“A goal isn’t the most important thing, it’s everything”

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Azzurri’s greatest goalscorer opens up to discuss a striker’s psychology, physical power and the perfect modern striker

Outside Italy, Luigi Riva is now almost unknown, but in his late 1960s heyday he was such a compelling, legendary figure that two Sardinian bandits once came out of hiding to watch him lead Cagliari’s attack – and were promptly arrested.

Was Riva really that good? He probably had the hardest shot in football history – around 124mph if you take into account the way the ball has changed – and once famously generated enough power with his left-foot to break a spectator’s arm with the ball.

Thunderous acclaim

Between 1967 and 1970, Riva powered Italy to victory in the European Championships and the World Cup final in Mexico, won the scudetto with Cagliari and was top scorer in Serie A in 1967, 1969 and 1970.  He is still the Azzurri’s record goalscorer (35 in just 42 matches) and would have won the Ballon d’Or in 1969 if Gianni Rivera hadn’t inspired Milan to victory in the European Cup final.

In this brief, but golden period, Riva was the most fascinating footballer on the planet. He was Cagliari – even more than Maradona was Napoli in the late 1980s: in his seminal book Calcio, John Foot recalls how one supporter watched a roadside game in Sardinia “where all 22 players wore Riva’s number eleven shirt”. His most famous goal, against West Germany in 1970, graced the greatest semi-final – and the greatest period of extra-time – the tournament has ever seen.

The great Italian football writer Gianni Brera once gave Riva the unprecedented rating of “9+” in a match report defending himself against charges of undue generosity by declaring: “I baptise him rombo di tuono (thunder-clap)… he is one of the most extraordinary athletes ever produced by Italian football.”

There is nothing Riva doesn’t know about scoring goals. He scored with diving headers, long-range shots, and overhead kicks. And what’s why I was so delighted he agreed to share his thoughts on the goalscorer’s art in our dossier on strikers in the 50th issue (count ‘em!) of Champions.

The power of Messi

Riva’s opinions are as bold as his play. In the interview he explains to Sergio Di Cesare why he often looked angry when he scored: “A goal isn’t the most important thing, it’s everything. When a forward doesn’t score, his character changes, he becomes sad, argumentative, insecure, stubborn, selfish and short-tempered in every aspect of his life.”

Unlike many greats of his era, he doesn’t denigrate today’s game; he celebrates it – while pointing out that some of what we think of as modern was invented in the 1970s. “Today an attacker must be a complete player,” he says. To be specific, they need to create space with their movement, flourish with their back to goal, make the most of tight spaces, contribute to the team’s collective play and have the guts to take the risks that may create a goal. “I’ve met peerless penalty takers who never missed but refused to take on in the dying minutes of a big match<’ he confides.

Technically and physically audacious, Riva had his leg broken twice and suffered countless other injuries. But he insists that today, more than ever, raw physical power is crucial: “Even Messi has it – and intelligence, speed and technique.”

The contemporary strikers he rates most highly are Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. But asked to identify the definitive modern striker, Riva selects Johan Cruyff.

“Despite his slim physique, Cruyff was fast, tough and nasty when necessary. He was intelligent enough to know where the ball was going before the others, how to control it and never lose it. He directed the play,” says the artist formerly known as Rombo di tuono. “All that was 40 years ago. Cruyff played like the best attackers of today.”

The iconoclastic Italian movie director Pier Paolo Pasolini once said of Riva: “He plays poetic football. He is a realistic poet.” Icons like Riva and Cruyff may have hung up their boots years ago but their poetic realism lives on in the likes of Rooney, Messi and Ibra.

Champions is now available electronically. Aside from Riva’s thoughts on strikers, the 50th issue of the magazine reviews the 20 greatest moments in UEFA Champions League history, explores how Mats Hummels uses body language to fire up his team and reveals why Czech midfield legend Pavel Horvath is happy to have the physique of an ice hockey player.