Inspirational striker who resisted the fortunes on offer on the mainland in order to stay loyal to the island of Sardinia.

Juventus President Giampiero Boniperti thought he finally had his man. “Every time he played in the north of Italy I would ring him up,” he would later say. Desperate to land Luigi Riva, it was said six Juventus players were to be exchanged for just one. But what a player.

In 1973, at the age of 29, it appeared as if the Bianconeri would finally complete their quest to land the man known as Rombo di Tuono – Rumble of Thunder. It wasn’t the first time the Turin giants almost signed him. As a 23-year-old Riva downright refused a move to Juve. Six years and unprecedented success later the move looked to be finalised. Cagliari accepted a deal worth around 1 Billion Lire – £1.5m. Had the deal gone through it would easily have smashed the world record transfer of £500,000 Juventus paid for Pietro Anastasi in 1968, and the new mark set also in 1973 by Barcelona to land Johan Cruyff – £922,000.

There was just one snag: Riva again refused. He would not leave his people. Riva – born in the Lombardy torn of Leggiuno, near the Swiss border – felt at home in Sardinia. He was a symbol to the Cagliari fans. The bond between the player, club and region proved unbreakable. There was something seductive about Cagliari that would keep it and Riva linked. An intangible. Riva remains an icon in Sardinia, even today. He led Cagliari to heights it had never seen before, or since.

It’s a bond which began in 1963. At the time Cagliari were in Serie B. They had never been higher in 40 years of existence. A small club and like the island itself, an unknown. Riva’s first season – the Rossoblu payed Serie C club Legnano 37 million lire for the 19-year-old – coincided with Cagliari’s top-flight promotion. Even he was unsure: “It [Sardinia] seemed like Africa to me: the island where they sent people in order to punish them!” They finished second behind Varese. It was the beginning of the fairytale.

Their first aim was to avoid a quick return to the second tier. Cagliari did that with ease, ending 1964-65 in sixth. An 11th, sixth and ninth placed finish followed. The building blocks were laid, but still, Cagliari were never looked upon as serious Scudetto contenders. Aside from Riva, the Rossoblu could boast Roberto Boninsegna – who would trade Sardinia for Inter in the triumphant Scudetto season – Pierluigi Cera and Comunardo Niccolai.

Leading the group was Manlio Scopigno. He would achieve no greater success than in 1970 and became synonymous with this Cagliari. A bit-part player in the late 1940s and 1950s, he played three seasons with Salernitana in Serie B, before making the short trip to Napoli for his only crack at Serie A. He lasted two seasons, but a knee injury ruined his stay. He represented Catanzaro half a dozen times, before turning to coaching.

Scopigno commenced at Rieti – his hometown club and where he started his playing career. His initial Serie A stint came at Lanerossi Vicenza in 1961, where he coached for four seasons. Next was Bologna. Scopigno led the club to second place, two seasons after winning the Scudetto.

Cagliari came calling in 1966 and despite leading the club to sixth, the directors preferred Ettore Puricelli for 1967-68. Scopigno sat on the sidelines for a year – he was expected to join Inter but never did so – and returned to the Rossoblu in 1968-69.

Scopigno was praised for his ability to read the game from the sidelines – he was nicknamed ‘Philosopher’. For Angelo Domenghini, Scopigno was“very good at putting the team on the field and motivating everybody. He made them take responsibility.” Cera tells of a story where a group of players, while on retreat before a match, snuck away at night to play poker in one of the rooms. As they smoked and played cards, in walked Scopigno. Expecting a verbal lashing, the tactician instead calmly grabbed a chair, sat down and asked ‘Do you mind if I smoke?”

That season, Cagliari added 1970 World Cup goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi, plus Mario Brugnera – who would spend more than a decade with the club – from Fiorentina. Albertosi later recalled, “When I first heard of Cagliari’s interest, I didn’t want to go, because in Florence we’d always joked that Sardinia was a penal colony.” Today, Domenghini says Cagliari was the right environment to go about their work. “Sardinia is a great place and has the most beautiful sea in the world. It’s hard to feel bad there.”

Scopigno’s outfit was gaining in stature. Riva – who netted in the 1968 European Championships Final replay against Yugoslavia – led the charge with 20 goals in 29 matches. Three clubs battled for the Scudetto. Cagliari headed the table above Fiorentina and soon-to-be European Champions Milan until Round 21. They lost at home to Juventus and would not lead the championship again. Scopigno’s side finished second, four points behind the Viola.

Two final pieces of the puzzle were added in the summer of 1969: Domenghini and Sergio Gori, both of whom would be on the plane for Mexico in 12 months. Yet to lure them from Inter, they had to let go of Boninsegna. He was a clinical finisher who formed a deadly partnership with Riva, but personal animosity between the two saw Boninsegna return to the Nerazzurri.

The near-miss of 1968-69 acted as a spur. With Riva spearheading the attack, Cagliari could count on the most feared striker in Serie A. He felt at home at the Stadio Amsicora. Speaking of his 1967 rejection of Juventus, Riva noted: “I would have earned triple. 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.” 

Riva would better his 1968-69 mark by one goal in one less appearance to retain his capocannoniere crown. Riva possessed a cracking shot – he once broke the arm of a nine-year-old boy who was watching training behind the net – was powerful in the air and could bring others into the game. He was simply impossible to deal with.

While Riva was deadly at the pointy end, the Rossoblu also proved miserly at the back. Now captain, Cera – a sweeper with the ability to bring the ball out from the back – led with distinction, and Albertosi’s goal was rarely breached: just 11 times in 30 matches. That was eight less than the second best defensive record, held by Inter.

Domenghini recalled 40 years later how the captain became their defensive rock. “He played in midfield, then [Giuseppe] Tomasini was hurt and Scopigno put him in defence. Into midfield went Brugnera and we became even stronger in attack. Sometimes the so-called turning points arise from necessity and chance.”

Cagliari conceded just once in the opening five games, setting the tone. They won four of their opening five ahead of Inter’s visit to the Amsicora, a week earlier disposing of the Champions in Florence – Riva scoring the only goal. Now it was time to face the favourites. Luis Suarez gave Inter an early lead. It took until after half-time to hit back, Nene equalising. Although try as they might, Cagliari would have to settle for a point.

Slow-starting Juventus then salvaged a last-minute draw with the Rossoblu a month later. And Cagliari would lose their unbeaten start in Round 12, suffering a single-goal defeat at Palermo. Nonetheless, as 1969 drew to a close the Philosopher’s men were crowned winter champions. Cagliari had to look over their shoulder heading into the New Year: Juventus were on the charge, Fiorentina were not about to give up their crown easily, while neither Inter nor Milan wanted to be denied.

The Sardinians began the second half of the campaign as they had in September, with four wins in five. Fiorentina held the leaders to a scoreless draw and Boninsegna hurt his former employers with a goal six minutes from time to allow Inter to keep up their charge. It was just Cagliari’s second loss. Suddenly, the top five were separated by four points. And the Old Lady was on the move, just a point from the top.

A win over Napoli and draw with Roma – sixth and seventh respectively – continued a difficult run for Cagliari. Next would be a season defining clash at Juventus. The Bianconeri were two points adrift, having dropped points against Inter and Napoli.

With only six games remaining following the March 15 affair, this would prove pivotal. It also meant so much more. The Turin giants were frustrated by their inability to lure Riva. And how could this team, in Serie C less than a decade earlier, be challenging the mighty Juve for the Scudetto?

“Mafia money has lured these players away from the north. Why else would anyone wish to leave and play on a holiday island?” snapped one Bianconeri official in 1969.

Scopigno hit back: “Juve and the Milan clubs have had the wealth and contacts to ensure that they’ve had things their own way for far too long. If Cagliari should win Serie A, I’d imagine it will be the first honest Championship victory for years.” A clear allusion to the power Juventus, Milan and Inter yielded in post-War calcio.

Cagliari defender Niccolai is remembered in Italy for his ability to net a spectacular own goal. In the 29th minute at a rain-soaked and packed Stadio Comunale he was at it again, flicking a near-post header past Albertosi. Niccolai – much to the surprise of his coach – was headed to Mexico a few months later. “I could expect everything from my life, except to see Niccolai on an international telecast.”

From a corner on the stroke of half-time, Riva was first to react to Brugnera’s knock-down and headed over Roberto Anzolin to equalise, much to the goalkeeper’s disgust.

A cautious second half exploded in the 66th minute. Juventus were awarded a penalty, which Cagliari vehemently disputed. Helmet Haller stepped up, but Albertosi saved. Cagliari rejoiced, only for Concetto Lo Bello, a highly respected referee, to order the penalty be re-taken. Albertosi had moved before the kick was struck. Protests were futile. Anastasi took over the responsibility and fired Juve into the lead.

“When Lo Bello whistled for a non-existent penalty for a foul by [Mario] Martiradonna on [Lamberto] Leonardi and did so again after Albertosi saved from Haller, I said to myself ‘Here we go,’” recalls Domenghini. “Anastasi scored to make it 2-1 but then Lo Bello evened things up and gave us a penalty.”

With less than 10 minutes to play Domeghini floated a free kick into the penalty area, where Riva and Sandro Salvadore tussled. Lo Bello was close to it and saw holding. He pointed to the spot, another generous penalty.

“I realised he would fix his mistake,” continued the winger. “I knew that the kick would be whistled as soon as the ball entered the penalty area. ‘Holding on Martiradonna [footage shows it was Riva]’ said Lo Bello in front of the enraged Juventus defenders.” Anzolin got a hand to Riva’s low penalty, but that only served to prolong the drama as the ball squirted over the line. 2-2. Cagliari earned a draw and passed their sternest test.

One month later, the Amsicora was packed to the rafters. The crowd on April 12 included two escaped local prisoners, who were then arrested at the stadium but allowed to stay and watch before returning to their cell. Relegation threatened Bari were in town. Three points clear with three matches remaining, Cagliari knew a win coupled with a Juventus defeat would sew the Scudetto to their shirts.

The home side pushed but as the match approached half-time it remained level. It was only fitting that Riva should then open the scoring, calming home nerves. He threw himself at a Brugnera free kick for a diving header at the back post.

There was even better news in the second half: Lazio were two goals to the good against Juve, Giorgio Chinaglia one of those on target. With two minutes remaining, Gori added the icing on the cake, thumping home from just inside the penalty area. Party time.

A pitch invasion ensued and Riva was swamped. False funerals were organised during the next week for Juventus and the two Milan clubs, while Sardinian-based fans of those clubs were forced into wearing Cagliari shirts. “We have given all Sardinians something of which they can be proud,”Riva beamed.

Iconic Italian football writer Gianni Brera claimed the Scudetto success “signifies the entrance of Sardinia in Italy.” It was an historic achievement and to date the first and only time the Scudetto has left mainland Italy.

Writer Stefano Boldrini said Riva’s goals had “forced shepherds to buy transistor radios so that they could follow Cagliari,” modernising the island. It was a triumph said to unite the entire island, one wrought with divisions.

In Mexico, five Cagliari players started the first group match against Sweden, decided by a Domenghini goal. Niccolai was forced from the field in the first half and would play no further part in the tournament. However, Albertosi, Cera, Domenghini and Riva were regulars. Gigi went into the tournament on the back of so much expectation but started slowly. He was also the subject of a tabloid sex scandal back home. Riva exploded with a quarter-final brace against the hosts, before netting in extra-time of the ‘Game of the Century’ against West Germany.

Back home, Cagliari could not repeat the miracle. The honeymoon carried through the opening weeks of the following season and included a memorable victory at Inter. There, Riva scored twice in a 3-1 win. It led Brera to declare: “Cagliari have humiliated Inter at the San Siro. More than 70,000 saw that Riva deserved it and I nickname him Rombo di Tuono.” 

Unfortunately, Riva broke his leg in action for Italy later that week. When he went down, so too did Cagliari’s chances at retaining their crown. They would finish seventh and were knocked out of the European Cup in the Round of 16 by Atletico Madrid.

For Domenghini, there was another factor. “We paid for the move from the Amsicora to the Stadio Sant’Elia. In the new stadium, with the running track and fans far away, we lost the character of the stadium. The Amsicora was a bunker where is was very difficult for others to emerge unscathed.”

Both Riva and Cagliari experienced a renaissance in 1971-72. The player netted 21 times in 30 games, the team finished fourth. It was to be Scopigno’s last season on the bench. The Philosopher took a year-long sabbatical before joining Roma. He lasted six games, before two more seasons with Vicenza. The Biancorossi slumped from Serie A and very nearly into Serie C during that time. Scopigno’s magic was gone.

Riva struck 12 goals the season after. Again Juventus came calling with that mega offer. Again Riva refused. Cagliari was where he belonged. But they were never to challenge for the ultimate prize again. When injury struck once more in 1975-76, Riva retired from the game. That season, Cagliari were relegated from Serie A. Later, his No 11 shirt was retired.

The Rossoblu briefly recalled the heights of the 1960s and 1970s when finishing sixth in 1992-93 and reaching the UEFA Cup semi-final a season later – defeated by Inter after knocking out Juventus – but the moment was fleeting.

These days Cagliari are a Serie A mainstay, however the glory days are long gone. Still, the memory of the 1970 miracle lingers. An extraordinary tale of loyalty and of the underdog triumphing.

“One championship with Cagliari was worth ten elsewhere,” Scopigno would say.

By Luca Cetta

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona