If the National Football Museum were to open an exhibition entitled ‘hat-tricks’ then surely Geoff Hurst’s famous Wembley treble would be its showpiece; the combination of left foot, right foot, header, representing perfection when it comes to the football’s finest art form. A quirky threesome would be next in terms of drawing the crowds. Perhaps Alvin Martin’s hat-trick against different Newcastle goalkeepers in 1986 or, alternatively, Martín Palermo’s three missed penalties in a Copa América game. How about Ray McKinnon’s hat-trick of free-kicks for Dundee United in the mid-90s?

Forgetting the gimmicks, every gallery has a critic’s choice; a connoisseur’s dish, in this case devoid of the caveats of controversial second goals, imploding opposition and weak leagues. The recommendation in my fictional exhibit? A Rivaldo treble, described by John Carlin as “the most gloriously implausible hat-trick anyone has ever scored in a top-class game”. The Brazilian’s feats in that 2001 game against Valencia should forever be placed next to a golden asterisk in the scorebooks, such was the magnitude of the timing, and the audacity of the genius.

The date was June 21, and Barcelona were due to play their last game of the season after a thoroughly miserable campaign. After the resignation of Louis van Gaal, former Betis manager Lorenzo Serra Ferrer had guided the club to early European elimination and fifth place in the league when, after defeat to Osasuna, he was relieved of his role, making him one of the shortest-serving managers in the club’s history. Club legend and serial caretaker Carles Rexach stepped in, but Barça couldn’t take advantage of their rivals’ inconsistent form and, after dropping points against lowly Oviedo and Valladolid, still sat outside of the top four going into the last round of fixtures in La Liga.

Twice Champions League finalists in the 90s, the Blaugrana now faced the very real prospect of being banished from the continent’s most prestigious tournament altogether. One game, in the famous Camp Nou stadium, would decide their fate and, funnily enough, the opposition would be Valencia, the side sat three points clear of Barça in fourth. Los Che, managed by the much-revered Héctor Cúper, had just lost their second consecutive Champions League final, to Bayern Munich on penalties, and should have sealed qualification for the 2001-02 edition much earlier. Roy Makaay’s 69th minute goal for Deportivo at the Mestalla in Round 37 had prolonged the agony and set up the final day showdown in Catalonia.

The visitors were much fancied. In Roberto Ayala, Kily González and Pablo Aimar, they had a number of Argentine internationals, as well as some of the finest central midfielders on the Iberian Peninsula in David Albelda and Ruben Baraja. In contrast, Barça were in the doldrums; Dutch signings like Phillip Cocu and Frank de Boer had proved divisive and inconsistent, whilst expensive attacking signings such as Gerard Lóopez and Alfonso Pérez had made such a negligible impact that they were nowhere to be seen once Judgement Day arrived.

But Rexach must have been confident. After all, he had Rivaldo, FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or winner in 1999. Here was a man who could do anything on his day, as Rob Smyth enthusiastically notes:

“Few footballers since Diego Maradona have had the fusion of bronca and brilliance that can make for a one-man team: Steven Gerrard occasionally, Cristiano Ronaldo maybe, Rivaldo certainly. At times around the turn of the century he was impossible to play against, and never more so than here. The quality of the goals was outstanding, but the context made his performance legendary.”

Valencia’s three-point lead made them favourites but, as Barça had emerged victorious at the Mestalla earlier in the season, the home side knew a win would be enough to secure Champions League football, something previously seen as a birth right in Catalonia, rather than an achievement.

Barcelona, clad in their traditional blue and red shirts, got off to the perfect start, the Brazilian maestro giving them the lead from a free-kick after just four minutes.

Left-footed players have always been generously represented in the football pantheon’s upper echelons, but Rivaldo was surely one of the most accomplished, arguably on a par with the likes of Puskás, Maradona and Messi. Here, he stepped up from thirty yards out, striking the dead ball so well it rose, dipped and swerved almost at the same time, before going in off the post. As his teammates frantically leapt on his back and slapped him around the face, Rivaldo maintained an air of calm, almost grimacing as he made his way back to the centre circle. The talisman knew that there was work still to be done.

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Read  |  Rivaldo: the shameless showman from the favelas

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True to form, Valencia fought their way back into the game midway through the first half. Rubén Baraja, signed from Atlético Madrid in the summer, would go on to secure legendary status at Valencia, specifically for inspiring them to two La Liga successes in three years with his goals from midfield. His effort here, however, was only his third for the club – a well-timed rarity for Héctor Cúper as his side looked to be in the driving seat for fourth position once more.

By now, Rivaldo’s brilliance was clear for all to see: every run forward, every ball won, every skill attempted drew a roar from the home crowd. Here was a man trying to raise the spirits and hopes of not only the ten downtrodden players with him on the pitch, but the 90,000 pessimistic Cules in the vast surrounding amphitheatre.

With a minute to go until half-time, the Brazilian took a throw-in deep inside the Valencia half, on the right-hand side of the pitch. As the ball went backwards and he ambled towards the centre circle, Rivaldo looked as if he had his mind on nothing more than a naranja or two at the break. But, right-back Sergi decided to pump the ball into the box and, after Ayala had half-cleared, the ball found its way to the Brazilian, who had somehow conjured a couple of yards of space for himself on almost exactly the same spot from where he’d scored forty minutes earlier. After controlling with his weaker right, he double-feinted to avoid the backtracking Valencia midfielder before striking an unstoppable drive into the bottom left-hand corner, knocking himself off his feet in the process. Santiago Cañizares, at the time the best goalkeeper in Spain, couldn’t even get a glove to it at full stretch. His defenders were just as befuddled.

Rivaldo 2-Valencia 1 at the break, and the great man greeted his second with a mixture of joy, relief and frustration. It took a quick kiss of the badge to remind us that this was a team effort. As Sky’s commentator said at the time, “two wonder goals have really bailed Barcelona out in this first-half.”

Alas, Baraja equalised again just two minutes after the interval and once again, Barça were staring down the barrel. Rivaldo continued his one-man mission, testing Cañizares’s concentration in the 75th minute as a looping corner almost found its way into the net. A couple of free-kicks were smashed into what was now looking like a solid blue wall. Catalonian hopes were diminishing by the minute.

Little did we know it, but the Brazilian had one last glorious trick up his sleeve.

At the 1998 World Cup, Frank de Boer had provided arguably the finest assist in the history of the game, launching the ball so perfectly towards the vivid orange shirt of Dennis Bergkamp it was as if Neo from the Matrix had, for some reason, decided to get involved in football, manipulating the ball and the Argentina defenders as effortlessly as Agent Smith’s bullets.

We all know what happened next of course: Bergkamp needed only three sumptuous touches to take the ball down, bamboozle a young Roberto Ayala and score past Carlos Roa in the Argentina goal.

Now, three years on, Ayala had to deal with a completely different kind of de Boer teaser. The Dutchman dinked the ball forward to the edge of the 18-yard box, an area Rivaldo was just leaving, his back to the Valencia goal with two defenders close behind. The Brazilian arced his body slightly, the ball thumping off his chest and going skywards. The Valencia defenders realised, a second too late, that this was a man who thrived off space and required it to explode into life. Still, Rivaldo was virtually surrounded; a still photograph of the scene would look something like the famous Maradona shot from 1982, with Belgians replaced by Murcielagos (Bats, Valencia’s nickname, which is quite fitting considering what Rivaldo did next).

The ball dropped and, still facing his own goalkeeper, Rivaldo launched himself acrobatically in the air, hanging almost upside down before his fabled left peg connected sweetly, as he had always meant it to. From de Boer’s chip to the net bulging, the ball did not once touch the ground.

Cue sheer pandemonium. Rivaldo, the saviour, had put in one of the all-time great performances, scoring three magical goals to save a famous club about to suffer one of the most embarrassing moments in its recent history. The overhead kick, as Smyth put it, was the “crowning glory”, not only securing Champions League qualification – to the delight of the dancing President Joan Gaspart – but also cementing Rivaldo’s reputation as a true great of the modern game.

Of course, he would go on to tarnish that image in Korea and Japan – in English eyes at least – but there are some who still remember. As for those who don’t, well – this is a nostalgic tale of that night in June, 2001, when Rivaldo Vítor Borba Ferreira scored the greatest hat-trick of them all.

By Sam Carney. Follow @samcarney19