Gianni Rivera, the great AC Milan and Italy playmaker of the 1960s and 1970s who this month received the 2011 UEFA President's Award, has a wish – to be remembered as much for his human qualities as for his revered skills as a footballer.
At a ceremony at Milan's Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on 12 March, when he collected the award from UEFA President Michel Platini, Rivera spoke to UEFA.com about his career and what it means to be given this prestigious honour – following in the footsteps of Alfredo di Stéfano, Sir Bobby Charlton, Eusébio and Raymond Kopa.
"It's certainly a great recognition above all, not only for the technical aspects of my life as a footballer, but also for my character and behaviour as a human being," reflected Rivera, a European Champion Clubs' Cup winner with the Rossoneri in 1963 and 1969. "And I think that is the real significance of an award like this, because it's more important to leave a positive impact with your human behaviour than with your sporting achievements."
The 68-year-old – who scored 14 goals in 60 games for Italy and appeared in the FIFA World Cups of 1962, 1966, 1970 and 1974 – was proud to join an exclusive group that have won the UEFA President's Award, all of whom he feels contributed to the good of the game. "It is recognition in an area that perhaps only a few qualify for. I don't know how many footballers leave such a significant impact," he said. "In football, the right behaviour and good human relations are becoming more and more important."
For a player such as Rivera, to look back on a life devoted to the game is a sweet experience. "I played professional football for 20 years, plus the years before spent playing on the streets, in youth teams," he explained, "although I didn't play much in the youth teams because I started playing in the first team pretty early.
"But I remember that whole period as something beautiful in my life. I was doing the thing I liked best. When I was a boy, I dedicated all my free time to playing football – then it became my job. I remember that whole period."
Rivera, a superb passer with an eye for goal, was brought up in the youth ranks of home-town club US Alessandria Calcio 1912. He made his Serie A debut at 15 before moving to Milan, where he would register 501 top-flight appearances, scoring 160 goals. His first Scudetto success with the Rossoneri in 1962 prompted a first international cap – at the remarkably tender age of 18 – against West Germany at the World Cup in Chile that May.
How did he cope with the pressure of being so good so young? "Well, I never had any problems," he responded. "For me, football was something so important I didn't look at the passport of whoever was playing next to me. I just liked playing, and they could be the same age, a few years older or even a lot older. But playing with the same shirt on, you didn't look at the wrinkles, you looked at the shirt.
"The national team was something very special for me," he continued. "I don't know if today's players feel and look at it the same way. But for us, it was fundamental to make it into the national team. It was the completion of a significant moment playing at club level, a nice reward."
If an injury sustained in the semi-final of the 1968 UEFA European Football Championship caused him to miss Italy's final triumph against Yugoslavia on home soil, he would not be denied the following year. Rivera won the France Football Ballon d'Or in 1969 after picking up a second European Cup with Milan. He also lifted the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1968 and 1973.
Rivera recalls those heady European nights at San Siro. "European matches are very important because they make you known all over the world," he said. "And when you play in a competition step by step, be it the domestic league or a cup competition, it's nice to fight for it – and if you manage to win it, it's a very special feeling. If I hadn't won those competitions, and played a certain number of matches for the national team, I probably wouldn't have received this award."
A proud man and a fine player with outstanding human qualities. In concluding, Gianni Rivera considered the legacy of his playing days: "I don't know what impact I left on a technical level but I guess I left something to the next generations. And then on a human level, I left something significant because I remember people coming up to me in the street and telling me that although they weren't Milan fans, they still followed me and liked me as a player. That means I did something right as a person, which is ultimately the most important thing."