This article was brought to you by Football's Finest as part of The Away End. Founded by Brad Jones, Football's Finest hosts an outstanding collection of contributors to produce a wealth of fascinating in-depth features as part of incisive monthly adaptations of football's finest cultures.
April 12th, 1970. Two days after Paul McCartney announced the end of The Beatles. Two days before Jim Lovell uttered the oft-misquoted words “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” For much of the world, a comparatively un-noteworthy day.
But, for the one million or so inhabitants of Sardinia, April 12th, 1970 was a day like no other. The day a little island in the Mediterranean stuck two fingers up at its bullying neighbour. The day north Italy’s stranglehold on the scudetto was broken. The day Unione Sportiva Cagliari performed a miracle that catapulted Sardinia into Italian footballing folklore.
As with Leicester City in 2016 and Ipswich Town in 1962, Cagliari’s scudetto story began several years earlier in the far less glamourous environs of Serie C. The year is 1960. After nearly a decade in Serie B, the Rossoblù were relegated to Italy’s third tier; the fortunes of the football team mirroring those of the whole island.
Lying over 500km adrift of Rome, Sardinia was Italy’s unwanted provincial cousin. Before mass tourism and the petrochemical boom of the mid-60s, the island was unfashionable, under-developed and unloved. Historian Franco Brescio described it’s state as “not so much dormant as completely comatose”. Scudetto winning goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi remarked that in Florence, Sardinia was mockingly represented as a penal colony. The mainland’s favourite punchline.
However, just as investment from the Aga Khan in 1961 revolutionised the island’s tourism industry, one shrewd investment became the catalyst for Cagliari’s success.
In 1963, whilst preparing for their second season back in Serie B, Cagliari captured promising young striker Luigi “Gigi” Riva from Serie C’s Legnano-Ivrea. It remains arguably the best 37 million lira spent in Italian football history.
Riva would go on to become one of the best Italian forwards of all time. The original Matt Le Tissier: a supreme striker whose trophy cabinet doesn’t do their talent justice. Nicknamed “Rombo di Tuono” (Roar of Thunder) owing to the strength of his strikes, he would score 207 goals in 374 appearances for the Rossoblù, collecting three Serie A golden boot gongs in the process. Equally prolific for the national side, his 35 goals in 42 caps would set an Azzurri record that remains unbroken today.
But in 1963, he was just a much talked about schoolboy striker. A 19-year old Lombardy native, no doubt horrified by the prospect of moving to Sardinia, who caught the eye of Cagliari president Enrico Rocca.
His impact was immediate. In his debut campaign, Riva scored eight goals in 22 appearances, steering Cagliari not only to second place in Serie B but also securing promotion to the top flight for the first time in the club’s history. Four seasons after relegation to the third tier, the Sardinians had reached the promised land.
Over the next four seasons Cagliari would cement their status as a Serie A side. Spearheaded by Riva, who by the age of 24 had 51 goals in 115 league appearances, the Rossoblù finished comfortably mid-table in every campaign: never higher than sixth, never lower than eleventh.
But something more important was happening during this period. Slowly but surely, Cagliari were building a championship winning side. Attracted by the prospect of playing alongside the best striker in Italy, who himself had refused multiple transfer requests from Juventus to remain at the club, players were trading Italy’s northern powerhouses for Sardinia.
Future Italy internationals Pierluigi Cera and Comunardo Niccolai joined in 1964, accompanied by Brazilian midfielder Nenè – poached from Juventus after scoring 11 goals in 28 appearances. Then, ahead of the 1968/69 season, Italy’s number one Enrico Albertosi arrived at the Stadio Amsicora with Giulio Zignoli and Mario Brugnera. Signed off the back of Italy’s victorious Euro 1968 campaign, Albertosi was swapping guaranteed silverware with Fiorentina for uncertain success at Cagliari. Riva had achieved the impossible (and not for the last time): he had made Sardinia attractive.
Buoyed by these signings, Manlio Scopigno’s side finished the 68/69 season in second place, four points behind Fiorentina. Ordinarily, such a result would be cause for celebration for a provincial side. But for Cagliari, the season was an opportunity missed. Top of the league at the halfway point, a string of poor results culminating in a one-nil defeat at the hands of Juventus derailed their title ambitions. Another issue was fire power. Despite Riva securing his second golden boot with 20 goals in 28 appearances, Cagliari played out nine – very costly – scoreless draws.
In the summer of ‘69, Scopigno found the final pieces of the puzzle. Raiding the Grande Inter squad, he emerged with forward superstar Angelo Domenghini and 23-year old fringe player Sergio Gori. The rock solid back axis of Albertosi, Cera and Mario Martiradonna now had a front line to match.
Cagliari started the season with intent. Unbeaten until an away trip to Palermo on December 14th, the Sardinian outfit headed into the new decade at the summit of Serie A, three points clear of the chasing pack. However, by February 15th, Juventus had cut the gap to a single point. The Old Lady had dropped just two points since mid-November.
Scopigno’s men, meanwhile, had just suffered a one-nil defeat at the hands of Internazionale. A single goal loss in Turin had cost the Rossoblù the title last season. Was the same about to happen again in Milan?
Fortunately, Cagliari immediately bounced back. Gori and Riva returned to the scoresheet in a two-nil win at home to Napoli followed by consecutive draws away at Roma and second-placed Juventus. Then, on March 22nd, fortune finally dealt Sardinia a kind hand. Fiorentina beat Juventus, Internazionale stumbled at Lazio and AC Milan were held to a scoreless draw by struggling Sampdoria. Securing victory over Hellas Verona courtesy of an 87th minute Riva penalty, Cagliari moved four points clear with five games remaining.
A draw in Bologna, a revenge victory at home to Palermo and we arrive back at the start of our journey. April 12th, 1970.
It was never scripted to be a red letter day. Three points clear of Juventus with three rounds to play, this particular Sunday was supposed to be another box ticked en route to the title. Beat relegation threatened Bari whilst Juventus dispense with Lazio, before travelling to Milan on the 19th to collect the scudetto at the San Siro.
Cagliari completed their side of the bargain. Ever the showman, Riva opened the scoring with a diving header before Gori grabbed a second in the 88th minute to put the match beyond Bari.
In the capital, meanwhile, Lazio should have presented few problems for Juventus – Serie A football secured for another season, comfortably mid-table, nothing to fight for but pride. But, for the second time that season, Lady Luck had other plans.
Second half goals for Gian Ghio and Giorgio Chinaglia vanquished Juventus and although Inter Milan beat Napoli, it was too little too late. Five points clear with two games remaining. On April 12th, one week before they anticipated lifting the champions’ shield, Cagliari were crowned Serie A champions.
Sardinia partied for a week. In amongst the revelry and riotous celebrations, fans of the Rossoblù found the time to host several false funerals in the streets of Cagliari. The Old Lady and Milan clubs were dead and buried. Finally, it was Sardinia’s turn to have the last laugh.
Cagliari brought the season to a close with fireworks. Following a nil-nil draw in Milan, they hit four past Torino to finish the season four points clear of Internazionale. After suffering an embarrassing 2-1 defeat to bottom club Bari, Juve were a further three points back in third. Gigi Riva, scorer of a brace in Turin, collected his third golden boot with 21 goals in 28 matches and received a Ballon D’Or nomination for his exploits. But more importantly, Sardinia’s favourite adopted son finally had a trophy to show for his loyalty.
And that was that. A decade after suffering relegation to Serie C, provincial Cagliari had reached the summit of Italian football. The first team from south of Rome to get their hands on the scudetto. The first – and so far, only – time the shield has left the mainland.
The celebrations continued long into the summer. Six members of Cagliari’s victorious side – Albertosi, Domenghini, Gori, Niccolai, Cera and, of course, Riva – travelled to Mexico for the 1970 World Cup. Riva finished the tournament as Italy’s top scorer and four Rossoblù started the final defeat to Brazil, fortune unwilling to shine on Sardinia’s boys a third time.
Entering the 1970-71 season as defending champions, Cagliari hit the ground running, taking eight points from their first five matches and enjoying their first foray into the European Cup with a first round victory over Saint-Étienne.
Unfortunately, just as a bulb burns brightest before being extinguished, their dominance would be short lived. Riva suffered a season-ending injury whilst on international duty and the season fell apart. Cagliari finished seventh and the scudetto was surrendered to Internazionale.
Cagliari never again reached the heights of April 12th, 1970. In 1973, following a run of poor performances, Pierluigi Cera traded Cagliari for Cesena whilst Angelo Domengini headed to Roma. A season later, Albertosi joined AC Milan, adding a second scudetto and a third Coppa Italia to his trophy cabinet in six seasons at the San Siro. Juventus finally captured a Cagliari striker in 1975, securing the services of Sergio Gori for two seasons, but they never got their hands on the ultimate prize.
Gigi Riva remained loyal to Sardinia, rejecting numerous offers from the mainland to end his career with the Rossoblù. Unfortunately, there was to be no fairy tale ending. In 1976, Cagliari’s 16-year residency in Serie A came to a crashing halt, relegated in 16th place after winning just five matches all season. Riva retired that summer whilst Niccolai and Nenè also departed. The 1969-70 side had finally gone the way of The Beatles.
Since 1976, Cagliari have become a classic yo-yo side. The highs a trip to the UEFA Cup semi-final in 1994, knocked out by their scudetto successors Internazionale; the lows, a two year dip into Serie C in the late 1980s. Today, they are deep into another lengthy spell in Serie A – your average mid-table side, keeping up appearances for Sardinia amongst the big boys.
When the 50th anniversary of Cagliari’s scudetto miracle rolled around last April 12th, conditions in Sardinia were a paradox of the jovial scenes witnessed half a century earlier. The island, like the rest of Italy, was under strict lockdown, nowhere near as badly effected as the mainland but still recording 135 deaths too many.
Trapped in their homes when they should have been dancing in the streets, the Rossoblù faithful could be forgiven for longing for simpler times. A time when the biggest global crisis was the break-up of The Beatles. A time when Houston didn’t yet have a problem. A time like April 12th, 1970.