The latest round of the Coppa Italia has thrown up a fixture high in nostalgia with a legendary fantasista at its core, as AC Milan and Alessandria clash in the ‘Rivera Derby’.
Known as the original Golden Boy of Italian football, Gianni Rivera became a true club icon at AC Milan where he spent 19 seasons – 12 as captain – inspiring the Rossoneri to win everything available.
As such an inspirational and ingrained protagonist in the history and success of Milan, it is easy to assume that Rivera was a one-club man. Not so; Rivera was born and made in Alessandria.
A child born into war but out of love in the city of Alessandria, 1943, the young Rivera remembers chasing a leather ball around the local airport runways – the only open spaces in the area around that time. As a 12-year old he played in his first youth championship, and the promise shown as an attacking player would lead to him joining Alessandria’s youth setup a year later.
Although studying business and accountancy in school, football now began to dominate the youngster’s life; Rivera participated in several tournaments, then starred in a 4-1 first-team friendly win against Swedish team AIK, aged just 14. Just a year later Rivera made his Serie A debut for Alessandria on 2 June 1959 as a 15-year old, against a team that would go on to become his fiercest rival: Inter Milan.
Rivera’s appearance in the 2-2 draw had added significance however; something which went wholly unnoticed according to the great No10, who recounted years later:
I debuted a few days after I had trial in Milan, with Milan, and this passed over in silence with the national press. Today there would be a live show and interviews!
Indeed, AC Milan had already been notified of the gifted youngster’s ability and arranged for trials before his Serie A debut. The story goes that the coaches saw talent but were unsure the frail teen had the physicality to survive the rigors of a tough league.
However, Rivera had trialed playing alongside Milan legends Juan Schiaffino, Nils Liedholm and Jose Altafini, and later confirmed those were convinced by the quality of his performance – particularly Schiaffino and Liedholm, whose intervention led to his eventual capture.
Liedholm and Schiaffino [were] decisive,” noted Rivera. “After seeing me at work in the trial, they went up to the office of [coach] Viani and advised him to take me.
Milan did so for a record fee (plus three players), but agreed to leave Rivera at Alessandria to continue his development and gain experience. Just three days later, coach Pedroni informs the future playmaker of his impending Serie A debut, simply telling him:
It’s all up to you, Gianni. We cannot find a striker who is able to make goals. Try and hope for the best.
Remembering his first taste of Serie A action, Rivera said:
I was lucky enough to play on that Sunday, as one of the many, without any pressure. I played my usual role and my parents were in the stands.
I did not get any awards at the end of the match, and changed, by myself, in the locker room of the youth team rather than in the big room of the first team where the others were.
Rivera’s debut came near the end of the campaign, though he was a fixture in the team the following season, scoring 6 goals and becoming the second youngest scorer in Serie A history, despite Alessandria’s eventual relegation.
It’s a funny thing to consider now, but Rivera actually scored against AC Milan, not Inter, first, before going on to torment the Nerazzurri for years.
Alexandria lost 3-1 at San Siro with their goal coming courtesy of a young Gianni, wearinga now unfamiliar grey number 9 shirt.
Just seven month later, Gianni Rivera made his official debut for AC Milan; against? Alessandria, beating his former team 5- 3 in the Italian Cup.
The rest is history as they say. Rivera inherited the No10 shirt and went on to become one of the most revered players in European football, establishing Milan as a domestic and continental force, whilst Alessandria went into free-fall and currently reside in Italy’s third-tier.
So just who will Rivera be supporting in this present Coppa Italia clash – the team he conquered all with, or his hometown side looking to continue its fairy-tale run in the competition?
Let’s make a compromise. I hope Milan qualify for the Champions League in Serie A and Alessandria go forth in the cup.
That’s Rivera; still supplying defence-splitting passes.