Monday, February 6, 2012

Focus On : Gianni Rivera "I Golden Boy"

The European Cup final: 28 May 1969. Milan were playing the soon-to-be-great Ajax team of Cruyff and Neeskens - at the Bernabeu in Madrid. With fifteen minutes to go, and Milan already 3-1 up, Gianni Rivera played a one-two on the halfway line and broke clear towards the Ajax goal. He pushed the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper but out wide to the by-line. Then, in the black and white film, the game appeared to stop. Rivera, like all great players - Maradona, Platini, Zidane - seemed to be playing in a kind of time capsule. He looked up, waited, changed his mind, moved the ball to his right foot and floated it across to the far post where, seconds earlier, there was just space. Out of nowhere, an attacker rushed forward to meet the ball perfectly with his head. Pierino Prati, the Milan number nine, had begun his run seconds earlier, from 40 yards out. It is difficult to define genius, but Rivera's pass - and his ability to wait - came close. It was a pass to compare with Pele's to Carlos Alberto in the 1970 World Cup final. Born to an unprivileged family during World War Two, Rivera's first games were in the courtyards and streets of the small Piedmontese town of Alessandria, and then in the playground of his neighbourhood church. 

 His father, a railway mechanic, organized a trial for the local team when he was thirteen. At the trial, Rivera began to trap and pass the ball, and a small crowd gathered to watch. Three days later a letter arrived: Mr Gianni Rivera is accepted as a young player with our club. Rivera's fame spread quickly. It is said that even the great Silvio Piola came to Alessandria to watch him play. Rivera's exceptional career began with a Serie A game for Alessandria at the age of fifteen - the second-youngest debut ever in the top division. In 1959 he was spotted by Milan's manager/director Gipo Viani, who recommended that AC sign him at all costs. They paid 90 million lire for the young star. The young Rivera was thin, almost skeletal, with a characteristic shock of hair. He was always a player of great grace, and early film shows him scoring goals with a delicate touch - lifting the ball over defenders and lobbing goalkeepers with precision.

 At the age of seventeen, he was already a star with Milan, at first on the right wing, and then in the centre, behind the forwards. For almost every other Milan player the rule was simple - pass to Rivera, give him the ball. That year, Milan finished second. The following season, they won the championship - with Rivera providing the passes for Jose Altafini, Jimmy Greaves and Paolo Barison up front. By that time, the Milan manager was Nereo Rocco, with whom Rivera had a long and fruitful alliance. Over the next twenty years he was to play over 500 games for the rossoneri, scoring more than a hundred goals. We have no record of his assists, but Rivera's speciality was the final ball, the most difficult and delicate art in football. Over the years, successive generations of Milan (and Italian) forwards feasted on Rivera's vision. Yet Rivera was also one of the most controversial players to have ever pulled on a football shirt. He was never universally loved, and was the object of one of the most sustained critical journalistic campaigns in sporting history. The journalist involved was the most powerful, controversial and brilliant football writer of his generation - Gianni Brera. He invented a term for Rivera (as with so many other players) that was to dog the player for his whole career - abatino. Literally, this word signifies 'young priest'. In Brera's strange linguistic world, the word took on a new meaning. Rivera was weak, he didn't fight, he wouldn't tackle. Players like Rivera - the abatini - were a luxury that teams simply could not afford. Abatini were half-men, people who didn't really count, losers, luxuries. The occasional moment of skill or genius could not justify the hole in midfield left by the abatini, with their aversion to physical effort. It was true that Rivera did little running or tackling. A whole series of players were employed just to do his 'water-carrying'. As Brera wrote, 'If you have Rivera, you have to build the team around him.1 The journalist declared that he had been subjected to years of insults from fans and colleagues for his stance on Rivera. The player claimed that he didn't read Brera's numerous articles, but the argument must have hit home. It was impossible to ignore Brera. His campaign began in the mid-1960s and reachal a peak during the 1970 World Cup, when Italy split into pro- and anti-Riveraians.

 In 1963, Milan won the European Cup at Wembley. Both assists both for Altafini - in the 2-1 win were from Rivera. At that point, however, Milan's cycle of victories slowed down. Nereo Rocco leti in manage Torino and Brera began to write about abatini. After Milan threw away the championship in 1964-5 (to Inter) Rivera was dubbed a loser. Rocco returned in 1967, with a different team. A new squad was built around the 'Golden Boy, which was one of Rivera's many nicknames and was used by Italians in English. That season saw another championship for Milan, with eleven goals for Rivera, along with the Cup-Winners Cup. A new cycle had begun, crowned by the European Cup in 1969 and the Intercontinental Cup the following year. The 'loser' label was dropped. Rivera was now an international star, being awarded the European Footballer of the Year award - the first homegrown Italian to win the pallone d'oro after the Italo-Argentinian Omar Sivori in 1969. If Rivera's status with Milan was assured, everything was far more complicated with the national team. Rivera first played for Italy in 1962, at the age of eighteen. In that year's World Cup in Chile, he only took part in Italy's first match, a dull 0-0 draw with Germany. In 1966, things went from bad to worse, despite a manager who had made him the centre of his team. Rivera played well but Italy suffered a shock defeat against North Korea. For Rivera that game set Italian football back 'ten years'. Rivera believed in a different kind of football, criticizing the catenaccio system which dominated the Italian game in the 1960s. For many journalists, this translated itself into a debate on the role of the defence, which Rivera argued should be more mobile. The use of a sweeper led to one man less in the midneld. Many interpreted Rivera's polemic as criticism of Inter - masters of the catenaccio system. Manager Edmondo Fabbri left out Inter's great sweeper - Armando Picchi - for the 1966 World Cup. Again, this was interpreted as going along with Rivera's ideas. Many thus attributed the Korea disaster to Rivera. Needless to say, Brera was a huge admirer of Picchi and lost no opportunity to underline the folly of the tactics in 1966, blaming Rivera in essence for Italy's exit, not for his play, but for his influence on the way Italy played. Rivera and Brera had a love-hate relationship. They needed each other. Their fame was in part thanks to the arguments they provoked, but Rivera was sometimes vicious in his attacks on Brera, accusing him openly of being a drunk in his book One more touch (1966),2 However, in the same book Rivera denied that Brera was his 'personal enemy ...' He was more like 'his personal critic'. Strangely, Rivera's greatest manager, Nereo Rocco, was one of the pioneers of catenaccio, whilst Rivera was painted as the arch-enemy of that system.

 The 1970 World Cup was Rivera's triumph, and his nemesis. First, the Golden Boy argued with the national squad's managerial team and made his opinions public at a press conterence. tie threatened 10 go home and was only dissuaded by Rocco, who was flown to Mexico to calm the waters. For a time, it even seemed as if Rivera would be dispatched back to Italy. Then, Giovanni Lodetti, a midfielder who was known as Rivera's 'third lung' at Milan - was sent home from the squad as surplus to requirements. For the European Footballer of the Year, all this was humiliating. Yet, the squad (and especially Gigi Riva) always played better with Rivera on the pitch. The hyper-famous semifinal touched on all the elements of the abatino debate. Rivera's inability to clear the ball off the line for the Germans' third goal was the epitome of abatinismo, his side-footed winning goal a perfect combination ol timing, intelligence and elegance. Rivera's greatest footballing rivalry was with Sandro Mazzola, the equally gifted Inter midfielder who was also one of Brera's abatini. Rivera was captain of Milan, Mazzola often captain of Inter. But it was with the national team that the Rivera-Mazzola dualism most enthused public debate, particularly with manager Ferruccio Valcareggi's invention of the 'relay' - one half for each player - in the 1970 World Cup. By using the relay, Valcareggi was, without admitting it, adhering to Brera's abatino theory. Neither Mazzola nor Rivera, he believed, could play 90 minutes in the Mexico heat. Neither could be left out completely. So it was to be one half each. Two abatini were only as good as one 'normal' player. This compromise worked well until the final, when Valcareggi broke his own rules, giving Rivera a token six minutes (and leaving Mazzola on) with Italy already 3-1 down. Yet, that humiliation pitted, in the minds of many Italian fans, Rivera against the rest of the squad, and against the managerial team. Hence the hostile reception in Rome for a team which had reached the final, with banners which read Viva Rivera. Rivera's own comment was typically caustic - 'maybe the manager didn't realize that there were only six minutes left'. Valcareggi dismissed the choice as a 'technical' one. The great Italian football journalist and historian Antonio Ghirelli called the six minutes 'in bad taste'.4 In the end, Rivera played 60 times for Italy, scoring fourteen goals, and, apart from 1970, his World Cup record (he played in four tournaments) was modest. In 1974, once again, Rivera was left out ol the key game - against Poland - which saw the azzurri knocked out. His difficult relationship with the national team management is revealed by the number of times he was made captain - on just four occasions in twelve years.

 After the dramatic events in Mexico, Milan seemed a refuge for Rivera, but the final results just wouldn't come. For three years running, Milan finished second. Rocco left again and Rivera began a long-running feud with domestic referees, who were accused of being 'psychologically' in favour of Inter and Juventus. In 1975, the managerial team at Milan tried unsuccessfully to push Rivera out. Finally, in 1978-1979, Milan won their tenth championship, which earned them a gold star on their shirts. It was Rivera's last season in the game.
Rivera's hair was also a symbol of his style - and when he adopted a parting there were weeks of debate in the press. In early photos it is always immaculate, but long for the early 1960s. Good-looking, intelligent and rich, Rivera was a constant presence in the gossip magazines that were and are so popular in Italy. He cultivated an almost English style. On the cover of a popular interview-book written with journalist Oreste del Buono in the 1960s he was depicted wearing a bowler hat. In the 1970s the Golden Boy was involved in a sex scandal that set tongues wagging across the country. After an affair with a young actress, she fell pregnant. Rivera left her, and her career suffered. Brera wrote caustically that 'he had many women who were not greatly loved and a daughter who is dear to him (she lives with her mother in San Remo).

 With his playing career at an end, most pundits assumed Rivera would go into football management. He became part of the Milan machine, but this was a bad time for the rossoneri and Rivera was unable to prevent the financial and betting scandals of the late 1970s, which sent Milan twice into Serie B, Inter fans exulted - their proud slogan 'we've never been in B' was a slap in the face to their rivals. When millionaire and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi bought the club in 1986, the contrasts between the two men soon became insurmountable. Rivera was forced out, one of the few leading football figures to stand up to the future prime minister. Berlusconi even tried to write Rivera out of Milan's history, ordering supporters' clubs not to use his name. Rivera was no longer issued with free tickets to games. His next port of call was politics. He was a moderate Catholic and stood for the Christian Democrats and then the centre-left Popular Party in various elections after 1987. As senator, he was appointed as an under-secretary in the Defence Ministry in 1996, but was defeated in the 2001 elections. By all accounts he had been an excellent minister. Nowadays, his name often pops up when calls come to 'clean up' football and he has been mentioned as a possible future Mayor of Milan. His sixtieth birthday in 2003 led to blanket coverage in the press, testimony to his lasting fame and still-boyish good looks.

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Sur un terrain, on ne voyait que lui. Et surtout sa classe, son sens du jeu, son port altier, son élégance et la fulgurance des éclairs qu'il allumait pour illuminer le terrain. Giovanni Rivera était l'incarnation même du numéro 10 brillant. Un peu trop même pour certains supporters qui ne manquaient pas de lui reprocher de toujours privilégier le beau geste. Il est vrai que, parfois, le meneur de jeu italien pouvait passer pour une diva et manquait cruellement d'efficacité dans le dernier geste tant il se compliquait la vie. Pourtant, tous les amateurs de football qui ont eu la chance de le voir évoluer sur un terrain s'accordent à dire que Giovanni Rivera était bien plus qu'un joueur de football : c'était un artiste... Il est né en 1943 à Alessandria dans le Piémont et intègre très vite le centre de formation du club de sa ville natale qui évolue alors en Série A. Le 2 juin 1959, alors qu'il n'a que 15 ans, il fait ses débuts dans le Calcio et devient une curiosité nationale. La saison suivante, il joue de nombreux matchs à la tête de son équipe et se fait remarquer par le Milan AC qui le recrute durant l'été i960. Il a tout juste 17 ans et fait chavirer le cœur des tifosi. Surnommé «Golden Boy» dès sa première saison, il parvient à se faire une place dans l'effectif pourtant brillant du club lombard. En 1962, il remporte son premier titre de champion d'Italie et, à 18 ans, obtient sa première sélection en équipe nationale. Il sera du voyage à la Coupe du monde au Chili et fait ses grands débuts devant les objectifs du monde entier. 

La saison suivante, il remporte la Ligue des Champions en battant le grand Benfica d'Eusebio. Il fait admirer sa technique et sa rapidité et devient l'homme à abattre pour tous les défenseurs. Heureusement pour lui, il a toujours un coup d'avance et sait éviter les tacles qui, à l'époque, se font très souvent au niveau du genou. Avec le Milan AC, pour qui il jouera plus de 19 saisons, il va tout gagner: trois titres de champion (1962,1968 et 1979), quatre Coupes d'Italie (1967,1972,1973 et 1977), deux Coupes des vainqueurs de Coupes en 1968 et 1979 et une autre Ligue des Champions en 1969. En sélection, il remporte le championnat d'Europe en 1968, mais échouera en finale de la Coupe du monde en 1970. Après avoir inscrit le but de la victoire en demi-finale contre l'Allemagne, il est relégué sur le banc de touche pour le dernier match où il n'entrera qu'à 6 minutes du coup de sifflet final. Le Brésil l'emporte, laissant d'amers regrets à Rivera qui arrêtera sa carrière internationale en 1974, après la Coupe du monde en Allemagne. Il raccrochera définitivement ses crampons en 1979, après 501 matchs joués avec le maillot du Milan AC. Il deviendra vice-président du club jusqu'en 1986 et entamera une carrière politique qui le mènera à un poste dans le gouvernement Prodi et à des mandats de député italien et européen. Une reconversion réussie, mais somme toute logique pour un joueur qui figure parmi les plus intelligents de l'histoire du football... 

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