“Thunder” forever

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Farewell to Gigi Riva, born in the province of Varese but adopted by Sardinia, writing the history of Cagliari and beyond. A reverse emigrant, he still holds the record for goals scored with the national team jersey.

If the god of football were willing to materialize, we are certain he would rewrite these first weeks of the new year, which, in one fell swoop, have already taken away Mario Zagallo, Franz Beckenbauer, and last night, like a bolt from the blue, our Gigi Riva, one of the strongest Italian footballers of all time, an icon of an era when love for the jersey, heartfelt choices, and attachment to the territory prevailed over every economic temptation.

Riva was born on the shores of Lake Maggiore into a far-from-affluent family, with a homemaker mother and a father, an artisan, who lost his life in a work accident when Gigi was still a young boy. This marked the beginning of a challenging childhood, with boarding schools far from home and football as an outlet and an opportunity for social redemption. The perfect intersection occurred when he worked for an elevator manufacturing company run by a Legnano executive. Spotting him in youth tournaments, the executive decided to include him in the third-tier football with the Lombard team. At 18, Riva scored six goals in twenty-three appearances, clearly playing a robust style of football.

Then there are trains that pass, aligned circumstances, and opportunities that seem to unfold under a precise design. The case of Cagliari is one of them. In those years, to reduce travel expenses, Cagliari often played two home and away matches in Legnano. Consequently, when they were away from Sardinia, the base was Legnano, where Riva was noticed and secured for thirty-seven million lire, less than the fifty offered by Bologna but evidently, given the incredible story that followed, that was how it was meant to be.

Riva, along with Cagliari, achieved something unthinkable in sports. From 1965 to 1974, he scored 164 goals in 315 appearances, from Serie B to the historic Serie A title in 1970, which represented the pinnacle for Riva, a media and social icon. He became a symbol of the ability to win despite economic resources not being on par with the northern powerhouses. The temptations were inevitable, especially from Juventus, which in July 1973 made an irresistible offer: two billion lire and six players, including Gentile, Bettega, and Cuccureddu.

Riva stated in an interview, ‘When Arrica, my president, found out that I wasn’t going, he wasn’t happy at all. But I’m not stubborn. I was a closed person; I had a tragic childhood; my parents passed away early. Then I came to Cagliari, and we built something great. Winning the league was the dream of every team. Sardinia had already won me over; when I saw people leaving Sassari at 8 am, and the stadium was already full at 11, I understood that football meant everything to the Sardinians.’

‘They used to call us shepherds and bandits all over Italy, and I would get angry. The bandits acted out of hunger because there was a lot of hunger back then, just like unfortunately today. Cagliari meant everything to everyone, and I understood that I couldn’t take away the only joys from the shepherds. It would have been a cowardly act to leave, despite all the money from Juventus. After every game, Allodi would appear and say, ‘Shall we call Boniperti?’ But I never had the slightest doubt, and I have never regretted it.’

In that case too, loyalty prevailed over financial temptation. Hence the choice to play exclusively for Cagliari, despite injuries that limited successes, like the year after winning the league when, in a national match against Austria, he suffered a broken fibula after a foul by the Austrian Hof. In 1976, a muscle tear in the adductor during a clash with Milan’s defender Bet added to a body that was aging. He retired from football at the age of 32, aware that he had given his all.

“Roar of Thunder”, as Gianni Brera nicknamed him for the power of his shot and his prolificacy, was also (and could not be otherwise) a protagonist with the national team, establishing himself as one of the most prolific forwards of his generation, with a record of goals (35 in 42 appearances from 1965 to 1974) still unbeaten.

He became the European champion in 1968 by playing the replay of the final against Yugoslavia, and two years later, he presented himself with the enviable score of 19 goals in 16 matches, also scoring in the legendary match against Germany. Unfortunately, they lost to Pele’s Brazil, but we always remember that Italy was literally exhausted from the previous sports battle against the Germans. So much so that sports and almanacs recall that 4-3 in the semifinal more than Brazil’s World Cup victory.

In 1999, the specialized magazine World Soccer recognized him a place in the list of the best footballers of the 20th century. He was also included in the Italian football Hall of Fame.

After hanging up his boots, he continued his career as an executive, always with the Cagliari club. In 1987, he returned to the national team, initially as a liaison officer with the Federation, then as a team manager. He held the latter role until 2013, participating in the triumph of Berlin 2006, as well as the great disappointments of USA 1994 and the European Championships lost in the final in 2000 and 2012 against France and Spain.

A hero in a challenging world, an example of courage and dedication, loyalty and life. Unlike those players who sell themselves to the highest bidder, as a champion, he never betrayed Sardinia and the Sardinians, demonstrating his love and attachment to them, remaining faithful to his jersey, his land, and to those who will never stop loving him.

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Gianluca Puzzo

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Gianluca Puzzo

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