Rivera: Italy’s 1970 golden boy
He had to share a starting spot with Sandro Mazzola at the 1970 World Cup, but that didn’t stop Italy fans taking the Little Abbot to their hearts
t 8pm on a warm June evening in Mexico City, Brian Glanville of The Sunday Times and Gianni Melidoni, the football writer for Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, leave the Azteca Stadium. The year is 1970, and they’ve just filed their copy from what would soon be described as the “Game of the Century”.
Melidoni turns to Glanville, a look of exhausted disbelief still etched on his brow, and simply says: “Pallacanestro.” Basketball. The Italian scribe is alluding to the end-to-end madness of Italy vs West Germany, and more specifically extra time of a game that had swung both ways like no other at a World Cup.
The Azzurri had eventually come out on top, winning 4-3 to reach the final against Brazil. But their performance was far from what the world had come to expect from a country supposedly hell-bent on ultra-defensive catenaccio pragmatism. This was bonkers football, a ding-dong match that saw six goals scored in 20 minutes.
What stood out most was the player who slotted in the winner. Gianni Rivera was an assured, calming playmaker; the very antithesis of the chaos happening all around him.
“I first came across him at the Rome Olympics in 1960,” says Glanville. “I had managed to get an interview with him as he was part of Italy’s football squad. Although Rivera was only 16 then, what struck me the most was how mature he was, and what a wise old head he had on such callow shoulders.”
Rivera’s level-headedness earned him a 1959 Serie A debut – aged 15 – for his local team Alessandria, at a time when the national side, having missed out on the 1958 World Cup, were in a state of flux. Such disappointment meant youth got its chance. When Milan swooped in the summer of 1960, few fans batted an eyelid given Rivera’s obvious calibre.
By his second season, the young man was flourishing in Milan’s midfield and handed the No.10 shirt. Rivera’s eye for a pass and creative excellence meant he shone alongside Rossoneri stalwarts such as Cesare Maldini and Jose Altafini in an outfit that would secure the Serie A title in 1961-62.
Rivera’s form hadn’t gone unnoticed, the teenager’s temperament alerting national team selectors sufficiently to make his Azzurri bow, against Belgium in May 1962. He went to Chile for that summer’s World Cup and played in the 0-0 draw against West Germany. Some though, were less than impressed with the prodigy’s contribution.
Outspoken sportswriter Gianni Brera nicknamed him l’abatino (Little Abbot) due to what he deemed a polite way of playing – a luxury, not willing to do the rough stuff on the pitch.
Brera, then, would have been pleased that Rivera sat out Italy’s second group game, against Chile. More a brawl than a match, the ‘Battle of Santiago’ was “the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football,” according to the BBC’S David Coleman.
A 2-0 defeat to the host nation, amid all the fighting, meant Rivera and Italy returned home early. But for the young star, further domestic success was just around the corner – and the kind that creates legends.
Milan had long cast an envious eye at Real Madrid and Benfica, who had won the first seven editions of the European Cup. But in 1962-63 – having ousted Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich Town side en route – they beat Eusebio’s Eagles in the final. An inspired Rivera set up both goals for Altafini in a 2-1 Wembley win.
Gianni was the talk of Europe. Aged only 19, he came second to Lev Yashin in the Ballon d’or standings, his ability to float and find angles others missed earning admiring glances. Milan’s arch rivals Inter would go on to wrestle the ascendency at home and in Europe by boring teams to catenaccio tears, but for Rivera, the Little Abbot moniker had now become Il Golden Boy.
He was the face of magazines, inviting them into his stylishly appointed home adorned with chandeliers, candelabras and, er, grey telephones.
Fortunes swung back the Rossoneri’s way during the late-60s. Rivera proved the lynchpin of Coppa Italia, European Cup Winners’ Cup and Serie A triumphs, before another European Cup in 1969. The latter witnessed a famous 4-1 win over an up-and-coming Ajax team, and a Rivera masterclass in midfield devilry that schooled even his opposite number – one Johan Cruyff. Under the Bernabeu lights, it was a night that would secure the Ballon d’or. Rivera – like the team he captained to victory in Madrid – was the best in Europe.
Italy travelled to the following year’s World Cup finals among the favourites after winning Euro 68 – their first major international honour in 30 years. Even Gianni Brera, the scathing critic of 1962, conceded that Rivera was the Azzurri’s greatest post-war footballer. Surely the Milan playmaker would be his country’s prize asset in Mexico.
This, though, is Italian football and nothing goes smoothly. Coach Ferruccio Valcareggi and Rivera didn’t get on, the latter at one point threatening to pull out of the squad. What further muddied the waters was the presence of Inter’s midfielder Sandro Mazzola, and the big debate about whether the two star men could work together. Think Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard but on a grander scale.
Press and pundits took their sides, but the manager sat on the fence, selecting Mazzola in the first half of matches and bringing Rivera on for the second. It was called Staffetta, or ‘relay’. A big cop-out perhaps, though it took Italy all the way to the final against Brazil. Losing to the most sumptuous display in the history of the game is no crime.
Those in Rivera’s camp felt vindicated (Pele later said he feared Rivera coming on) as their man played only the last six minutes, despite his semi-final heroics.
The Italy squad arrived back in Rome to jeers. However, cries of “Viva Rivera” cemented the 26-year-old’s reputation as the nation’s Golden Boy.
In 1973, Ramsey was asked who were Italy’s best four players after they beat England 1-0 at Wembley. “Rivera, Rivera, Rivera, Rivera,” came the reply, and the player’s skill and creativity never waned until 1979, when he bagged yet another Serie A crown before retiring and joining Milan’s administrative team.
Such a cerebral footballer might have been tipped to manage, but Rivera was too outspoken – he once got suspended for suggesting that referees were biased towards Juventus and Inter.
When media mogul Silvio Berlusconi became Milan owner, dyed-in-the-wool socialist Rivera declared his disapproval, got demoted and resigned.
A career in politics soon beckoned. He helped to set up the Italian Footballers’ Association in 1968, before serving four consecutive terms in parliament for the centre-left coalition and also as an MEP.
But to those who saw Gianni Rivera in the Milan Rossoneri or Azzurri blue, it is the image of the diminutive playmaker weaving his magic within the white lines of a football pitch, not the corridors of political power, that will live longest in the mind’s eye.
Golden memories, and none more so than that cool sidefoot from the penalty spot on a warm Mexico evening.
ALF RAMSEY WAS ASKED WHO WERE ITALY’S BEST FOUR PLAYERS. “RIVERA, RIVERA, RIVERA, RIVERA,” HE REPLIED