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Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Gigi Before Gigi: Luigi "Gigi" Riva: Rumble of Thunder

Video courtesy of YouTube.

When you hear the name "Gigi" in present day Italian calcio circles, your attention probably goes in the direction of Gian Luigi "Gigi" Buffon. The stellar goalkeeper for Juventus FC and the Italian National Team. But before Gigi, there was another one of epic standards in Italian football history.

Luigi Riva is a legendary figure in the history of Italian calcio. He was born in 1944 in the small Northern Italian town of Leggiuno. In 1963, he was purchased by a Serie B team, Cagliari, from the island of Sardinia. The following year they were promoted to the Serie A. He would remain with them for the rest of his illustrious career.

Rumble of Thunder

Riva was nicknamed “rombo di tuono,” which means “rumble of thunder.” He was a natural left-footed player who wore the number eleven shirt. In those days, shirt numbers reflected positions on the pitch. Eleven was for the left winger, and few played the position better than Gigi Riva. He was a powerful man with one of the hardest shots in the game. He severely fractured his legs on two occasions. In 1975, he suffered what would become a career ending injury.

Although he grew up in Northern Italy, he is the favorite son of the enchanting island of Sardinia. Many years ago, I had the pleasure to visit Cagliari, the capital city, and the image of Riva was plastered on the walls, and imbued within the hearts and minds of the Sardinian people. Cagliari has won the Italian Serie A Scudetto only one time. Many feel it was in large part due to the efforts of Gigi Riva.

All-time Leading Scorer for Italy

He made his debut for the Azzurri in 1965. He was taken to the 1966 World Cup to obtain a taste of the competition; however, he was not selected to play in any games. In 1968, he competed in the European Nations Cup competition, which was hosted and won by Italy. In 1970, Riva made his mark on World Cup history. In one of the classic games of the World Cup in Mexico, Riva scored a goal in the semi-final extra time 4 to 3 victory over West Germany. Unfortunately, Italy faced one of the best teams ever fielded, the Brazil of Pelé in the final. Italy lost, 4 to 1, and Brazil became the first three-time winner of the World Cup.

Team Manager of the Azzurri

After his career ended, Riva became a part of the management at Cagliari. Presently, Gigi is the team manager for the Italian National Team. In this position, he acts as a mediator between the head coach, the players, and the media. He is well-respected by the players, and is seen as a father-figure to many. In the World Cup final of 1994 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, he was the first person to console a disconsolate Roberto Baggio after he missed the penalty kick that granted Brazil the championship. Perhaps few could truly appreciate Baggio’s pain than Riva, who twelve years before was also defeated by Brazil. Ten years later at Euro 2004, Riva comforted a devastated Antonio Cassano, who moments before thought his winning goal against Bulgaria meant Azzurri qualification. But it was too late.

From his many achievements, one stands out above the rest. In 2005, Gigi’s famous #11 Cagliari shirt was retired during a World Cup qualifying game in Cagliari. This is a rare honor. Luigi “Gigi” Riva. "Rumble of thunder." Azzurri legend. Native son of Leggiuno. Adopted son of the island of Sardinia.

Career Honors
  • In 2005, he became the only Cagliari player to have his number retired.
  • The most goals (35) ever scored for the Italian National Team.
  • 42 appearances for the Italian National Team.
  • Silver medal at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
  • Three time goal scoring leader of the Serie A.
  • One Italian Serie A Scudetto (Championship) in 1969/70. This is the only time Cagliari has won the title.
  • One European Nations Cup Championship in 1968.

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