In 1970, the boot was on the other foot as Gigi Riva led Cagliari to the Serie A title. Jon Spurling examines the team’s achievement
In the last 40 years of Italian football, only Diego Maradona’s partial deification in Naples can rival the status granted by Cagliari fans to striker Gigi Riva. Thirty-seven years after his Herculean goalscoring feats (21 goals in 30 games) helped the Sardinian side win their only Serie A title, his presence can still be felt around the island. In Cagliari’s Bar Marius, where fans gather before matches, a life-size statue of Riva continues to draw adoring glances. In other bars and cafes on Sardinia, posters of Riva, aka Rombo di tuono (Sound of thunder) continue to adorn the walls, and 46-year-old Danilo Piroddi still claims to be able to “dine out” on the story of how, during a Cagliari training session in 1970, a Riva thunderbolt, estimated at 120 kilometres an hour, broke his arm. “Despite the agony I was in, the doctors still treated me with reverence when I told them how I’d sustained the injury,” Piroddi claims.
According to Sardinian historian Franco Brescio, ten books have been written about Cagliari’s title-winning side of 1970. The Italian media’s obsession with Riva’s private life, especially his often controversial business interests, tended to overshadow the impact the title had on the island. “Look at a map of Italy, that’s all you need to realise what Italians really think of Sardinia,” the team’s pragmatic coach Manlio Scopigno was fond of saying to the team. The sight of the Italian boot haughtily kicking its islands away reflected the fact that many Sardinians believed themselves to be out on a limb during the late Sixties. Dogged by a poor infrastructure, Sardinia was, according to Franco Brescio, “not so much dormant 40 years ago, as completely comatose. The island had always been divided from region to region, and was split between those who wanted to converse in Italian, and those who stuck doggedly to speaking the Sardinian dialect.”
Sardinia was beginning to change, with the era of mass tourism. The Aga Khan purchased huge sections of the coastline and hotels began to sprout around the island’s edges. At the same time, Cagliari began their meteoric rise in Italian football. Having spent most of the 1950s mired in Serie B, Riva’s arrival in 1964 galvanised the team and was a magnet for other players to leave more fashionable clubs to head to Sardinia.
Cagliari were able to coax Italy keeper Enrico Albertosi from Fiorentina in 1968 (“When I first heard of Cagliari’s interest, I didn’t want to go, because in Florence we’d always joked that Sardinia was a penal colony,” he said) and Inter striker Angelo Domenghini arrived a year later. Central defender Comunardo Niccolai, a cult hero to sections of Cagliari’s left-wing support (his parents said their son’s name was a mark of respect for members of the 1871 Paris Commune), developed a penchant for scoring spectacular own goals, so much so that Albertosi and he regularly came to blows.
After Cagliari finished runners-up in 1969, a furious Juventus official brazenly alleged: “Mafia money has lured these players away from the north. Why else would anyone wish to leave and play on a holiday island?” Coach Scopigno countered by claiming: “Juve and the Milan clubs have had the wealth and contacts to ensure that they’ve had things their own way for far too long. If Cagliari should win Serie A, I’d imagine it will be the first honest Championship victory for years.” Scopigno’s retort (he also alluded to “the golden fix”, which Brian Glanville later claimed enabled big-city Italian clubs to dominate Serie A and European competition during the 1960s) so outraged Juventus that they spent six fruitless years offering vast sums to tempt Riva.
Cagliari’s historic 1969-70 success saw them lead from the front and remain unbeaten against both Milan clubs, much to Scopigno’s delight – he told his players that he had seen the Inter coaching staff visit the referee’s room and emerge laughing and joking before one of their matches. During an epic battle with Inter defender Tarcisio “The Rock” Burgnich, Riva knocked out one of Burgnich’s teeth, which the Inter man later described as a “badge of honour”.
Home fans regularly arrived by mid-morning in order to guarantee a good view of games. On April 12, thanks to a home win against relegated Bari, Cagliari won the title. They finished four points ahead of Inter and seven in front of Juventus. The riotous celebrations lasted for a week, and were notable for the “false funerals” arranged in the streets of Cagliari for Juve and the Milan clubs, and numerous reports of non-Cagliari fans being forced to wear Riva tops at gun point. Two runaway criminals, who had sought refuge inside the stadium, revealed how the carabinieri handcuffed them to the crush barriers on the terraces and allowed them to watch the match before carting them off at the end.
Such had been the demand for radios and televisions from the football-hungry populace of Sardinian villages, that the authorities had been forced to install electricity pylons sharpish, in order for the islanders to follow the title chase. “We have given all Sardinians something of which they can be proud,” Riva claimed.
Franco Brescio believes that Cagliari’s success “partly unified the island and improved the perception of Sardinia in most Italians’ eyes”. Four Cagliari players – Domenghini, Albertosi, Riva and defender Pierluigi Cera – played in the 1970 World Cup final for Italy against Brazil.
Despite Riva’s loyalty to the club – he point blank refused to board a plane in 1973 after a lucrative move to Juve had been arranged – Cagliari rapidly slipped behind their more wealthy rivals. Beaten 4-2 on aggregate by Atletico Madrid in the second round of the 1970-71 European Cup, the club finished seventh behind champions Inter, then endured several mid-table finishes. In 1975-76, the season Riva was forced into early retirement due to injury, the team were relegated.
“One championship with Cagliari was worth ten elsewhere,” claimed coach Scopigno. In the intensely moneyed and corrupt Italian game, Riva’s loyalty and Cagliari’s achievements are unlikely to be repeated.
From WSC 246 August 2007