Our ongoing series on Football's Past Legends takes us to Italy to remember the elegant Milan midfielder Giovanni Rivera.
In a week that has seen Cristiano Ronaldo being presented with the Ballon d’Or (European Footballer Of The Year Award) Euroscore takes a look at one of its previous winners, the legendary 'Gianni' Rivera.
Giovanni Rivera was a creative midfield player who spent almost his entire career with Italian giants AC Milan. He went on to play over 500 matches for the club scoring an impressive 122 goals. Rivera also won 60 caps for Italy scoring 14 times.
He was born on the 18th August 1943 in Alessandria and became part of the local team's youth academy. He played his first Serie A game in 1959 at only 15 years of age, such was his incredible potential. He was not phased by the enormity of playing against a highly successful and experienced Internazionale side. He went on to play a further 25 games for Alessandria scoring six goals from midfield.
His potential was spotted almost immediately and AC Milan broke their transfer record to sign him. He was only 16 at the time. In 1962 he was part of Milan’s Scudetto winning team and made his debut for Italy in a goalless draw against West Germany in the World Cup in Chile.
The next year saw Milan, prompted by the elegant Rivera, and win the European Cup by beating Benfica 2-1. He was shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or, finishing second in the voting behind legendary Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin. Further honours were added in the 1967/1968 season when Milan won both the league and the European Cup Winners Cup beating SV Hamburg in the final.
The European Cup was added the following year, when Milan beat the emerging Ajax 4-1, which ended with Rivera winning the Ballon d’Or. He also played in the triumphant Italy team that won the European Championship. However Rivera was injured in the semi-final against Russia and missed the final.
In 1970 he was again in the Italian squad that travelled to Mexico for the World Cup finals. Despite reaching the final, losing 1-4 to the magnificent Pele inspired Brazil team, it was not a happy tournament for Gianni. Italian team manager Ferruccio Valcareggi had the luxury of choosing Rivera or Sandro Mazzola, his counterpart at Inter. He was of the opinion, rather controversially, that both couldn’t perform well in the same team. He elected to start with Mazzola.
A compromise was reached when Italy failed to convince in the early games. It was decided to play Mazzola and Rivera for roughly 45 minutes each. Rivera’s selection proved vital in the semi-final against West Germany, with him scoring in a thrilling 4-3 victory. More controversy followed when Valcareggi dropped Rivera for the final opting to start with Mazzola. Rivera was only brought on with eight minutes left with Italy already well on their way to defeat.
In 1972-1973 he finished level top goalscorer in Serie A. This was an impressive achievement for a midfield player and his total of 17 goals for the season was only equalled by Torino’s Paolo Pulici, and Giuseppe Savoldi of Bologna.
Rivera was still part of the Italy set-up for the 1974 World Cup finals in Germany, where they were knocked out by Poland. It proved to be his last match in Italy’s blue.
Further club success followed with AC Milan when they reached two consecutive European Cup Winners Cup Finals. In 1973 they won the trophy beating Leeds United 1-0 in Greece. However the following years final was surprisingly lost by the same score to FC Magdeburg.
His last ever Scudetto was won in 1979 at the age of 35. His retirement saw the start of another phase of his eventful life. Firstly he became a vice president of AC Milan. When he left in 1986 he went into politics, serving as an under-secretary for defence in Romano Prodi’s government. Gianni is now aged 65.
It is, however, his silky footballing skills that he will be remembered for. He was one of the most elegant and balanced players of his generation. Highly regarded by fellow professionals, he was often outspoken against the Italian national team management and referees. His contribution and loyalty to AC Milan cannot be understated.
He was always keen to get forward and would often play intricate one-twos on the edge of the oppositions penalty box before scoring. In many ways he was the epitome of a modern day creative midfield general skipping past some ferocious tackles and being all but impossible to shake off the ball.
Any budding midfield player would do well to seek out some old footage of this magnificent player on the internet and stand back and admire. Highly influential to those around him he was voted one of the best players ever by none other than Pele.
He truly earned the label of the ‘Golden Boy of Italian Football’ a title given to him early in his career and which stayed with him throughout his playing days and beyond.