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ALESSANDRO RIGGI: ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL

If we’re starting from the beginning then there’s a boy, there’s a ball, and there’s Montreal.


There’s other stuff, too, of course: A grandfather who played in Italy’s fifth-tier, a father who went two better and played in the third-tier… but then, years later, there’s that boy, and that ball, and Montreal.


You get the sense talking to Alessandro Riggi that everything comes back to these things eventually. Football is a game that had a hold of him from a young age.


“I’d always be playing” he remembers. “As a kid, even at recess, even when it was snowing like crazy, I’d go outside and play. I just couldn’t stop, you know. I’ve always loved it”


It wasn’t hard in those days finding people to play with. The diversity of Montreal meant many of his friends came from similarly multicultural backgrounds.


“We’re all Canadian, but we’re also all Italian, or Algerian, or whatever. You name it, we have it here”



His Italian heritage is something he’s proud of. He talks about the big family, the gatherings, the food. And when he was 12-years-old the two defining features of his childhood – football & Italy – collided.


July 9, 2006 was an unremarkable day, really, except for the fact there were two finals going on simultaneously: one was taking place in a large park in Montreal, the other in the Olympiastadion in Berlin. One featured a teenage Alessandro Riggi in a local championship game, the other Italy and France in the World Cup Final.


“We were playing and there was a huge screen showing the World Cup” he recalls with a laugh. “All the parents, everyone… no one was actually watching our game, they were all watching the screen. We were winning 3-0 and I remember thinking ‘oh my God… I need to tell the ref to call it”


Did he get to see any of it? Zidane’s head butt, the penalty shootout…?


“Thankfully, yes. We didn’t go to the award ceremony because we wanted to watch the game. Luckily we got to the screen for extra-time.”


Riggi’s talent was evident from a young age and at 14 he joined the Vancouver Whitecaps academy. A year later Montreal Impact started its own youth program and the pull of playing for his hometown club was too strong to resist.


“My first two years (at FC Montreal), I won all the awards. Top goal scorer, most assists, MVP” he says, “and I’d always get to train with the first team, too. But for whatever reason they didn’t decide to sign me”



And so it was that Alessandro Riggi found himself sitting down with his agent, talking through the options, deciding what would come next.


“I was like ‘alright, alright - I don’t want be in this academy because I don’t feel like I’m growing here anymore’” he says. “So my agent took me to Europe"



Vigo, situated on Spain’s west-coast, is a city of contradictions. Part coastal charm, part dogged industrial port; scratch a little below both though, and you'll find a fierce love of football. It was here that Alessandro Riggi arrived as a 19 year old in 2012.


“Man, everyone there was super in to it” Riggi remembers. “Saturday and Sunday… they’re watching football. That’s it. It’s very, very intense”


Life with Celta Vigo B – the reserve team of La Liga’s Celta Vigo – crystallized the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of this intensity. Riggi laughs as he provides an example of the latter.


“At Celta” he begins, “if we didn’t play well do you know what the fans would do? They’d throw peanuts at us!”


Peanuts?


“Peanuts! It was crazy. It’s a different world out there, man. I don’t want to sound like I’m exaggerating but how they are, the mentality… its life or death”


DANGER

Things didn’t work out in Spain, but his time in Europe wasn’t without merit. He got to experience football in Portugal with Atletico Reguengos, in Romania with CFR Cluj, and of course in Spain. There were lessons learnt that will remain. But European football has a dark underbelly; a capacity to chew you up and spit you out. Speak to Riggi and he’ll tell you tales of untrustworthy agents (“I have horror stories”) and broken promises, too.


So, in March 2015, it was time to go home. Back to Canada and back to FC Montreal of the USL.


Some familiar faces to HFX Wanderers fans were also in Montreal at this time. Zachary Sukunda, Chakib Hocine and fellow new signing Louis Béland-Goyette were all teammates of his in this period. Riggi speaks fondly of them all, particularly the latter.


“Louis’ great. I was in contact with him before he signed and I was telling him to do it” he says. “When he got in touch to tell me that he’d received the contract and was going to sign, I was really, really happy.”


It was alongside these players from 2015 to 2017 that Alessandro Riggi played some of his best football.


Stylistically, he’s every inch the archetypal sub-5’6 creative playmaker you know and love, and it’s in one-on-one situations – when it’s just Riggi and an increasingly panicked full-back – that he comes alive.


“I like to go one-on-one, yeah. When I’m isolated down the wing I’m just like a kid at the park, so that’s definitely my favourite part of the game” he says. “I can be unpredictable, you know, cutting in, making the defender think I’m cutting in again… but then pushing it down the line for a cross. Stuff like that. I’m very creative with my feet and my brain”


Riggi speaks a good game, and comes alive when the intricacies of the sport are discussed. He’s played most of his career as part of an attacking 4-3-3 – ideally on the left of the three forwards but he’s just as comfortable on the right, too – and can also operate as part of a 4-4-2 (“It’s not my favourite though” he admits).


Perhaps most pleasing to Wanderers fans will be the technical security that Riggi brings to the squad. Players who are comfortable in possession were sorely missed last year; turnovers were constant, nothing ever really stuck up top. With Riggi – who is as close to two-footed as player can be - that’s all set to change.



It was these attributes that persuaded Phoenix Rising to come in with an attractive offer for him after FC Montreal ceased operations in 2017. On paper it made sense; a new country, a fresh start... and the chance also to play and learn alongside Didier Drogba.


Unfortunately though, it was a move that never quite worked out.


“My time in Phoenix was very frustrating. I just couldn’t stay healthy” he reflects. “In my first season I had a PLC on my right knee, and because of this I couldn’t ever get enough of a rhythm going physically.”


There was worse to come though.


“The year after … that was a really bad one, and one I’m still dealing with. It was the ACL on my left knee.”


Riggi was out for the season.



It’s August 2018 and the 9th minute of a Phoenix Rising home match versus Portland Timbers 2. Riggi receives the ball on the right touchline and quickly nips past his marker. There are passes on but the pitch has opened up slightly, allowing him space to drive towards goal. As another defender approaches, Riggi drops a shoulder and plants his left foot on the ground to propel his body forward. It’s a movement he’s made hundreds of times, but on this occasion something looks wrong.


The foot lands awkwardly. The knee buckles.


His teammates instantly know what’s happened. Some wave for medical assistance, others tend to him on the ground.


The verdict days later isn’t a surprise: Torn ACL, left knee.


That was seventeen-months ago, and the road back hasn’t been an easy one.


“I really want to get back to playing again” he admits. “I miss it”


Mentally, he’s come to terms with it, but physically he's not quite 100%.


“The problems now aren’t even with the knee itself, there are just other little issues that are going on” he says “but I’m hoping to be fit for the start of the season. And if I do have to miss a bit of it, hopefully it won’t be too much.”


It’s a common complaint of those that suffer ACL injuries, and one Akeem Garcia also talked about after he suffered the same injury several years ago: the knee heals, returns to full strength, but then other parts of the body start to pick up little injuries. While this is completely normal, it's also extremely frustrating.


So what Alessandro Riggi does is work. Every day. It’s relentless work. Punishing work. But it’s also necessary work. On good days he catches fleeting glimpses of the light at the end of the tunnel. On bad days, there's something else that keeps him going: a potential Canadian Championship match versus Montreal Impact, and the chance to play in front of friends and family against his hometown club.


There’s Blainville first, of course, and no one is taking them for granted. But it’d be impossible for the boy from Montreal not to have one eye on a homecoming in July.


“It’s one of the biggest things keeping me going” he admits. “It’s what I use every day. I want to be at 200% for both legs. It’s a real target of mine”


If all goes to plan, he’ll be there – and no-one will have deserved it more.

Gary is an Arsenal supporting, Halifax-based Brit who moved to Canada in 2016 unaware that he was about to fall in love with another football team. He can be found on on Twitter in the following places: @FromAwaysHFX and @GaryG86 or on Instagram at fromawayshfx.


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