The Cagliari Carnival (1970)
Italy has been a superpower in International Football since the early part of last century. Their domestic football has mostly been dominated by the clubs from Milan and Turin. Their rich footballing culture, however, has inspired some smaller clubs to rise to the occasion. One such club is Cagliari. Having struggled for long in the Italian top division, they finally had their moment under the sun. This is the story of our Italian Black Swan, the story of their story of relentless patience, passion, hard work, and loyalty, presented to you by Suprodip Ghosal at Goalden Times.
Cagliari is most well-known as the capital city of Sardinia—an autonomous island in Italy. It is the second-largest island of the country with art nouveau architecture and several monuments. Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the city is steeped in history and is famous for its cuisine, culture, and tradition. Another thing associated with the city? Football! Top division strugglers Cagliari Calcio has been a part of Italian football since 1920. The team has been through its share of ups and downs, but did manage to win the coveted Scudetto once in 1969–70.
Cagliari Calcio—formerly known as US Cagliari—was founded in 1920. Antonio Zedda and Gaetano Fichera were respectively the first president and manager of the club. Since inception, they always languished in the lower and southern divisions of Italy’s professional league football. They did qualify for the Campionato Meridionale in 1928. But from then on, its stories consist of incredible ups and downs for the next 20 years. The team’s performance was highly inconsistent—resulting in continuous promotions and relegations. There was no stability in the team, with incessant changes in managers, staff and presidents. Moreover, no club from the autonomous region could ever match the likes of Juventus, Napoli, Fiorentina, and the mighty Milan squads. Teams from the Sardinian region were generally looked down upon and considered inferior.
The club saw its first bright days in the year 1952 when they emerged as the first-ever outright champions of the Serie C, resulting in their promotion to Serie B. The remainder of the 1950s saw them remain in the second division. They were relegated back to Serie C in 1960 for a couple of seasons before climbing up the ladder to the second division once again.
The Beginning of an Era
Cagliari’s golden era began in 1960 when Enrico Roca became the president of the club. The head coach back then was Arturo Silvestri, under whom the club rose rapidly from Serie C to Serie A. By the time of their debut in Serie A in 1964, the club had names such as Mario Martiradonna, Pierluigi Cera, Nené, and Ricciotti Greatti in its ranks (alongside Gigi Riva). The first half of their debut season was terrible with the club languishing at the bottom with just nine points. However, a massive turnover in the second half saw the club finish seventh, with 34 points in its kitty.
The landmark signing of Gigi Riva for the club—and perhaps the most valuable piece of business conducted in its entire history—took place on 1963. It changed the fortune of the club for the decade and kept them in the noticeable circuit of Italian football for the latter part of 1960s and early 70s. They were sharing the stage with the likes of AC Milan, Juventus, Internazionale, Roma, Fiorentina, Napoli, and Lazio, who were collectively known as the “Seven Sisters of Italian Football”. Hailing from Legguino, in the province of Varese, Lombardy, Gigi Riva’s signing proved crucial for the lowly Sardinians. It was around him that the squad was built during the Golden Era of the club’s history. Even before his move to I Rossoblu (The Red and Blues), his exploits as a youngster were well known, and he had scored six times in his 23 appearances for his local club Legnano. His professional debut was in 1962 as an 18-year-old. Cagliari signed a 19-year-old Luigi Riva in 1963 for a fee of approximately 37 million lire (£12000). He played for the club during rest of his career, and went on to become one of the greatest footballers of all time.
Silvestri left Cagliari in 1966 to coach his former team AC Milan. He was replaced by Manlio Scopigno, who has been described as a “Philosopher…”.  For Angelo Domenghini, Scopigno was “very good at putting the team on the field and motivating everybody. He made them take responsibility.”
Project in Progress
Scopigno did not last long the first time around. A dispute and controversy with the management of the club at the end of a tour in America ended his first tenure at the club. He was replaced by Ettore Puricelli. Puricelli could not bond with the squad and Scopigno eventually returned at the beginning of the 1968–69 season. “The Philosopher” wasted no time in analysing his squad and started transforming his side to become eventual title contenders in Europe. By this time, Luigi “Gigi” Riva was famous all over the continent due to his exploits in the league. He was scouted and wanted by top clubs all across Europe. However, he became a symbol of loyalty. No club could ever sign him.
The then Juventus President Giampiero Boniperti was quoted as saying, “Every time he played in the north of Italy I would ring him up”. He was so desperate to land Riva that he had even offered six Juventus players in exchange for the best of that generation. Even a then world record bid of £1.5m in 1973 failed to land Riva to Juventus. Cagliari had accepted the bid but Riva refused to move as he did not want to leave the club, the supporters and the city—despite being offered almost four times his then salary. He was the reason the club witnessed its greatest periods. In the past 40 years of Italian football, Gigi Riva’s contribution at Cagliari can perhaps be only rivaled by what Diego Maradona did at Napoli. Such has been the stature of the player.
Riva had himself been unsure of his arrival in Cagliari. According to him, “It seemed like Africa to me, the island where they sent people to punish them”. Little did he know that he would go on to become their most beloved player of all time.
Scopigno started building his side around Riva, who had been nicknamed “Rombo di Tuono” (Roar of Thunder). Francesco Rizzo was sold to Fiorentina in a deal that enabled the club to sign Mario Brugnera and Enrico Albertosi. Albertosi was a keeper known for his athleticism and eccentricity, while Brugnera was an attacking midfielder. The latter also played upfront, which gave the club some much-needed added versatility. According to Albertosi “…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…”
Not Close Enough
Italy won the European Championship in 1968, which resulted in lots of changes in the domestic league. Cagliari caught the eye of many as they surpassed all expectations. They came very close to lifting the Scudetto, but eventually fell short by four points to eventual champions AC Fiorentina in the 1968-69 season. Enrico Rocca stepped down as the president at the end of the season and handed over the reins to Efisio Corrias before the historic 1969-70 season began. Corrias encouraged Scopigno to continue his job and sanctioned the transfers of Sergio Gori and Angelo Domenghini, who arrived from Inter Milan in a swap deal that included Roberto Boninsegna. These two additions were very significant as they were pretty successful during their stay at Inter Milan. Gori was employed mostly as a shadow striker behind Riva so that he could run into opposition defences and trouble them. This eventually created space for the iconic Riva to score from the chances that were created. Gori used to do this job pretty effectively and was incredibly successful in dragging opposition defenders to areas which made them feel uncomfortable.
Hard Work Finally Pays Off
After an exceptional 1968-69 season, supporters had high expectations of the club. Cagliari also wasted no time in continuing its efforts to keep the momentum going. Their unexpectedly good performance also led to strange accusations. A certain Juventus official claimed that all the mafia money had gone down south to lure players to the Rossoblu and help them succeed. Scopigno responded to this in the following way: “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.” This, however, did not go down well with Juventus. They tried to show their might by offering huge sums to sign Riva for six consecutive seasons in vain.
The championship began on 14 September 1969. Fiorentina were off to a good start once again, and gained momentum by winning four out of their opening five fixtures. The Rossoblu were also not far behind. Eventually La Viola were overtaken by Rossoblu on the fifth match at their home ground—courtesy a lone penalty by Gigi Riva. After that, there was no looking back. A draw in their sixth match against Inter at home showed early signs of tough competition for the championship title. This happened due to a concentrated defense, which, in turn, boosted the forward line as well. Despite the good run of form and favourable results, the team did face setbacks. Head coach Manilo Scopigno was banned from the touchline for five months after abusing a referee in Palermo.
Juventus, meanwhile, gained pace and recovered well from a slow start and joined the rat race of title contenders. They drew 1-1 with Cagliari at the Amsicora. Cagliari suffered their first defeat of the season against Palermo on matchday 12 which ended in a 1-0 loss. The Sardinians, meanwhile, entrusted the aura and ability of assistant coach Ugo Conti to maintain a good and positive atmosphere in their dressing room. At the end of matchday 15 on 4 January 1970, Cagliari were the winter champions as there were 16 teams playing in the first division in those days. The second half of the season got more intense with both the Milan clubs—defending champions Fiorentina and Juventus—giving the Sardinians a tough fight for the Scudetto. Cagliari started the second half much like the first—registering four wins out of five matches. On matchday 21, Cagliari lost to Inter Milan in an away match at San Siro. This would be their second and more importantly, the last loss of the season. It tightened the title race, with just four points separating the top five teams 5.
The loss against Inter was followed with outcomes which resulted on a much awaited title defining clash with The Old Lady with the two clubs separated by two points ahead of their clash on matchday 24 in Turin. On 15 March 1970, a 2-2 draw with Juventus further dampened their smooth ride to the title. An own goal from Cagliari defender Comunardo Niccolai—infamous for scoring against his own team—put Rossoblu on the backfoot. Riva equalised through a header scored from a corner just before half-time to keep Cagliari in the running. The second half was intense as Juventus were awarded a controversial penalty which was re-taken. They took the lead, but luck favoured the Sardinians as well. They too got a generous penalty that Riva converted, and brought game to 2-2. On 12 April 1970, they defeated Bari at home to accomplish a historic feat—their first and only Serie A title. The match was level almost till halftime till Riva converted a header from a Brugnera free-kick. The second half was all the Cagliari fans had been waiting for years. Everything went their way. Juventus were losing 2-0 against Lazio, and Gori slotted in another goal towards the end of the match to ensure a Cagliari victory with three points, making them the Italian champions. This was a significant milestone in the history of Italian football as the dominance of the Northern Clubs had finally been broken. No team from Southern Italy had ever lifted The Scudetto before Cagliari. They dominated the entire league with such consistency that they never fell back to the second place after they displaced Fiorentina on matchday 5.
The performance of the club attracted more and more supporters throughout the season and home fans were said to have reached the stadium by mid-morning to get a good view of the matches. Cagliari were nearly invincible that year. They suffered just two defeats and earned a total of 45 points—four more than Inter Milan and seven more than Juventus.
Riva scored 21 goals, making him the top scorer of the league for the second season in a row. It would still be foolish to assert that Riva was the only reason for this historic season. It was a bit of luck and a lot of team effort as well. They defended masterfully, conceding just 11 goals in the entire season. Albertosi, Martiradonna, and Zignoli were part of the central defence while Scopigno utilized the versatility of defensive midfielder Pierluigi Cera by offering him a free role that made him part of the defence as and when required. Cera was a defensive leader and helped steady the backline throughout the season. Fast and skillful, Nene and Domenghini dominated the wings with Ricciotti Greatti, who troubled the opposition midfield with his creation of chances for the forward line. Giuseppe Tomasini and Mario Brugnera formed the attacking midfield and sat behind Riva to support his attack.
The Tremendous Contribution of Gigi Riva
Riva’s feats at the club had partly united the people of that region. Football had become more popular and people keenly followed it during that historic period. There was a huge rise in sales of television and radios so that everybody could be aware of match results. From poor shepherds to wealthy businessmen—everyone was a fan.
Riva is a living legend for Cagliari, having scored 164 times in 315 games at an average of 0.52 goals per game. In his debut season in Cagliari, he scored eight times in 26 appearances and played a crucial role in the promotion of the club to the first division. Once in the first division, his tally kept on increasing and his loyalty to the club became the base around which the entire title-winning squad was built. Riva’s exploits proved crucial as he scored 28 and 27 goals in the 1968-69 and 1969-70 seasons, respectively. He became the top scorer of the league thrice within a span of four seasons. Riva is still an icon in the city, and always will be. He is also the highest Italian goal scorer of all time— having scored 35 times in 42 appearances in a career blighted by injuries. “We have given all Sardinians something of which they can be proud,” he claimed.
We have given all Sardinians something of which they can be proud,
All good things, alas, come to an end. The success achieved by Scopigno’s Cagliari was pretty short-lived. Despite the goal-scoring exploits of Gigi Riva, the club’s performance deteriorated drastically in the following seasons. They eventually finished 16th in the 1975–76 season, getting relegated back to the second division. Since then, the club has been facing ups and downs on a regular basis. Their best achievement since then was in the 1992–93 season under Carlo Mazzone, when they finished sixth in the league. That was also the season when they went on to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. Alas, that achievement has also not been repeated till date.
Cagliari began the millennium in the second division, having suffered relegation in the 1999–2000 season. They got promoted back to the Serie A in 2004, and have managed to more or less stay afloat since then. (They got relegated back only once to Serie B for a single season after finishing 18th in the top division in 2014–15.) Cagliari finished first in the 2015 season and were promoted back to the Serie A. The club is long past its glory days and it’s not even financially possible for them to compete with the likes of Juventus, Roma, and Milan. Their best finish in the league since 2004 came in 2008 when they finished ninth. Avoiding relegation has really been their main task these past decades.
Even today, when people visit the city of Cagliari, they’re heard talking about the heroics of Riva and his teammates. Four members of that historic Cagliari squad—Albertosi, Domenghini, Cera, and Riva played the World Cup final for Italy against Brazil. But the Sardinia-based club could not hold on to its success, and the wealthier clubs in Italy have been dominating the league once again.
According to coach Scopigno,“One championship with Cagliari was worth ten elsewhere.” That win in 1970 made Italy sit up and take notice of Sardinian football for the first time.
Given the current situation of the club, it’s unlikely that they’ll win the league anytime soon. Their glory days had a lot of factors in their favour—an efficient management, a terrific coach, and a self-sufficient squad of players who were among the best in the league. The biggest factor, though, had undoubtedly been Gigi Riva—who retired from the club as a legend. Riva, as a striker, was feared by opponents due to his powerful shots, which could be as fast as 120 kmph. In other words, those shots could break bones. In Marius, the bar in Cagliari where supporters gather before matches, they still look at the life-size statue of Riva. One never knows what the future holds. But till then—Forza Cagliari!