Peter Schmeichel often produced not only brilliant reactions with his saves, but brilliant reactions to goals he could not save. He was a great animator between the sticks for Manchester United, and perhaps one of his most memorable came at the Camp Nou in the midst of the club’s historic treble season. Schmeichel, who had been typically brilliant for United, found himself undone by one moment of magic. The towering Dane was an expert reader of the game, anticipating what strikers were attempting to pull off in trying to better him. He often came out on top. On this occasion, he had no answer.
Sergi drifted seamlessly in from the left, lifting a cross into the penalty area. Watching on with helpless eyes, the United defenders witnessed a moment of masterful improvisation. It came from the one and only Rivaldo. Cushioning the ball on his chest, Rivaldo sensed Jaap Stam closing in and knew he needed to strike swiftly. Producing a spectacular overhead kick, Rivaldo found the bottom corner, leaving Schmeichel shaking his head with his hands on his hip.
Indeed, it may not be an obvious candidate, but one of the most thrilling parts of Manchester United’s ‘The Treble’ video, is the cameo of Rivaldo. Any United fan with a VHS player owned that video – and most will remember being blown away time and time again by the unstoppable Brazilian attacker who shone during the second 3-3 draw between the two sides in the Champions League ‘Group of Death’. It was a game that shook Europe, an unapologetic 90 minutes of sheer attacking abandon; from the deadly Sonny Anderson, who struck with less than a minute on the clock to erupt the Camp Nou, to the unanswerable combination of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.
Their frighteningly productive striking partnership came full – telepathic – circle that night, but they were still outdone by Barcelona’s magician-in-chief. He tormented United’s defenders with his powerful running and dazzling tricks. Not only did he contribute with two goals – he always contributed it seemed – the Brazilian should have notched a glorious, match-winning assist when he stopped the ball and executed a perfectly timed back-heel into the path of Giovanni, who was denied by the onrushing Schmeichel. He was able to save United on that occasion, but Rivaldo had once again expertly unlocked United’s defence.
On the night, Rivaldo was audacious, elusive and simply a joy to behold. He combined the balletic with the ferocious, from smooth Cruyff turns to ripping 30-yard shots that rattled the crossbar and forced everyone inside the stadium into a sharp intake of breath. At the time, Rivaldo was on top of the world. He had an unquenchable penchant for the ridiculous, the obscene and yet possessed with it a propensity to stain his reputation.
Rivaldo was a typical star – he was brash, arrogant and, to a fault, would do anything to get his team ahead. He was a premium box office blockbuster entity, who conjured controversy as he did adoration. At the 2002 World Cup, Rivaldo’s performances were blackened by his moment of cheating against Turkey while representing Brazil. Rivaldo dallied over to take a corner. Frustrated by Brazil’s controversial penalty, scored of course by the Barcelona in the 87th minute, Hakan Ünsal struck the ball in his direction. It hit Rivaldo’s leg and he reacted by collapsing to the ground clutching his face his comic agony. The Korean referee was clearly out of his depth and overwhelmed by the response of the Brazil players and sent Unsal off.
Rivaldo was named the man of the match. Such is life.
“I was glad to see the red card. Creative players must be able to express themselves if football is to stay a beautiful game. There’s too much foul play and violence in football. It doesn’t matter where the ball hit me. It was only the intent that mattered.” His comments after the match didn’t help his case: clearly Rivaldo knew he had duped the referee.
He had fabricated a sense of pain in order to get Ünsal dismissed – and succeeded. His actions were in direct contradiction to the FIFA Fair Play Charter signed by every single player at the competition, which stated “the top players have a responsibility as role models for young people taking up the game”.
When it came to making friends, Rivaldo was like a prototype for Luis Suárez, but when it came to playing football, which is what he should be judged on, he was special. Rivaldo was often unloved by Barcelona fans and vilified by his Brazilian compatriots, but he should always be regarded as a genius and an artist with the ball. The greatest talents can sometimes fall from grace. Zinedine Zidane will perhaps always be the reason France didn’t win the World Cup in 2006 after that Materazzi head-butt, but he is still deified for his superhuman abilities. Rivaldo should be held in the same estimation.
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Rivaldo exploded onto the global football scene after a troubled early childhood in poverty with Deportivo La Coruña, scoring 21 goals in 41 games and inevitably prompting a frenzied race for his signature. Sir Bobby Robson had seen him up close and opted to sign him for Barcelona, ahead of Steve McManaman.
It was for the esteemed Catalan club Rivaldo produced the most captivating and ingenious moments of his career. He came with the promise of goals and duly delivered, scoring 19 in 34 appearances in his debut season, helping Barça to a La Liga and Copa del Rey double. He continued to dazzle for the club, functioning as the electrifying creative outlet in a team packed with natural talent. The following season he surpassed his own impressive haul with 24 league goals before being crowned both Ballon d’Or winner and FIFA World Player of the Year.
He was untouchable at his best but, amazingly, his success continued to adversely impact his already strained relationship with the Brazil fans. Rivaldo had been responsible for the Seleção being eliminated from the 1996 Olympics when his careless back pass led to Nigeria’s goal. He also missed a gilt-edged chance on that fateful day in Atlanta and it led to him being portrayed as a mercenary and a villain by his own supporters. Brazil were knocked out in humiliation and Rivaldo wasn’t selected for the third-place playoff game.
It was a dark day for the superstar, who even considered quitting international football altogether after the abuse and jeers reached destructive levels of intensity. It was difficult to stomach for Rivaldo, who, although displaying an unquenchable thirst for the extravagant on the pitch, was understated and introvert off it. He was the Ugly Duckling of Brazilian football whereas Ronaldo was the golden boy, the hero and the icon.
Rivaldo’s attempts to angle his way back into their good books was problematic. He had starred in Brazil’s Copa América triumph in 1999 but, strangely, the better he played for Barcelona the more it impacted his image back home. The Brazil fans believed Rivaldo saved his best for Barcelona and were embittered by it. Rivaldo always felt the criticism was unjust, but used it as motivation to overcome his doubters. He should have felt the greatest sense of pride and fulfilment playing for his country, but Rivaldo would often reflect on feeling sad. When asked about the abuse from the fans, he refused to merely brush off the questions and perpetuate a positive response in the typical footballer-robotic trained mode.
As a young boy, Rivaldo dreamed of playing for Brazil but turning out in the famous yellow transpired to be some of the most tortured and lonely instances of his career. They jeered him when he misplaced a pass, they jeered him when he spurned an opportunity, and they even jeered him when he scored. If John Barnes was the first left-footed genius to be heckled by his nation’s fans, Rivaldo was certainly the second.
He scored eight times during Brazil’s 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign but his smiles were superficial. Inside he was a broken man. When Rivaldo returned back to his home country, he anticipated it with dread. There was a theory that Rivaldo didn’t like to travel and after long flights back to South America, he was a pale shadow of the unstoppable force that screamed up down the left wing of the Camp Nou. Regardless, the heckling didn’t help.
Although his intelligence in possession cannot be disputed, Rivaldo was never the brightest. He lacked the charisma of a Cristiano Ronaldo or David Beckham, a personality shortcoming that restricted him from becoming a global icon. He was never particularly interested in making friends and his relationship with the newspapers and media in Spain was stale. The modern footballing climate could not merely accept the Rivaldo who talked with his feet. They could not idolise his thrilling talent because he would never win a popularity contest.
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Tiger Woods was never the most loved golfer on tour, but he was idolised and admired around the world because he revolutionised the sport and single-handedly caused TV ratings to soar from 1996 onwards. Rivaldo entered a sport that had already seen buccaneering figures like Diego Maradona and simply couldn’t play the ‘other’ game; the game that required a footballer to be a relatable personality.
Nevertheless, we can look back on his time with Barcelona in awe. Rob Smyth once wrote brilliantly for the Guardian that, “a team of 11 Zidanes would kill you time and time again, but a team of 10 Nevilles and a Rivaldo could on occasion do the same”. His absolute sledgehammer of a left foot was the most lethal attacking weapon in world football at the turn of the millennium, an emphatic answer to the right foot of Gabriel Batistuta. He had a remorseless brilliance that more than made up for his sullen, joyless off-field image.
The greats are separated from their contemporaries by an innate quality that enables them to conjure up moments of mastery when they’re needed most. Zidane crashed that volley in against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League final, Maradona single-handedly led England’s defence on a merry chase in the World Cup quarter-final and Rivaldo can genuinely lay claim to scoring the greatest hat-trick ever seen in a performance for Barcelona against Valencia that deserves its own cinematic adaptation.
It had been a miserable campaign for Barcelona. Louis van Gaal, who resigned after a fractious relationship with Rivaldo, left Lorenzo Serra Ferrer with the unenviable task of restoring the club’s powerhouse status in Spain. He failed and was duly sacked after overseeing an early Champions League exit and, with Barcelona languishing precariously in fifth in the table, facing the indignant prospect of missing out on the top four altogether.
Carles Rexach stepped in but there was no great turnaround and the club sat fifth going into the final round of fixtures. Their opponents for the final game were Valencia, the club who were three points ahead in fourth place. Los Che were fancied to defeat Barca and arrived with a bevy of international talent including Pablo Aimar, Kily González and Roberto Ayala. It was against Valencia that Rivaldo reminded everyone why he deserves a place in football’s pantheon of greats. Never had his left-foot been more devastating than in netting an astounding treble.
His first was a trademark free-kick, swerving elegantly to open the scoring. It wasn’t enough – Rubén Baraja equalised for the visitors. Valenca only needed a draw, Barcelona needed more from Rivaldo, and they got it. He responded by unleashing an unstoppable 25-yard thunderbolt that brought the Camp Nou to their feet in thunderous acclaim. Refusing to lie down, Baraja scored again. You could hear a pin drop. Rivaldo, wearing that familiar morose expression, wasn’t prepared to be outdone. With 90 seconds to go, Barcelona were crying out for their hero, who delivered an overwhelming response.
Rivaldo signed off with his masterpiece. It was his Citizen Kane moment. A goal of stunning creation and execution that deserves to be called one of the greatest the game has ever seen. Frank de Boer spotted Rivaldo in half a yard of space on the edge of the Valencia penalty area. The Dutchman lifted a delicious chipped pass in his direction. In truth, Rivaldo had controlled the ball on his chest in a manner that could easily be construed as clumsy. It bounced high into the air, a move that would render a chance gone for most players. But, of course, Rivaldo wasn’t most players. Fifteen years later it still beggars belief, but Rivaldo had the audacity and confidence in his own technique to launch his body into the most brilliant overhead kick, firing the ball precisely into the bottom corner beyond the despairing dive of Santiago Cañizares.
The coaching staff had spilt out onto the pitch in a frenzy, with some choosing to look to the sky in disbelief at what they had just witnessed. It didn’t need years to become regarded as a masterpiece, it was instantly acknowledged. Rivaldo whipped off his shirt and was quickly ambushed by his astonished teammates. The goals were brilliant, yes, but the magnitude of the game elevated this performance into something otherworldly.
Rivaldo, so often maligned and disparaged by his own supporters, was hailed as the saviour. It was a straight shootout to reach the Champions League and Rivaldo had produced the most deliriously implausible performance. The Brazilian had long been something of an unhappy Nou Camper but had now reached a career zenith. He was never going to let the dark mutterings of disquiet that followed his every move affect him.
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Rivaldo had already progressed through a difficult childhood in the northern region of Paulista in Brazil. His family’s income was low and he helped by selling drinks and sweets on the beach. Then, when he was 15, his father was run over and killed. His life fell apart but he never distanced himself from his passion of playing football. He walked ten miles each day to training. It hardened him. It prepared him. It served him well.
Following that Valencia game, Rivaldo said: “What happened tonight has been incredible. I dedicate the winning goal to all the players who have fought so hard all season and all the supporters who have suffered so much. I’m delighted to have made them happy with my goals.”
Those words appeared to hold a particular emotional resonance to them. Rivaldo had made the supporters happy with his goals but those same supporters had also made him feel accepted and valued, when so often it was the opposite. Rivaldo; the outsider, the mercenary, the problem child? Not anymore. His status was instantly catapulted to that of a Catalan king. Rivaldo had been through a lot, professionally and personally, yet to emerged the other side with 90,000 on their feet chanting his name and toasting his genius long into the night.
He scored 36 goals in all competitions that season and although he would savour every single one, the bicycle kick against Valencia was his crowning achievement and that moment of affinity with the fans he had been searching for since staring into the abyss of self-doubt back in 1996.
However, Louis van Gaal came back to haunt him. Rivaldo was released in 2002, just a year after the Valencia game, and his career was plunged into darkness. He washed up at the San Siro and AC Milan. Suffice to say, it didn’t pan out for him in Serie A. It can be a bruising and unforgiving league, and when Rivaldo was left on the bench for the entirety of a game at Ancona, he realised Italy was not going to serve up redemption.
Rivaldo had been forced to watch on at Old Trafford as Milan triumphed in the Champions League against Juventus at Old Trafford, a pitch he had so gloriously graced just four seasons previously. Following his departure from Milan, Rivaldo seriously entertained the idea of playing in the Premier League. Although United had long coveted his services, he was now 31 and supposedly declining, but still with something to prove.
He came very close to signing for Bolton Wanderers in what would have been one of the transfer stories of the 21st century. Rivaldo came within a pen’s length of following the likes of Ivan Campo, Youri Djorkaeff and Jay-Jay Okocha to the Reebok Stadium and although Sam Allardyce made a good impression on the Brazilian, he ultimately opted to join Olympiacos. From there, Rivaldo drifted from club to club and eventually retired at the age of 43. That is deceptive, though. His peak lasted no more than five years, but they were exhilarating.
Ultimately, Rivaldo will always be revered and reviled in equal measure. He achieved greatness but it came with heavy burdens. His mistakes were magnified. His career had the impression of a misfit and a maverick, whose indiscretions were as emphasised as his genius. When Zidane head-butted Materazzi, he became a national hero in France, but when Rivaldo similarly let his guard down against Turkey, he was lambasted relentlessly.
Zidane is often perceived to have won the World Cup for France single-handedly in 1998 but if you dig a little deeper, you will find that his performances as a whole were not as brilliant in that tournament as you might presume. Rivaldo let himself down in 2002, yes, but he also propelled his country to glory, alongside Ronaldo, not in the shadow of him. It was at once the zenith and nadir of his international career, incurring a hefty fine for cheating but also playing an enormous part in Brazil’s triumph.
Remember Rivaldo for the goals, the overhead kicks and genius he produced time and time again. He is, quite simply, one of the most wonderfully gifted, unashamedly confident footballers there has ever been.
By Matt Gault @MattGault11