hurt against Portugal and in October 1970 {after a nasty foul by the Austrian defender Ronald Hof) his career was shortened by another terrible injury during a game in Vienna. Hof's own career was tormented by that foul in the years that followed: 'every time I came to Italy on holiday people would ask me about the incident ... I don't want to talk about it any more.' In 1989, before a game with Austria, an Italian journalist interviewed Hof. The piece was entitled: 'The man who broke (Riva's) leg. He left football and now makes ice-creams'. Without Riva's 1970 injury, Cagliari might well have won a second championship. Hof died of cancer in 1995.

The story of Gigi Riva's career can only be told with reference to Sardinia in 1969-1970, an island which was still desperately poor even in the late 1960s and where people were forced to emigrate to find work. Bandits controlled parts of the island and kidnappings became common in an economy reliant upon ancient traditions of pastoral farming. Yet, the late 1960s was also a time of modernization. Mass tourism was starting to ruin the stunning eastern coastline after the Aga Khan bought up huge tracts of land in the early 1960s. State money was also poured into the island in a vain attempt to develop a petrol industry that turned out to be a mirage. Stefano Boldrini, in his beautiful book about Gigi Riva, argues that the striker's fame modernized Sardinia. He 'forced shepherds to buy transistor radios so that they could follow Cagliari. .. women in black - the Italian chador - fell in love with him'.19 In 1970 Riva gave Sardinia its only football championship, leading to a party which went on for days, and numerous books, films and documentaries.20 In Oibia in the north three Juventus fans were forced to wear Cagliari shirts, and hundreds of false funerals' for Cagliari's rivals were organized. Four huge banners were put up in the city which all read: 'Welcome to the capital of football'. L'Unione Sarda sold 125,000 copies - an unprecedented number - the day after the championship was won. Riva never left Cagliari, despite offers from all the big clubs - especially Juventus to whom he was 'sold' in 1973 (he refused to go) - and this loyalty endeared him still further to his adoring fans.21 Juve - it was said - had offered six players in a swap deal for Riva.
It is often said that if everyone who claims that they had seen the match which clinched the championship against Bari in Cagliari on 12 April 1970 had actually been in the stadium, there would have been a quarter of a million people in the ground (in that season the stadium was normally packed by eleven in the morning)." Two fugitives from justice were arrested in the stadium but were allowed to watch the rest of the game in handcuffs. The victory was historic, the first and last time that a side from Italy's islands won a championship. As Gianni Brera wrote, 'Cagliari's championship signifies the entrance of Sardinia in Italy'. For writer Nanni Boi, Riva achieved 'the miracle of the unification of Sardinia'23 - an island which had always been divided from city to city and region to region. This success was reflected in the national team. For the 1970 World Cup, six players were called up to the squad, and four were in the side as Italy reached the final: Domenghini, Cera, Albertosi and Riva. Controversy dogged the end of Riva's career. His business interests were raked over when he sacked some workers employed in his car showrooms in Sardinia, and he was asked to cut his own wages to help the club. By the mid-1970s, however, the injuries had taken their toll. Riva rarely played, and was unable to turn out for Italy again. In January 1976 he scored his last goal. Then he picked up yet another injury, this time at San Siro. 'It is all over,' he told a journalist in the dressing room. Meanwhile, Cagliari were relegated. Riva finally announced his retirement in April 1977. He then went on to become part of the national team staff. When Roberto Baggio missed that famous penalty in the 1994 World Cup final, Riva's was the shoulder upon which he cried.24 Gigi - as team manager - was a key member of the group that won the 2006 World Cup.

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