Gianni Rivera: The Golden Boy of Italian football

gianni rivera

Gianni Rivera was the footballer who, more than any other, between the sixties and seventies, left his mark both on and off the pitch. On the pitch thanks to his superfine technique, made up of millimeter passes and precise shots accompanied by a great personality. Out because his utterances were never trivial, so much so that they could also pursue a political career in the Italian parliament at the end of their career.

The Beginnings

Giovanni Rivera was born in Alessandria on August 18, 1943, from a normal family, his father is a railwayman, his mother is a housewife and has a younger brother Mauro. He begins to kick off in Don Bosco’s oratory and in the meantime manages to take the middle school diploma and enroll in high school in a technical school that he abandoned when he made his debut in Serie A.

It was his father who directed him to the Alessandria youth team when he was just thirteen, from there in just three years, before he turned sixteen, he made his debut in Serie A. Already when he was in the youth team, Silvio Piola saw him play, ex great striker of the Italian national team who said:

“At his age, I didn’t even think about the things he can do”

Alexandria first team

The first contact with the first team was in April 1958, coach Franco Pedroni used him in a friendly match against a Swedish team. Rivera was just fourteen, he passed the test brilliantly, also scoring a goal. From there the following season he entered the first team on a permanent basis, where he made his debut in Serie A on 2 June 1959 in the Alessandria – Inter match which ended 1 – 1.

To let him play, being less than sixteen years old, the club had to ask for a special authorization from the federation. From the very first game he was admired for his technique, the precision of deep passes and a very precise shot. From that moment everyone will begin to admire what will later become one of the strongest players that Italian football has ever had. His first goal in Serie A came in the Alessandria – Sampdoria match in October 1958.

In Milan

This little boy with a skinny physique who did what he wanted on the pitch with the ball at his feet attracted everyone’s attention, but it was Milan that moved faster. Through Gippo Viani, they had him auditioned in Milan under the gaze of the great Schiaffino, who tested positive and they acquired co-ownership, leaving him for another year in Alessandria. In the 1959/60 season the Piedmontese team was relegated, even if Rivera scored six goals and was called up to the national team for the Rome Olympics.

In June, Milan redeemed the other half and paid 65 million lire into the Piedmontese club’s coffers, a very important figure for those times, plus two other players Migliavacca and Bettini arrived. His debut with the Rossoneri shirt took place on 18 September 1960 in an Italian cup match against Alessandria, while in the league he made his debut against Catania. In that year he was used on the right side and his performance was not very convincing, even if in the end he scored six goals.

Rocco’s arrival

The arrival of coach Nereo Rocco became fundamental for Rivera’s football history, so much so that they said that the Trieste coach was a second father to him. With Rocco’s arrival, Rivera’s real career at Milan began, he used him as a playmaker behind the forwards and paired with the great Brazilian Dino Sani was the ideal solution to send the other Brazilian Josè Altafini into the goal.

First victories in Italy and internationally

He was launched internationally by his first call-ups to the senior national team in 1962, where he was one of the main protagonists for fifteen years, winning the Scudetto in the same year and Milan’s first European Cup win against Benfica in 1963. this match was decisive in overturning the result by offering two assists which led to the creation of two goals. Also in that year he finished second in the race for the Ballon d’Or behind the Soviet Lev Jasin. After the 1963 victory, Milan weakened from a corporate point of view due to the end of the Rizzoli management and then also due to the departure of Nereo Rocco to Turin.

Also on the field, from a tactical point of view, with the departure of Dino Sani, there were problems with his placement. All this poured into disappointing results in the following seasons. In the 1964/65 championship the team lost the championship letting Inter recover seven points and in the following two seasons they did not go beyond the mid-table positions. Even in these moments of difficulty Rivera became the point of reference for the team and in the 1966/67 season he wore the captain’s armband for the first time, scoring 12 goals, a personal best up to that moment.

In 1967 Franco Carraro became president who brought Nereo Rocco back to Milan and from there started a new positive period for the Rossoneri colours. In that Milan, Rivera played behind two formidable strikers, Sormani and a young Pierino Prati who, together with Hamrin, made it possible to create an attack that immediately brought important results.

Rivera scored 11 goals and the team won the Scudetto in 1967/1968. The following year he was the absolute protagonist in the conquest of the second European Cup in the final against Ajax, won 4-1 with two goals that exalted his infinite talent. Along with Giovanni Trapattoni he was the only one to have won both Champions Cups. In the same year in October, the Rossoneri won the Intercontinental Cup against the Argentines of Estudiantes and Rivera scored a goal in the second leg. On December 22, 1969 Rivera won the Ballon d’Or, becoming the first Italian to win it, behind him came Gigi Riva. France Football journalist Max Urbini justified the assignment by declaring:

“The recognition recognizes pure football talent. Rivera is a great artist who honors football”

Gianni Rivera and the national team

In the national team he was the absolute protagonist, from 1962, the year of his debut, until 1974, the year of his last World Cup. He participated in four world championships, becoming vice world champion in 1970, a world championship that saw him as the absolute protagonist on the field in the famous match Italy – Germany 4-3, in fact he scored the decisive goal after he had been the involuntary protagonist of the German draw.

He was also the protagonist for the final, the coach Valcareggi made him play the last six minutes, this led to a thousand discussions on the part of public opinion, as there had to be the famous relay with Sandro Mazzola between the first and second half as in the other games and this did not happen. According to many, this decision by Valcareggi determined the defeat against Brazil and from there arose many discussions with the technical commissioner. In the national team he won the 1968 European Championship in Rome, played 60 games and scored 14 goals.

Gianni Rivera and the referees

Having a great personality, he often clashed with the decisions of the race directors and with one in particular: Concetto Lo Bello of Syracuse. Every time they met it seemed like a duel between the two, so much so that the famous journalist Gianni Brera said:

“Two roosters in a chicken coop cannot fit”

In addition to Lo Bello, he also had a strong argument with another referee: Alberto Michelotti from Parma. These in a Cagliari-Milan match, he gave a penalty kick in favor of the Sardinians, which was strongly contested by Rivera. From there there were heavy insinuations against the referee designator Giulio Campanati which cost them three and a half months of disqualification.

Last years of career

Starting from the 1973/74 season, the relationship with the president Albino Buticchi cracked: Rocco’s departure left Gianni Rivera upset. The situation worsened the following year when the club’s owner wanted to sell him to Turin in exchange for Claudio Sala, and came into conflict with the new manager Gustavo Giagnoni.

In May 1975 Rivera announced his retirement from competitive activity and then managed through third parties to take over the company with the return of Rocco to the bench. The last few years were turbulent due to corporate events but the last year of competitive activity in the 1978/79 season allowed Rivera to participate in the victory of the Scudetto and the conquest of the Rossoneri club’s first star.

His last match for the Rossoneri was Lazio-Milan 1-1 on 13 May 1979 after 501 games in Serie A and 128 goals, making him the midfielder who scored the most goals in the history of Italian football. In his football farewell conference he said:

“My legs couldn’t hold up anymore and I didn’t want to end up on my knees during a match”

Press disputes

Of him the English historian John Foot wrote: “He was never universally loved, and he was the subject of one of the most intense journalistic campaigns against him in the history of football”. In 1972 in an interview he declared: “Every match for me is an exam, I’ve been taking exams for fifteen years and I’m fed up: they never fully promote me, there are always those who have reservations”.

Detractor of his way of playing and for his physique was Gianni Brera, who since his militancy in Alessandria, attributed to him the ironic nickname of “Abatino” of literary origin, placing him in a category of midfielders “very gifted on a stylistic level but deficient in competitive-athletic qualities”.

Again Brera said: “I think Rivera is a great stylist, very intelligent and, as such, always able to guess what is the best situation for him. He doesn’t know how to run, he’s not a runner, otherwise he would be a great interior. Instead for me he is a great middle player”. By some press he was accused of not being able to cover a part of the field and that this gave an advantage to the opponents.

After football

Even after the end of his competitive career, he was a great protagonist in the sports world. Initially he took care of bringing Milan back to Serie A, after relegation to B in 1980. But when the club was bought by Silvio Berlusconi in 1986, he left to devote himself to political activity, where he was elected to parliament for four legislatures.

After the adventure in politics, where he was also undersecretary, he worked in the federation as manager of the technical sector and where he also obtained the license to coach professional teams. Among the many things to remember about Gianni Rivera is that he was, together with Sandro Mazzola, the founder of the footballers’ association, which was born to defend the rights of the players themselves.

At the end of this story, we can say about this great character of Italian and international football that he was one of the greatest who ever walked the football fields, he was very divisive in the various components of the football world, but he was never trivial in what he said and what he did on a pitch.


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