Serie A Heroes: “Roar of Thunder” Gigi Riva, the Pride of Cagliari

Journalist Gianni Brera forged for him one of the most suggestive nicknames ever given to a football player: Rombo di Tuono – Roar of Thunder. It meant that, when Gigi Riva (1944-2024) got the ball on his feet, no opposition could feel safe, like a thunder heralding a storm.

He was a sturdy, quick-paced striker with a brilliant left foot. He was determined, stronger than the terrible injuries that plagued his career, broken calf bones and things like that. And yet so silent, reserved, but always ready to help and to dedicate his whole life, as a player and beyond, to one single club and land: Cagliari and Sardinia. In one word, one of a kind.

And, as easy as it is to spiral into cliches whenever a player from the old generation passes away, Luigi “Gigi” Riva was really a player like we won’t ever see again – if only because he still holds the record for the most goals scored for Italy.

Riva found the net 35 times out of 42 caps with the Azzurri. That happened between the 1960s and the 1970s. Nobody in Italy has ever come close to that despite the football calendar featuring almost twice the games that were played in Riva’s years nowadays.

But, if that wasn’t enough, Gigi Riva is also the man who took a quasi-unknown team that was fumbling in Serie B and led them to winning the Scudetto – the first club from the South of Italy (from an island!) to beat the traditional powerhouses from the industrial North. Yes, even before Napoli.

And, when the clubs from the North came and tried to lure him away from his beloved Cagliari, he said no. The legend goes that Juventus and their almighty chairman Gianni Agnelli once offered as much as one billion ltalian Liras to secure his services, but he said no. That was a big thing to do. You did not say no to Gianni Agnelli in those days.

Gigi Riva was not even born in Cagliari if truth be told. Such a life-long love story would make one believe that Rombo di Tuono was a child of Sardinia, but Riva came from Lombardy, along the shores of the Lago Maggiore. He lost both parents as a kid and was raised by his older sister.

At 16, he was already working odd jobs while playing football with an amateur club. But 66 goals scored in two seasons caught the attention of Serie C club Legnano, that catapulted him on some bigger stages.

Second-division Cagliari happened to use the city of Legnano, near Milan, as their base camp every time they traveled to Italy’s mainland to play their league games. Back in the days, the Islanders were allowed to play back-to-back games at home and then away to save costs. During one of these trips, they noticed the young Riva and were faster than Bologna who were also showing some interest in the young prodigy.

And so, in the summer of 1963, 19-year-old Gigi Riva reluctantly took a boat to Sardinia. He had never left the mainland. What business had he with this rural island where they spoke an ancestral language so different from his Lombard dialect? Forget the lavish luxuries of today’s Costa Smeralda. In the 1960s, Sardinia was a stark, remote land inhabited by shepherds and farmers who struggled to make ends meet. On the other hand, he did not have anything to lose, and that contract with Cagliari was his ticket to professional football.

It didn’t take long for Riva to forge a deep bond with the Islanders. With eight goals in his maiden season, he contributed to bringing Cagliari to Serie A for the first time in 40 years. The following season, he scored nine more and helped the club salvage their spot in the top-flight.

From then on, Rombo di Tuono’s career simply skyrocketed as Cagliari started to climb the Serie A table. Riva tallied more than ten goals in each of the following five campaigns, collecting three capocannoniere titles. His career record of 21 goals scored in the 1969/70 season coincided with Cagliari’s miraculous win of the Italian title, an exploit so incredible that would deserve an entire piece itself.

Riva’s scoring consistency was remarkable despite the multiple injuries that sidelined him for long stretches of time. In 1967, he suffered a broken fibula as he was brutally tackled by Portugal’s goalkeeper. In 1970, right after winning the Scudetto, he broke his left calf bone during a game against Austria. These both happened while he was playing for the Azzurri.

Right, the Azzurri. Gigi Riva’s heroics with Cagliari are only one half of the story. The other side of his career is linked to the Nazionale and his still unbeaten goal-scoring record. With the Italy’s jersey, he found the back of the net 35 times. Two of these goals were especially memorable.

Riva opened the scoring in a grueling rematch of the 1968 European Championship Final against Yugoslavia, after the first match ended 1-1 (Yes, that’s how things worked back in the days…There were no extra times or penalties, you just did a rematch!). His goal paved the way to the Azzurri’s first Euro win.

Two years later, he played in the “Match of the Century” at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, that immortal 1970 World Cup Semi Final against West Germany, scoring the third goal in Italy’s 4-3 win. Everybody remembers Gianni Rivera’s winner, but Riva’s goal – a lightning fast strike with that deadly left foot of his – was the most beautiful of the lot.

When he hung his boots in 1976, courtesy of yet another injury, Gigi Riva decided to remain in Cagliari. He rolled up his sleeves and joined the club as a team manager, a role he would later also fill for Italy. The glory days were now gone, and Cagliari had plummeted back to Serie B. Riva’s steady personality happened to be exactly what was needed to fill the much-needed role of a mediator, a link between the players and the management.

That was Riva’s last gift to Sardinia. Coaches and chairmen came and went as the club continued to decline, but he kept being there, solid as a rock, Cagliari’s true North Star during troubled years. The lethal striker had magically turned into a pacificator and, in hindsight, that role suited him particularly well.

Because if you look for a fun fact, an anecdote, one of those quirky behaviors that are so commonly part of any average footballer’s career, there are none to be found in Gigi Riva’s life. Never a word too much, never going over the top on anything.

Only pride and love for that poverty-ridden island that he decided to marry for life, and that he always defended:

They called us oafs, bandits, wherever we went in Italy, and I got mad. People turned bandits because they were hungry, because there was much poverty [in Sardinia], and there still is. Cagliari was everything to everyone. It would have been vile to leave. I never had any doubts and never regretted it.

On February 9, 2005, Cagliari held a ceremony to retire the number 11 jersey that was Rombo di Tuono’s trademark. It was delivered to him by Rocco Sabato, the last Cagliari player to officially wear it, just before an international game between his second love Italy and Russia.

Nobody will ever don that jersey again. There will be never be another Gigi Riva.

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