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Tales from the Rivera bank

Gianni Rivera saved my life.

That would make a hell of an opening sentence, but it would be a tabloid-truth, not an actual truth.

Let me just say Gianni Rivera did something, nearly 24 years ago, that increased my chances of seeing another dawn and being here now, whether it is a good thing or not.

It was May 6, 1979, and I had travelled from Alessandria, one hour southwest of Milano and by the way Rivera's birthplace, to the San Siro, for Milan's home game with Bologna, the last of their campaign: one point would have given the Rossoneri their tenth Scudetto and with it the much coveted Stella, the yellow star which permanently adorns the shirts of the clubs who have won ten Italian titles.

Typically for an Italian stadium - it still happens, making a mockery of all safety regulations - more people had been let in than the San Siro could hold, and a few thousand fans had overflowed into the lower section of the upper tier, which was cordoned off for safety reasons, as it was under renovation.

I was sitting in the lower tier, and had anything from above - people, bricks, tools - fallen down it would have landed right on my head.

The start of the game was delayed as Rivera, Milan captain and talisman, was handed a microphone and pleaded with the overflowed fans to retreat to safer areas. Most of them did, I breathed a sigh of relief, the game started and the most predictable draw in history - Bologna also needed a point to avoid relegation, so neither side broke sweat - was completed without much fuss.

You can still catch sight of Rivera holding a microphone these days, but in a completely different setting. Now 60 - hard to believe for those who have followed his career and seen him keep his boyish looks and gorgeous hairstyle - Rivera is the host of a popular Tv talk show on Telelombardia, a regional Tv channel that originates from Milan but can be seen in most of Northern Italy.

But those who only know Rivera in his current guise or as a politician cannot even begin to understand the fascinating, controversial story of one of Italy's most talented footballers ever, one that certanly can only be summarily told here.

Rivera attracted a generation of fans to the game, which he played with grace, vision and an effortless poise that brought him as many raptured friends as enemies and inspired three books, two in the Sixties and one, Nato a Betlemme ('Born in Betlehem'... enough said), a couple of years ago.

Famously, legendary late sportwriter Gianni Brera dubbed him 'Abatino', one of Brera's many ingenious expressions, a term that literally means 'young abbot' but metaphorically placed Rivera in the cadre of players whose fine touch and languid style made them look as if they were not giving their best, and would have provoked the 'get stuck in!' treatment from the less sympathetic onlookers.

A prodigy with Alessandria, for whom he'd made his debut at 15 years, ten months of age on June 2, 1959, Rivera joined Milan in the summer of 1960 and duly went on the dominate the next two decades from his preferred position in the centre of midfield.

Sporting the legendary number 10 that still defines the archetypal brainy player in Italian football, Rivera led Milan to three Scudettos, four Italian Cups, two European Cups, two Cup Winners' Cups, one Intercontinental Cup.

He was named European Player of the Year in 1969, only a few months after Milan had been the last team to truly stop the progress of up-and-coming Ajax in the European Cup Final at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, and six years after the 3-1 Wembley triumph over Benfica in the same competition, when then 20-year old Rivera had been nicknamed 'The Golden Boy' by the British press.

His elegant style belied an outspoken personality which led him to clash with almost everyone who was someone in Italian football: he accused referees of being biased and of plotting Milan's downfall in a couple of Serie A campaigns, he famously hinted that by employing a libero - in that case, the late Inter skipper Armando Picchi - Italy were becoming too defensive and were giving up one man when playing against the world's top sides.

He openly criticized National team supervisor Walter Mandelli for leading a newspaper-inspired crusade against him during the 1970 World Cup at a time when, as he admitted a few months ago to monthly magazine Calcio 2000, he felt he was in one of the best shapes of his life: this perceived ostracism led to his exclusion from the final against Brazil after he'd scored the winning goal in the 4-3 semi-final thriller against West Germany.

The fact that team coach Ferruccio Valcareggi only sent him on with six minutes to play and Italy already down 3-1 deepened Rivera's bitterness.

Rivera: Dashing good looks, luxuriant bouffant - an all-Italian hero.
Rivera: Dashing good looks, luxuriant bouffant - an all-Italian hero.

Not only Rivera's, apparently: when the Azzurri arrived back to Italy after the final, they were expecting a warm welcome at the airport but found instead an angry crowd, disappointed with the meek surrender in the last game, and Rivera was the only one who not only escaped criticism.

He emerged as the misunderstood hero of the occasion, his benching against Brazil seen as the real reason for Italy's failure to trouble Brazil's rearguard.

Reports from that time give you the feeling his teammates were less than impressed by his popularity and by his tendency to heap praise on himself, but his cockiness was partially justified by his actions on the pitch and his achievements.

You watch footage from those years now and everyone seems slower than now, Rivera perhaps slower still and keeping the ball too much, but his forte was in spraying inspired passes around and always going forward, with a more than average eye for goal for a midfielder: he was the Serie A's joint top scorer in 1972-73 with 17 goals in a 30-match season, and ended his Milan career with 124 goals in 501 games.

Although Juventus and Inter were as popular as Milan during the Sixties and the Seventies, only Inter's Sandro Mazzola, whom Valcareggi had preferred to Rivera in Italy's starting XI againt Brazil in 1970, and perhaps Gigi Riva, the unstoppable Cagliari centre-forward, caught the public's imagination as much as Rivera did.

However, neither was as controversial as Rivera, Abatino and all, was, not least because he was also inspirational in helping support the fledgling Players' Union.

His transition from iconic footballer with good looks and an almost aristocratic poise to current Tv personality has not been straightforward.

As far removed from the dumb-jock cliche as one can possibly be, Rivera retired from football after that 1979 Scudetto win and was given a vice-president's job, but Milan's fortunes immediately took a turn for the worse and after the 1979-80 season they were relegated by the Italian Football Federation for a betting scandal.

They again went down two years later, at the end of the 1981-82 season - this time because they were simply too poor - and after immediately gaining promotion back they were mediocre for a couple of campaigns until a Silvio Berlusconi purchased the club in 1986.

In the managerial and organizational shakeup that followed Berlusconi's arrival, Rivera was offered a far less influential role as chairman of the supporters' club but he turned it down and that was his last involvement with Milan.

He embarked on a political career which saw him elected to the Parliament for four consecutive terms, 1987 to 2001, in the ranks of the centre-left coalition, and he was under secretary of Defence (ironically, a facet he'd always been accused of neglecting, in football) for one term.

Sandro Mazzola: A certain section of Inter die-hards want him as club chief.
Sandro Mazzola: A certain section of Inter die-hards want him as club chief.

His political career stalled, he's nonetheless a sports consultant for the city of Rome and still a very popular figure: his name was put forward in many quarters last summer as a candidate for the chairmanship of the Italian Federation at a time when it was in shambles following the scandal of the invalid financial guarantees provided by some clubs and the legal battles which eventually saw the Serie B expanded to 24 clubs and Fiorentina hand-picked for a leap from the C1 to the B.

But his candidacy never got off the ground - Franco Carraro is still chairman - and it is believed opposition to him had come from Berlusconi's circle. Members of the ruling coalition still do not accept invitations to Rivera's talk show, on the grounds that they do not want to attract attention to someone who could be a popular candidate for Mayor of Milan against them.

This long-running but subdued feud between Berlusconi and Rivera has been a source of grief and split allegiances for many Milan fans who are grateful to Italy's current Prime Minister for saving the Rossoneri and helping them become again one of the world's top teams.

At the same time many cannot (and must not) forget - at least the older among them - that Rivera had propelled them there in the first place four decades ago.

It would take just one goodwill gesture to make things better, but the chances of Rivera's legendary number 10 shirt being retired - although not an Italian tradition - are not great at the moment, and this is sad however you look at it.

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