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

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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.


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