Showing posts with label Luigi Riva. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Luigi Riva. Show all posts

15 December 2018

Comunardo Niccolai - footballer

‘King of own goals’ was also a champion

Comunardo Nicolai was a member of the most successful team in Cagliari's history
Comunardo Nicolai was a member of the
most successful team in Cagliari's history
The footballer Comunardo Niccolai, a central defender with a propensity for scoring calamitous own goals, was born on this day in 1946 in Uzzano, a beautiful hill town in Tuscany.

Niccolai scored six own goals in his Serie A career, which contributed to his standing as something of a cult figure in Italian football.

He was actually an exceptionally talented player - good enough to be picked for the Italian squad for the World Cup in 1970, where the azzurri finished runners-up, as well as a key figure in the Cagliari team that won the Serie A title in 1970.

But he seemed unable to avoid moments of freakish bad luck and he acquired such unwanted notoriety as a result that people outside the game still reference his name when describing someone doing something to their own disadvantage.

For example, during the course of one of the regular political crises in Italy in the late 1990s, the right-wing politician Francesco Storace said of a policy decision taken by prime minister Massimo D’Alema, “Ha fatto un autogol alla Niccolai” - meaning that he had “scored an own goal Niccolai-style”.

Niccolai's most famous own goal - against Juventus during the 1969-70 title-winning season
Niccolai's most famous own goal - against Juventus
during the 1969-70 title-winning season
Niccolai acquired his unusual first name an account of his father’s politics.  A fervent anti-Fascist, Lorenzo Niccolai, himself a footballer who kept goal for Livorno between 1923 and 1928, named his son in honour of the Paris Commune, the revolutionary group that briefly held power in France in 1871.

Comunardo played his first football with the youth team at Montecatini before he was transferred to Torres, a club from Sassari in Sardinia.  From there he signed for Cagliari in 1964, joining a team that had just been promoted to Serie A.

Cagliari, who have never before or since been such a force in Italian football, steadily built a squad that was capable of challenging for the Serie A title, which they claimed in 1969-70 with a defence, including Niccolai, that conceded only 11 goals throughout the campaign.

Their stars were goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi, defender Pierluigi Cera, and forwards such as Roberto Boninsegna, Sergio Gori, Angelo Domenghini and the great Luigi Riva, all of whom went to Mexico with Niccolai in 1970 as part of the national team.

Cagliari's 1969-70 team - Comunardo Niccolai is on the back row, fourth from the left
Cagliari's 1969-70 team - Comunardo Niccolai is on the
back row, fourth from the left
The title was an unprecedented achievement for the rossoblu - minnows compared with the giants of Juventus and Milan - although even then Niccolai managed to make his mark in the wrong way.

In a game against title rivals Juventus in March 1970, played on a treacherously wet surface, Niccolai jumped to meet a cross that goalkeeper Albertosi was trying to claim with the score at 0-0 and headed it into his own net.  Happily Cagliari managed to come out with a draw after Riva scored a late equaliser.

He became known as the 'King of the Own Goal', although one of Niccolai’s most celebrated misfortunes did not actually result in an own goal.

It came for Cagliari against Catanzaro away from home in the 1972 season. It was the last minute, and with Cagliari leading 2-1 the home team were doing everything to try to equalise, including a number of attempts to win a penalty.

Comunardo Niccolai now works as a scout for the Italian national football federation
Comunardo Niccolai now works as a scout for the
Italian national football federation
When Catanzaro’s winger, Alberto Spelta, went down inside the penalty area and Niccolai heard a whistle he believed they had achieved their objective and angrily swung a boot at the ball, sending it towards his own goal.

In fact, the whistle he heard was not that of the referee, but a spectator in the crowd.  The ball was not dead and though Niccolai's fellow defender Mario Brugnera managed to stop it crossing the line and prevent an own goal - he did so only by using his hand.  As a result, the home side were awarded a penalty after all - from which they scored.

Niccolai went on to play for Perugia and Prato before hanging up his boots in 1978.  He has since coached Savoia and the Italy Women national team and currently works as a scout for the men’s national team.

Uzzano perches on a hillside in Tuscany, about 45km (28 miles) to the west of Florence in the province of Pistoia
Uzzano perches on a hillside in Tuscany, about 45km (28
miles) to the west of Florence in the province of Pistoia
Travel tip:

Niccolai’s home town of Uzzano, in the province of Pistoia about 45km (28 miles) west of Florence, is part of the Valdinievole,a collection of small settlements that dot the plains and hills. The composer Giacomo Puccini spent a few months there, during which he composed the second and third acts of La bohème while resident at Villa Orsi Bertolini, known today as Villa Anzilotti.  Other attractions in the town include the church of Santi Jacopo e Martin (12th-13th century), which houses a Romanesque holy water font and a Renaissance statue attributed to Giovanni della Robbia. Uzzano’s historic centre clings to a hillside, offering commanding views, while special lighting at night ensures the village is visible from the valley below.

The port of Cagliari rises from the sea to provide a  colourful sight for approaching travellers
The port of Cagliari rises from the sea to provide a
colourful sight for approaching travellers
Travel tip:

Cagliari is the capital of the island of Sardinia, an industrial centre and one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean. Yet it is also a city of considerable beauty and history, most poetically described by the novelist DH Lawrence when he visited in the 1920s. As he approached from the sea, he set his eyes on the confusion of domes, palaces and ornamental facades which, he noted, seemed to be piled on top of one another. He compared it to Jerusalem, describing it as 'strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy.’  What he saw was Cagliari’s charming historic centre, known as Castello, inside which the city’s university, cathedral and several museums and palaces - plus many bars and restaurants - are squeezed into a network of narrow alleys.

More reading: 

How Luigi Riva became a legendary figure for Cagliari and Italy

Gianfranco Zola, Sardinia's most famous footballing export

Gianni Rivera, star of Italy's 1970 World Cup team

Also on this day:

1966: The film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly goes on general release

1970: The birth of champion jockey Frankie Dettori

1973: Kidnappers release captive heir to Getty fortune


29 September 2018

Silvio Piola - footballer

Modest star who remains Italy’s great goalscorer

Piola played for five clubs in a career spanning 24 years
Piola played for five clubs in a
career spanning 24 years. 
Silvio Piola, a forward whose career tally of 364 goals between 1930 and 1954 remains the most scored by any professional player in the history of football in Italy, was born on this day in 1913 in Robbio Lomellina, a small town about 50km (31 miles) southwest of Milan.

Of those goals, 274 were scored in Serie A and 30 for the Italian national team, with whom he was a World Cup winner in 1938, scoring twice in the final against Hungary.

No other player has scored so many goals in the top flight of Italian football and only two others - Gigi Riva and Giuseppe Meazza - have scored more while wearing the azzurri shirt.

Other records still held by Piola include all-time highest Serie A goalscorer for three different clubs - his hometown club Pro Vercelli, Lazio, and Novara - and one of only two players to have scored six goals in a single match.

Until recently, Piola held a unique double record of being both the youngest player to score two goals in a Serie A match and the oldest, having scored twice for Pro Vercelli in a 5-4 win away to Alessandria in 1931 when he was 17 years and 104 days and twice for Novara against Lazio in a match in 1953, at the age of 39 years and 127 days.

The Lazio team for the 1940-41 season. Piola, who spent nine years at the Rome club, is fourth from the left on the back row.
The Lazio team for the 1940-41 season. Piola, who spent nine
years at the Rome club, is fourth from the left on the back row.
The latter was overtaken by Roma’s Francesco Totti, who was 39 years and 210 days when he came off the bench to score twice against Torino in April 2016, while the former record fell in September last year, when Pietro Pellegri of Genoa scored twice in a 3-2 defeat to Lazio at the age of 16 and 184 days.

Totti is one of only eight players in Italian football history to have scored more than 300 career goals and one of only a few in recent times to come anywhere near Piola’s tally. The next closest to Piola’s 364 is Alessandro Del Piero, who finished on 346, ahead of Meazza (338) and Luca Toni (322). Totti, who retired in 2017, hung up his boots on 316, two behind Roberto Baggio.

Piolo’s father, Giuseppe, was a textile merchant but there was football in the family. His older brother, Serafino, might have played professionally had a vision defect not forced him to abandon his ambitions. His mother, Emilia, was the brother of the Pro Vercelli goalkeeper, Giuseppe Cavana, and he had a cousin, Paolino, who played for Novara and Pro Patria.

Piola pictured in his days playing for Juventus after the war.
Piola pictured in his days playing
for Juventus after the war.
Silvio was born in Robbio Lomellina only because his parents had temporarily moved there for business reasons. They returned to Vercelli in 1914.

He made his debut for Pro Vercelli in 1930 at the age of 17 and scored 13 goals in his first Serie A season, his first coming against Lazio, the club he would join in 1934, having scored 51 in 127 games for his home-town club.

Piola did not particularly want to leave his family in the north of Italy but Lazio, who had the support of two very prominent Fascists in Giovanni Marinelli, the party secretary, and General Giorgio Vaccaro, were very persuasive, offering the club 300,000 lire and Piola himself a salary of 6,000 lire per month, rising after a year to an eye-watering 38,000 lire per month, as well as the chance to meet his national service obligation with an office job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Their end game, apart from bringing success to Lazio, was to groom Piola as Italy’s main striker for the 1938 World Cup in France.

It was all head-spinning stuff for Piola, a modest man who preferred to spend his leisure time hunting and fishing in the company of his dog and had no interest in the temptations offered by living in Rome.  He used to travel to Pro Vercelli games by bus but suddenly had a luxury home in the Flaminio district with the services of a driver to take him to training.

Nonetheless, his professional focus remained intact. In nine seasons at Lazio, he scored 143 Serie A goals in just 227 appearances.

The stadium where Pro Vercelli play their home games in the
Italian football championship is now the Stadio Silvio Piola
After leaving Lazio, he spent 1944 at Torino, where he scored 27 goals in just 23 games in the wartime football league. From 1945 to 1947, Piola played for Juventus, before moving to Novara, where he stayed for seven more seasons.

He and his girlfriend Alda were married in July 1948 and had two children, Dario, who played in goal for Pro Vercelli before becoming a lawyer and politician, and Paola, a psychologist. A great-grandson, Alonso - born in 1979, of Brazilian nationality - played as a striker in Italy, Switzerland and South America.

Piola’s international career began with a goalscoring debut against Austria in March 1935. He went on to play 34 games for Italy and score 30 goals between 1935–1952, a tally that would surely have been greater if not for the interruption caused by the Second World War. He captained the national side from 1940 until 1947. His last international appearance was in 1952, when Italy drew 1–1 with England.

After his retirement as a player in 1954, Piola had a brief career as a coach before taking a job with the Italian Football Federation, where he stayed for 10 years before returning to Vercelli.  He died in a nursing home in 1996 at the age of 83, after being affected by Alzheimer's disease. His body was laid to rest in the family chapel in the monumental cemetery of Billiemme, in Vercelli.

The Romanesque church of San Pietro in Robbio
The Romanesque church of San Pietro in Robbio
Travel tip:

The small town of Robbio Lomellina, where Silvio Piola was born, has been a settlement since Neolithic times. Its features include a castle restored in the 18th century, having originally been constructed in the 14th century on the site of a fortress that was probably built in the 11th century. The structure is in a park open to the public. Look out also for the 13th century Romanesque church of San Pietro, which contains 16th-century frescoes attributed to Tommasino da Mortara.

Piazza Cavour is the main square in Vercelli
Piazza Cavour is the main square in Vercelli
Travel tip:

Vercelli is a city of around 46,500 inhabitants some 85km (53 miles) west of Milan and about 75km (46 miles) northeast of Turin. It is reckoned to be built on the site of one of the oldest settlements in Italy, dating back to 600BC, and was home to the world's first publicly-funded university, which was opened in 1228 but folded in 1372. The Basilica of Sant'Andrea is regarded as one of the most beautiful and best-preserved Romanesque buildings in Italy.  Since the 15th century, Vercelli has been at the centre of Italy’s rice production industry, with many of the surrounding fields in the vast Po plain submerged under water during the summer months.

More reading:

Alessandro del Piero, Juventus's record goalscorer

How Giuseppe Meazza became Italy's first football superstar

Was Roberto Baggio Italy's greatest player?

Also on this day:

1901: The birth of nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, 'father of the atomic bomb'

1936: The birth of Silvio Berlusconi


19 December 2016

Gianni Brera - football journalist

Outspoken writer who embellished Italian language

Football journalist Gianni Brera
Football journalist Gianni Brera
Italy's football world lost one of its most influential personalities on this day in 1992 when a car crash near the town of Codogno in Lombardy claimed the life of the journalist Gianni Brera.

Brera, who was 73, had enjoyed a long and often controversial career in which his writing was famous not only for its literary quality but for his outspoken views.

He could be savage in his criticisms of players and allowed reputations to count for nothing.  His long-running feud with Gianni Rivera, the AC Milan midfielder regarded by many as one of Italian football's all-time greats, in some ways defined his career.

Yet the positions he occupied in Italian football journalism gained him enormous respect.  He rose to be editor-in-chief of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's biggest sports newspaper, before he was 30 and went on to write for Il Giorno, Il Giornale and La Repubblica among the country's heavyweight news dailies.

The intellectual La Repubblica for many years considered sport to be too trivial to be worthy of coverage, an attitude that persisted even through the 1970s. But the style and innovative brilliance of Brera's writing was a major factor in persuading them to drop their stance.

Famously, Brera introduced new words to the Italian language in his efforts to convey to his readers the things that he saw on the field in front of him and pass on his own interpretation of the game.

AC Milan star Gianni Rivera had a long-running feud with Brera
AC Milan star Gianni Rivera had a
long-running feud with Brera
For example, it was Brera who coined the term libero for the player designated as "sweeper" in the catenaccio defensive formation that dominated Italian football in the 1950s and 60s, and deemed that the players who could no longer be described as half-backs or inside forwards as the game moved away from the traditional 2-3-5 formation would be known in future as centrocampisti - midfielders.

Brera would also invent nicknames for players to amuse his readers.  He dubbed Rivera Abatino - the "little abbot" - and hailed the old-fashioned centre forward Luigi 'Gigi' Riva as Rombo di tuono - the "rumble of thunder".

He was a lifelong advocate of the ultra-defensive tactics characterised by the catenaccio system, and part of his antipathy towards Rivera stemmed from his belief that creative talents such as his were luxuries the game could do without.

Most of Brera's heroes were defenders and where many writers would enthuse about goals scored as moments of beauty in a match, Brera tended to see them as aberrations, the unwanted consequence of flawed defending.  His idea of perfection was a match in which the forwards were players of a manly vigour that constantly tested the defenders but which ultimately ended 0-0.

His spats with other journalists were also legend, most notably with the Neapolitan writer Gino Palumbo, a proponent of attacking play and therefore philosophically at odds with Brera.  The two once engaged in a punch-up in the press box before a match in Brescia.

The Arena Civica in Milan was renamed Arena Gianni Brera
The Arena Civica in Milan was renamed Arena Gianni Brera
At the same time, though, he enjoyed playing host to fellow journalists, players and coaches at his 'Thursday club' at a restaurant in central Milan, where he lived for much of his working life.

To avoid accusations of bias in debates about Milan's rival clubs, Brera always claimed he was a supporter of Genoa, Italy's oldest football club.

Born in 1919 in the village of San Zenone al Po, which sits on the banks of the River Po around 25km south-east of Pavia, Brera was the son of a tailor and barber, but his humble stock belied a considerable intellect, which he demonstrated in obtaining a degree in political sciences from the University of Pavia while simultaneously serving with a parachute division of the Italian army.

He regarded himself as Padanian rather than Italian and was vehemently anti-Fascist, fighting on the side of the Italian resistance towards the end of the Second World War, although proudly proclaiming later that he never fired a shot at a fellow human being.

After his death, Milan's monumental Arena Civica, the stadium conceived as the city's Colosseum by Napoleon I in the early 19th century, was renamed Arena Gianni Brera.

The Castello Visconteo is an attraction for visitors to Pavia
The Castello Visconteo is an attraction for visitors to Pavia
Travel tip:

The elegant Lombardy city of Pavia is renowned for its university, which is regarded as one of the best in Italy and numbers among its alumni the explorer Christopher Columbus and the poet and revolutionary Ugo Foscolo.  Among its important historic buildings are the well preserved 14th century Castello Visconteo, a Duomo dating back to the 15th century and the impressive Lombard-Romanesque church of San Michele Maggiore, which was completed in 1155.

Travel tip:

The Arena Gianni Brera in Milan, formerly known as the Arena Civica, can be found in the Parco Sempione behind the Castello Sforzesco. It is one of Milan's main examples of neoclassical architecture, an elliptical amphitheatre commissioned by Napoleon soon after he became King of Italy in 1805. At one time the home of the Milan football club Internazionale, it is nowadays a venue for international athletics and rugby union as well as being the home of Milan's third football team, Brera Calcio FC.

More reading:

7 November 2016

Luigi Riva - an Azzurri great

Italy's record goalscorer and hero of Cagliari

Striker Luigi 'Gigi' Riva pictured during Cagliari's victorious 1969-70 season
Striker Luigi 'Gigi' Riva pictured during
Cagliari's victorious 1969-70 season
Luigi 'Gigi' Riva, who was born on this day in 1944, is widely regarded as one of the finest strikers in the history of Italian football.   

Despite playing in an era when football in Italy was notoriously defensive, he scored more than 200 goals in a 16-year club career, 156 of them in Serie A for Cagliari, with whom he won the Scudetto (shield) as Italian League champions in 1970.

Nicknamed 'Rombo di tuono' - thunderclap - by the football writer Gianni Brera, Riva is also the all-time leading goalscorer for the Italian national team with 35 goals, his record having stood since 1974.

After his playing career, Riva spent 23 years as part of the management team for the Azzurri and was a key member of the backroom staff when Italy won the World Cup for a fourth time in 2006.

Born in Lombardia, not far from Lake Maggiore, Riva spent virtually his whole football career with Cagliari and made his home in Sardinia.  The 1969-70 title is the only championship in the club's history and Riva, who scored 21 goals in the title-winning season, is as revered on the island as Diego Maradona is in Naples.

Although he came from a loving home in the small town of Leggiuno, just a few kilometres inland from the shores of Lake Maggiore, Riva had a tough upbringing.

His father, Ugo, died when he was just eight years old, killed in an accident at the foundry where he worked, after which his mother, Edis, decided to send Luigi to a religious boarding school, where the regime was hard.

Luigi Riva in his Italy shirt
Luigi Riva in the Italy shirt in which his
goals tally is still the highest.
He did not blame his mother, who had no choice in her circumstances but to work long hours for low pay, but Riva would later confess to suffering loneliness and depression.   One of his regrets was that his mother did not live long enough for him to provide her with a comfortable retirement.

Release from the deprivations of school came when he was 15 and went to live with his sister, taking a job as a motor mechanic with dreams of becoming a racing driver.  But it was his skill as a footballer, and in particular what he could do with his powerful left foot, that began to get him noticed.  After scoring 63 goals in two seasons for a local amateur team, he earned a trial with Internazionale in Milan.  That came to nothing but he was offered a contract to play in Serie C for Legnano, based about 50km from Leggiuno.

He stayed there only one season.  His talent attracted numerous scouts and when Cagliari offered him the chance to play in Serie B he took it.

Sardinia was still a somewhat primitive island in 1963 and Riva was not sure what to make of it. His first impression was of a place 'where they sent people to punish them'.

Yet he grew to love the island and the Sardinians took him to their hearts.  Previously regarded as a perennial Serie B club, they were promoted to Serie A in his first season and, on the back of his goals, began to climb steadily.

Leading Serie A scorer in 1966-67, when Cagliari finished sixth, he was capocannoneri again in 1968-69 with 21 goals as Cagliari achieved the highest league position in their history as runners-up to Fiorentina.

But the crowning glory of his career was the 1969-70 season as Cagliari lost only two matches and conceded just 11 goals in winning their one and only Scudetto.

Riva scored 21 goals of all kinds - tap-ins, long-range shots, powerful headers. Although some critics complained he was too reliant on his left foot, many players effective with both feet could not match his versatility.  An overhead kick with which he scored against Vicenza is still regarded as one of the best Serie A goals of all time.

Although they had other good players, Cagliari supporters hailed Riva as the one who made it possible and his place in the island's folklore was established for all time.

A short film from RAI about Riva and the 1969-70 season

It might not have happened had Riva not felt so at home on the island. In 1967, when Juventus offered him a fortune to go to Turin, he had turned them down.

“I would have earned triple,” he said later. "But Sardinia had made me a man. It was my land. In those days, they called us shepherds and bandits around Italy. I was 23 and the great Juve wanted to cover me in money. I wanted the Scudetto for my land. We did it, the bandits and shepherds.”

With Italy, for whom he won 42 caps, he was a European champion in 1968 but the ultimate title of World Cup winner eluded him, essentially because the great Italian team of 1970 met an even better one in Brazil in the finals in Mexico.

Riva scored twice in the 4-1 quarter-final win over the hosts and Italy's third goal in the so-called 'Game of the Century', the 4-3 extra-time semi-final victory against West Germany, but Italy were overwhelmed as the brilliant Brazilians won 4-1 in the final.

Bedevilled by injuries for most of his career - he suffered a broken leg twice while playing for the national team - he retired in 1978, two years after rupturing a tendon in his right thigh. Cagliari retired his No 11 shirt in his honour in 2005.

The Castello district of Cagliari is especially beautiful at night
The Castello district of Cagliari is
especially beautiful at night
For all that he regarded himself as an adopted Sardinian, Riva never forgot his roots.  In retirement, he returned to Leggiuno, where he knocked down the house where his parents had lived and built a new one in its place, staying there periodically to chat with local people, some of whom he had known when he was a child, and to reflect on the course his life had taken him.

Travel tip:

Although it is Sardinia's main port and industrial centre, Cagliari has become a popular tourist destination for the tree-lined boulevards and elegant arcades of the marina area and the charm of its historical centre, known as Castello, with limestone buildings that prompted DH Lawrence to call it 'the white Jerusalem', which take on beautiful pastel hues at sunset.

Stay in Cagliari

The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso
The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso
Travel tip:

Leggiuno, situated in an elevated position just inland from Lake Maggiore, is close to the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso, an extraordinary structure that appears to rise from the waters of Lake Maggiore, clinging to a sheer rock cliff face.  A Roman Catholic monastery dating from the 14th century, it used to be accessible only by boat or by a steep flight of steps descending from the top of the cliff.  Since 2010, visitors have been able to reach it via a lift built into an old well.

Stay in nearby Reno Leggiuno

More reading:

Italy's historic fourth World Cup victory

Paolo Rossi's 1982 World Cup hat-trick

Dino Zoff - captain of the 1982 Azzurri

Also on this day: