In the footballing realm, Italy is a European powerhouse indeed. Since forever, the Italians have been known for their elaborate, tactical superiority and a monstrous defense that can make even the best attack in the world look helpless and feeble.
They don't always play a beautiful game. They frustrate and wear out oppositions, play a tough game, never shy away from a rough tackle. Scoring a goal against the Italians is an achievement that should be engraved on your tombstone.
It's slightly shocking then, that in such a defensive and tough mindset, a rather frail-bodied, shy but graceful, creative genius was born. What is not surprising though, considering his talent, is that he went on to become one of the best footballers of all time.
Gianni Rivera is truly a legend.
Giovanni Rivera was born in Alessandria on August 18th, 1943. His love for football was evident right from an early age and his unique silky style and creativity soon caught everyone's eye. Though he started out on the wings, he would find himself more suited in the central midfield position, playing deep and creating opportunities.
He made his Serie A debut at the age of 15 for his hometown Alessandria. His debut match was, as luck would have it, against AC Milan's bitter rivals—Inter Milan.
Gianni scored six goals in 25 appearances the next season. It was a splendid return for a midfielder of that age in the toughest league of the time, defensively speaking.
And it was not long before the Italian giants AC Milan recognized his potential and brought him over to the glorious red-and-black side of Milan, where he would stay until the end of his long and illustrious career.
The transfer fee was a record one at that time: An earth-shattering $200,000, for a 16-year-old who had played only one real season. But having watched Rivera play, few doubted the youngster's potential, and everybody knew Milan were an even bigger offensive threat now.
By this time, he was already dubbed "The golden boy." Throughout the 1960s, he would dominate the midfield, and etch a name for himself in the history books as one of the finest and the most refined players of his time, and indeed, of any time.
His playing style was unique and radically different from his Italian teammates, even in the midfield. He was never a physical player—his body structure wouldn't allow him to be so.
Though he wasn't a rough player, it would be a mistake to say he wasn't gritty. He compensated his on-field physical inferiority with supreme intelligence and creative flamboyance. His vision for passing was immaculate; he created room for himself and provided high-percentage assists.
His midfield dominance was not one warranted by an intimidating presence, but more so by his tactical and technical brilliance, of which there are few parallels.
After his arrival at the San Siro, Rivera wouldn't have to wait long to taste success with the Rossoneri. He smashed in 10 goals in the 1961/62 season and AC Milan would go on and win the Scudetto.
That same year, Rivera also made his international debut for Italy, but his international career, though memorable, would be more painful for him in years to come.
But his days of scripting the glory days of the Rossoneri were just beginning. 1962 also saw AC Milan beat Benfica 2-1 in a memorable match and Milan won the European Cup, now known as the Champions League.
The latter half of the decade saw Rivera become an absolute phenomenon as Milan won the Italian Cup, the Serie A league title, the European cup, the Cup Winner's Cup, the Europe/South America cup—all in just two years.
Milan was undoubtedly the best club in the world, and Gianni Rivera was the hero.
In 1969, the 26-year-old Rivera won the prestigious Ballon d'or award. He was the first Italian to do so.
Rivera continued to churn out good performances during the 70s, as Milan won another couple of Italian cups, and a Cup Winner's Cup in the decade.
But Rivera's international career was not as he would have expected it to be. For bitter city rivals Inter Milan had another brilliant star midfielder by the name of Alessandro Mazzola. The Rivera-Mazzola rivalry, though only on field and fueled mostly by the Milan-Inter rivalry, was one for the ages.
It was so intense that even though both were brilliant players, the Italian national coach would only select one at a time as he thought they could not co-exist together on the field. He employed a strategy known as staffetta wherein Mazzola played the first half, and Rivera would play the second.
Each of them had their own style and their own assets and weaknesses. Mazzola was more physical and controlling of the midfield, playing on the right hand side; Rivera was the more refined, silky smooth, creative midfielder who played at his own pace in the center.
The strategy paid rich dividends as Italy would reach the finals of the 1970 World Cup against Brazil. Wait....Pele's Brazil. That adds a whole new dimension to it all.
But when the world's best offense squared off against the world's best defense, the Italian coach made the biggest mistake of his career: He didn't bring on Rivera in the second half, thinking that the tougher Mazzola was the better option against the quick, aggressive style of the Brazilians.
Rivera finally came on to the field with only a few minutes to spare, and Italy lost.
He represented the Azzurri once again in 1974, but age and time were not on his side. Not winning the World Cup for his country was probably the biggest disappointment of his career.
Rivera would help Milan win yet another Scudetto in 1979, his final year at the club.
By that time he had made, in total, 658 appearances for Milan, scoring 164 goals. Prolific, by any standards.
Rivera stayed at the club helping in administrative matters, and even became the vice-president. But when Silvio Berlusconi, lying on the opposite political spectrum of his, bought the club in 1986, he had to leave. Rivera soon joined politics.
There is a reason this footballer was so prolific—and it goes far beyond a mere list of the awards and titles he has won.
Some say talent is a natural gift. Some say talent is a result of hard work. Well, Rivera is the unadulterated personification of both these aspects unified, amplified several times.
He had talent, but he applied himself the right way. Like all great players, he was aware of his strengths and weaknesses. His graceful passing, shrewd understanding of the game, and above all, his uncorrupted desire to play the beautiful game of football, is what makes him the legend that he is today.
The "Golden Boy" celebrates his birthday on August 18th. Happy birthday, Gianni!
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