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As in England, there’s always been something of a north-south divide in Italy. The industrialised northern cities of Turin and Milan are a marked contrast to the rural south and islands like Sicily and Sardinia. The big money in Italian football came from business families such as the Agnellis and the Morattis, giving Juventus, AC Milan and Inter a big advantage over lesser clubs.
Hence, the “big three” of Italy have been champions on 69 occasions and since the league became Serie A, only 18 times has the title been lifted by a club other than Juve or the Milan duo. One of the surprise champions was Cagliari of Sardinia, who won the Scudetto in 1970, no mean feat given the resources of the northern clubs, who usually had to just click their fingers to get the top talent in Italy.
They didn’t get their own way in the late 1960s and this prompted some cynics to suggest that Cagliari had lured top class players to Sardinia with Mafia money. Others called Sardinia a “penal colony” or suggested it was an island of bandits and shepherds.
Cagliari were relative newcomers to Serie A, winning promotion in 1964. They finished sixth in 1964-65 and by 1968, they were being touted as possible title contenders. With Luigi Riva in their line-up, they had Italy’s top striker, much to the disgust of Juventus, who had repeatedly shown an interest in the Cagliari talisman with the fearsome left foot.
Riva was not a native of Sardinia, he came from Leggiuno in Lombardy. He made his senior bow with Legnano before joining Cagliari in 1963 as an 18 year-old.
He was an instant success at Cagliari and by 1965, he was in the national team, the first player from the club to be capped. But his international career didn’t get off to a flying start, some critics feeling he was one-footed and rather limited in his technique. He didn’t make the 1966 World Cup squad, but given the Italians’ displays in England, that wasn’t a bad thing.
Meanwhile, Cagliari were progressing on the field and were bringing good players to Sardinia, largely due to the support of club president Efisio Corrias who returned to take over Cagliari in 1968. Corrias was a local politican and industrialist and from 1958 to 1966, he was president of the region. He became a senator in 1968.
Corrias, as president, backed the acquisition of some sought-after players such as Angelo Domenghini from Inter and Giulio Zignolo from Bari. Cagliari also signed international goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi. Corrias managed to prevent Riva from being enticed to join Juve in 1967. The Italian heavyweights made sour remarks about the reasons behind the sudden rise of Cagliari, but in 1968-69, the Sardinians finished runners-up in both Serie A and the Coppa Italia. Riva was the top scorer in Serie A with 21 goals, out-gunning big names like Juventus’ Anastasi and Milan’s European Cup hero Prati. Also among the goals was Roberto Boninsegna, whom Corrias effectively swapped for Domenghini in 1969.
Riva remained the most highly-rated striker in Italy, but he was fiercely loyal to Cagliari and to the island of Sardinia, which according to Gigi himself, “had made me a man”. After a difficult start in life, he appreciated what the people of Sardinia had given him. If he had departed for Juventus in 1967, there would possibly have been no world record set by his rival Pietro Anastasi when Juve paid around £ 500,000 to Varese for the young Sicilian.
Riva and Anastasi linked up for Gli Azzurri as they won the European Nations Cup in 1968, both players scoring in Italy’s 2-0 final victory over Yugoslavia in Rome. Two years later, Anastasi was missing through injury as Italy reached the final of the World Cup, losing to Brazil in that memorable final in Mexico.
Riva arrived in Mexico as Cagliari’s golden boy and the proud possesser of a title medal. Cagliari surprised the traditional top clubs in Italy by winning Serie A, leading the pack from the very start of the season. They conceded just 11 goals in their 30 league games and Albertosi, often considered an eccentric goalkeeper, kept no less than 20 clean sheets.
Not surprisingly, Riva was the top scorer in Serie A once more with 21 goals, exactly half of the total of Cagliari’s output for the campaign. Cagliari lost just twice all season and were unbeaten at home. Their only defeats came at Palermo and Inter.The title was clinched on April 12 at home to Bari, with goals from Riva and Sergio Gori, a Milanese who had played for Inter and won a European Cup medal in 1965. Sardinia rejoiced at this triumph and also gloated at the failure of the big guns. Italian football can get theatrical when it celebrates and fans carried coffins in the colours of Juve and Milan.
Riva was overjoyed.“We have given all Sardinians something of which they can be proud,” he said. Local politicians played on the unifying effect of Cagliari’s first Scudetto and the team’s coach, Manlio Scopigno, claimed that “one championship with Cagliari was worth 10 elsewhere”. He also suggested that the Serie A race had been the “first honest title” in a sly dig at the overbearing influence of the Turin and Milan giants.
When the national team went to Mexico, the squad included six members of the Cagliari team: Albertosi, Riva, Pierluigi Cera, Domenghini, Communardo Niccolai and Gori. Riva scored three times in the competition and went on to be ranked third in the 1970 Ballon d’Or.
Cagliari finished seventh in 1970-71 in Serie A, despite a good start and a famous 3-1 away win at the San Siro, beating Inter 3-1. Riva’s performance, including two goals, earned him the nickname, “Rombo di Tuono” (roar of Thunder). Cagliari entered the European Cup and reached the last 16, but Riva was sidelined for much of the season due to a serious injury sustained in a European Championship qualifier in the Prater Stadion in Vienna. He was seriously missed by his club. In 1971-72, he was back on form with 21 goals and of course, Cagliari were among the front-runners again. There was never another 1970, though, for Riva and for the team from the Sardinian capital. Juventus also came calling again, but Riva stayed loyal and that’s why today, the name Luigi Riva is still revered in Sardinia.
As for Cagliari, they’ve never scaled such heights since those halcyon days, but the names of their 1969-70 squad will live on: Enrico Albertosi, Guiseppe Tomasini, Mario Martiradonna, Communicardo Niccolai, Giulio Zignoli, Pierluigi Cera, Riccioti Greatti, Nene, Angelo Domenghini, Sergio Gori, Luigi Riva, Mario Brugnera.