The province of Varese is far to the north of Italy, almost a part of Switzerland, a narrow corridor of land sandwiched between Lake Como and Lake Maggiore. In the small town of Leggiuno on November 7, 1944, there was born in this district Italy's current footballing idol, Luigi Riva.
You don't get close to appreciating Riva's personality unless you see it in this context - the context of a country boy, one orphaned at an early age, who still prefers to spend a part of each summer close-season in the province of Varese indulging in a spot of quiet fishing, and visiting friends made in his youthful years on a thoroughly informal basis.
Look at the newspaper articles, tune into the television and radio interviews, and the main impression you will receive of Riva's personality is an extension of this theme. He is refreshingly straightforward and unassuming in his attitude towards football and in his devotion to his footballing friends. Recently he was involved in a dressing-room brawl when a director of the Fiorentina club made some pretty churlish remarks about Nene, Cagliari's Brazilian forward. It later transpired that the subject under discussion was not Nene's footballing ability but the colour of his skin, and although Riva must have been all too aware of the bad publicity that could result from such an episode it is typical that he should have thrown himself in on Nene's side.
Above all, for one who receives intensive press coverage whenever (and that is frequently) he scores a goal - whichever the team he has played for - Riva is simple and sincere in the generous acknowledgement he regularly gives to those of his teammates who fight to make his life as a capo-cannoniere less difficult, and those players in opposing teams who play him fairly and without recourse to dubious tricks-in-trade.
For example, Caliagri's current centre-forward, Gori, scored his first goal of the present season only - in the first week in January. Even by the withered standards of Italian league scoring records, this is a low rate of striking for an accredited attacker. Yet Riva is the first to admit that it is Gori's selfless running, his willingness to harass opposing defences for 90 minutes in every game-that creates the situations from which he, Riva, can benefit. And it was Riva who was the first to decry the ironic cheers that went up from the press at the fact of Gori's scoring.
This attitude is also reflected whenever Riva puts on the blue jersey of the Italian national team. The 3-0 victory of the Italians over the East Germans in Naples last November was more important in itself to Riva than any part he personally had in the proceedings, far more important to him than the fact of his hat-trick of goals against Wales a fortnight previously. Each of the Italian players stood to gain a million lira if they won the game and assured themselves that Italy would be represented in Mexico in June, but Riva went on record as saying that he would gladly have paid the same sum before the game to be sure of Italian success. And if the cynical want to smile at that one, and point at Riva's reputed bank-balance, then at least they must acknowledge the selflessness of the sentiment he expressed.
The last time I saw Riva play, which was in Cagliari's match against Fiorentina in Florence, I was accompanied to the game by an old friend who had been a promising young inside forward with Spal in the early '60's and who had been forced to abandon football as a result of a serious liver complaint just on the threshold of what appeared to be a successful career. The only times he made any comment during the game were those in which Riva had the ball, and each comment appeared involuntary, a sincere acknowledgement of Riva's skill. Afterwards I asked him to define Riva's particular brand of charisma, and the point he made was a good one - namely, that whenever Riva is a part of the play, no spectator can help but become immediately involved, injected with a sudden rush of enthusiasm and expectation. Certainly, this was true of the Fiorentina crowd that day.
Italian football fans can often seem horrifyingly bigoted, can resent praise about any footballer who does not appear for their particular teams. Even the superbly talented players of the present Italian squad, such as Rivera, Facchetti, Mazzola and Anastasi receive stern treatment at the hands of this breed. But go into bars throughout Italy, even in the less sophisticated footballing towns of the south where bigotry runs highest, and you will hear the same phrases meeting your questions. "Riva? Fortissimo", "Il miglior attacante nel mondo", "Un fenomeno". And in the island of Sardinia, even in the northern towns such as Sassari and Nuoro, Riva is treated as a god.
Cagliari Football Club was founded by a group of local enthusiasts in 1920 and quickly found its way into the best league in Sardinian football. When, in 1925, the Sardinian teams were affiliated to those of the Italian mainland; Cagliari became a member-team of the Serie C, the Third Division. For the next 40 years Cagliari gained the reputation of being not quite good enough for the Serie B, slightly too good for the Serie C the fight to reach the higher division was always followed by the agonising drop down a couple of seasons later. Then in the season 1963-64, Cagliari finished second in the Serie B and gained the promotion that the club had optimistically played for through the years. It is never easy to separate cause and effect when looking at a particular footballer's contribution to a team's success, but it is not irrelevant that in the summer of 1963, Cagliari had bought from the lowly third division team, Legnano, a young left-winger called Luigi Riva.
Cagliari have been worth their place in the first division ever since they were promoted. In their first season they finished in ninth place in the championship, and although the team did only moderately well in the 1967-68 season, in the past 18 months Cagliari have established themselves as one of the best two or three teams in Italy, a side that is a neat balance of tight defence and fluid attack. The current trainer is Manlio Scopigno - "il filosofo". Scopigno has had his bad spells, like every other Italian trainer, notably the unhappy time he spent with Bologna during the season 1965-66. But at Cagliari he seems to have found his natural locale. He mixes freely with the players, defends them strenuously in interviews with the press, remains unshaken when they put on a bad performance - which is not frequently - and above all appears to worship Riva's particular talents with a devotion that is more than merely opportunist.
For one thing, Scopigno has always seen Riva as more than merely a wonderfully gifted striker. He sees him as being an all-round attacker of the highest talent, not a schemer in any real sense of the word, but at least a forward who has in addition to his poaching skills a flair for positional play and keen eye for the openings that appear in opposing defences.
Riva creates openings for his team-mates almost as often as they create them for him: the long ball that he put across the East German defence in Naples found Domenghini beautifully unmarked, in a perfect position to hammer in one of his famous drives. But it is as a striker that Riva has made his most famous contributions to recent Italian football, and the simple fact is that he is one of the best two or three strikers in football today. PeIé, Tostao, Müller, Libuda, Magnusson, Kindvall, Van Himst - any one of these has the chance to emerge as the star of the Mexico World Cup; but Riva must know inside himself that he can capitalise most from Italy's comparatively easy qualifying games, can gain the confidence to prove himself unstoppable when the final rounds of the competition begin.
He has already built up a formidable record of goals, and attracted a bulky dossier of favourable comment. Joao Saldanha, in Europe during the autumn to have an early look at some of the teams the Brazilians might have to face in Mexico thought Riva the most impressive of all the European players he saw. After the thrashing that Italy handed out to Wales early in November, Dave Bowen, the Welsh manager, said of Riva that he was "a world-class striker, a formidable match-winner" and the sort of comments the East Germans made a fortnight later echoed the same sentiments.
The statistics are extremely impressive. Italy scored ten goals in their four qualifying games for the present World Cup trophy - seven went to Riva's name. Riva has now played 14 games for the Italian national team, and scored 16 goals. At the moment he is far ahead of any rivals, past and present, in the averages for goals per match.
In the league also, Riva is the man who has a penchant for heading goal-scoring tables. In the 1966-67 season he broke a leg in an international some two-thirds of the way through the league schedule. He had still scored enough goals in the early games to ensure his place at the top of the table when the season came to a close. The following season he was edged out of top place by Pierino Prati, top scorer for AC Milan in their championship year.
Last season, Riva was back at the top again, and in the aggregate of games played during the three seasons he tucked away 51 goals in just over 80 games. This season Riva has overtaken Lanerossi Vicenza's young striker, Vitali, and presently leads the tables. No book maker would give you good odds on Riva finishing top for the third time in the past four seasons.
The simple facts are that the presence of Riva in any game is almost guaranteed to add several thousand onto the gate, that the anxiety which sports reporters reflect in their columns whenever Rlva is injured accurately reflects that of the ticket-buying public, and that Riva is one of the great entertainers of Italian football. Goals are still worth waiting for, especially when scored in the manner in which Riva is accustomed to scoring them. The No. 11 on the back of his shirt is deceptive, only a nominal guide to his position in the forward line. For both Cagliari and the Italian national team Riva plays as a roving striker, a wonderful opportunist anywhere near the opposing goal, one whose sharp-shooting is devastatingly hard and whose acrobatics are unbelievably spectacular. In a recent league game against Lanerossi Vicenza - inevitably billed by the press as the meeting of the two moveable objects, Riva and Vitali - Riva scored a goal that almost defied description: a fluently acrobatic bicycle kick executed several feet above ground level that sent the ball fearsomely hard straight through a posse of Lanerossi defenders and into the net. And the examples of this type of goal are too numerous in Riva's book to be fully catalogued.
It is almost frightening to think that each of Rlva's pounds in avoirdupois terms is worth something in the region of 5,000 pounds sterling. But it is not the least bit unlikely that one of the big three northern dubs will offer the equivalent of a million pounds for Riva during the summer transfer scramble. Whether Cagliari have the courage to sell him remains doubtful, and in any case there is little chance of Riva trying to put pressure on the club to let him go. He is happy with Cagliari, he is treated with royal deference throughout Sardinia, and his relationship with Scopigno is fine. Above all, the intricacies of the Italian football market must be secondary in his mind to the importance of helping Italy in a successful showing in Mexico.
Riva is already contemplating one sacrifice: he always smokes heavily after one game and through until a day or two before the next. He is trying to give up smoking in order to be on top physical form by May, knowing too well the strain of having to play vigorously at the altitudes he will find himself at.
There is every likelihood that Riva will emerge from the Mexico tournament as one of the heroes. His brand of sharpshooting should be devastatingly effective in Mexico's light air. The teams drawn against Italy will have received the message, and cannot but be unhappy at having to find an answer to it. Given the support he can reasonably expect from players such as Anastasi, Mazzola, Domenghini and Prati, Riva should be able to find enough time to wreak considerable damage. But if the World Cup is likely to be the pinnacle of his achievement as a footballer, Riva is not likely to forget that next year's European Cup championship is well within Cagliari's grasp.
Either way, it seems certain that Riva's name will be linked with those of the great strikers of the past. And either way, one thing is sure. That Riva will continue to be unassuming and modest, at heart a country boy made good in the vicious world of big money, short memories and cheap loyalties.
This article originally appeared in the March 1970 edition of World Soccer.