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EURO cult heroes: Luigi Riva, 1968

"The morning after I found myself at Rome Airport and I had no idea how I got there," said game-changer Luigi Riva as he recalled Italy's first EURO triumph.

Luigi 'Rombo di Tuono' Riva pictured in 1968
Luigi 'Rombo di Tuono' Riva pictured in 1968 ©Getty Images

Still Italy's all-time record marksman with 35 goals, Luigi Riva's most famous and important finish came in the 1968 UEFA European Championship final.

He had fractured his left foot just over 12 months before and was struggling with a groin injury during the final tournament, his travails a measure of the bravery that earned the nickname 'Rombo di Tuono' (Thunderclap).

Bad break

EURO 1968 final highlights: Italy 2-0 Yugoslavia
EURO 1968 final highlights: Italy 2-0 Yugoslavia

It was in a March 1967 friendly against Portugal that Riva suffered the first of a series of bad injuries. "We were playing in Rome, the day after Easter," Riva recalled. "It was my third game with the national team, my first start as centre-forward – a role I liked a lot.

"We were 1-0 down when I saw an opportunity to score and went all out for the ball. Their goalkeeper did the same, we clashed and I suffered the worst of it, breaking my left foot. I have no regrets, I would do the same again. If I have a chance to score, I keep my foot out."

Humble origins

Born in Leggiuno, a small village in northern Italy, the taciturn Riva spent almost his entire career at Cagliari Calcio, registering 164 goals in Serie A for the Sardinian club, his hero status on the island confirmed after his side won the Scudetto in 1970. "We were a family at Cagliari – it would not have been the same at a top club," Riva used to say.

Back in the saddle

Luigi Riva spent 13 years at Cagliari
Luigi Riva spent 13 years at CagliariGetty Images

After that injury against Portugal, Riva had to wait six months to resume playing with Cagliari. In November 1967, he returned for Italy in style, opening his Azzurri account with a wonderful hat-trick against Cyprus in EURO qualifying. He scored two more in a 2-2 draw with Switzerland the same month and netted again in a 4-1 thrashing of the same opponents in December, yet a persistent groin problem hampered him in 1968.

AC Milan's Pierino Prati was up front when Italy defeated Bulgaria in the spring quarter-finals and then the Soviet Union – with a toss coin after a goalless draw in Naples – to reach the final against Yugoslavia at Rome's Olimpico Stadium.

Prati, who had just helped Milan lift the Scudetto and the European Cup Winners' Cup, started again but after Italy were fortunate to cling on for a 1-1 draw, coach Ferruccio Valcareggi drafted in Riva for the replay 48 hours later. He chimed in with the opening goal – a precise left-foot shot on 12 minutes – with Pietro Anastasi adding the second as Italy secured their first, and so far only, European title.

Collector's item

Riva speaks to  Fabio Cannavaro during his time working with the national team
Riva speaks to Fabio Cannavaro during his time working with the national teamAFP via Getty Images

"I'm not a shirt collector but I saved a few," Riva said later. "One of them is a piece of me and strangely it's not a No11 but a No17 – the one Valcareggi gave me for the European Championship in 1968, despite my groin injury.

Ahead of the replay he asked me to take the pitch and play as long as I could. I scored the opener and it was a marvellous night. The morning after I found myself at Rome Airport and I had no idea how I got there."

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