In the ancient world, the Greeks were undeniably one of the most pioneering civilisations. Contributing massively towards the development of modern democracy, medicine and philosophy, another part of their world was the promotion of mythology. At its most basic, there existed 12 Olympians, all who served as early explanations for the origins and workings of the world.
On the topic of mythical status, it is unfortunate that a footballer with the ability of Rivaldo was to arrive in Greece in the summer of 2004 in such downtrodden circumstances. A disastrous 18-month spell in Serie A with AC Milan, which saw the 1999 Ballon d’Or winner crowned the worst player in the league ahead of Colonel Gaddafi’s son, had shattered the reputation of one of his generation’s most talented players.
A humiliating year, the most difficult of his professional career, Rivaldo was at an all-time low. Having also gone through a divorce with his wife, rumours swirled of Sam Allardyce’s peculiarly big-clout-chasing Bolton, alongside Scottish champions Celtic and Werder Bremen, taking him on board. In the end, however, Olympiacos was to be the destination, as Rivaldo signed a two-year contract, with the option of a further season, in “the biggest deal in Greek football history”.
There were several factors at play, with it impossible to ignore a reported wage packet of over €2m. But beyond this, the man who as a child had sold popcorn outside schools to fund his dream of becoming a footballer had reasons with more merit. In joining Olympiacos he would link up with former Barcelona teammate and compatriot Giovanni, while he was also very impressed with the board’s vision.
Greece’s triumph at that summer’s European Championship in Portugal was also a key factor. “Who thought Greece would win the European Cup, so why would we not manage [this] with Olympiacos?” announced the 2002 world champion. This was music to the ears of an approximately 4,000-strong crowd that turned up to greet Rivaldo at the airport. It was to these fans to that he promised to deliver, praising their numbers and saying he now owed them something.
No matter how misguided it may appear in hindsight, things started well in his pursuit of European glory. New coach Dušan Bajević had enough faith to start Rivaldo in the opening Champions League group game against Deportivo. Playing against his first European side sought to stir thoughts of youth. Rivaldo looked sprightly, seeing an overhead kick fly narrowly over early in the first half of a game that would end in a 0-0 draw.
His first goals came in late October, with a brace secured in a 5-1 thrashing of PAOK, where Rivaldo also registered two assists. The opening strike was a real rolling back of the years, as the Brazilian controlled a cross on his chest before rifling a volley into the top corner from close range. Then in the final seconds of stoppage time came a move of seven rapid passes between him, Giovanni and Nery Castillo, with the latter rifling into the bottom corner to secure the win.
Rivaldo’s influence could be seen in games of magnitude, none more so than the derby with Panathinaikos in early December 2004. In this he registered the only goal of the game, expertly curling a free-kick from all of 25 yards to leave Kostas Chalkias with little chance of saving.
The audacity of a talented magician in a weaker league began to shine through, like a peacock revealing his plumage, Rivaldo’s pedigree emerged. There was a wondrous strike against OFI Crete a few weeks earlier, as Rivaldo first attempted a rabona cross before being blocked and lobbing over Michalis Sifakis on the rebound.
He also continued to perform on the big stage, giving Liverpool an enormous scare in the final Group A match of the Champions League. With the home side needing to win, Rivaldo turned on the style, embarking on a mazy run past Xabi Alonso and Jamie Carragher to win a free-kick on the edge of the area. From the set piece, he curled in past a rooted Chris Kirkland, leaving Liverpool facing elimination. Steven Gerrard would go on to score his “beauty” in the dying moments, but such a famous strike should take nothing away from Rivaldo’s technical brilliance.
It is this that would see Olympiacos win the Greek Cup that season, Rivaldo scoring the second in a 3-0 victory over Aris. Four days later, he would also play a key role in reclaiming the league title they had lost to Panathinaikos the previous season. Needing to win at Iraklis on the final day, Rivaldo converted the only goal in the second half. Despite slipping over when finishing on his left foot, it would secure a domestic double in a highly successful first season.
In total, Rivaldo ended this debut year in Greece with 15 goals and seven assists from 38 games; not a bad record for a player who had played little football in the previous two campaigns and had notoriously weak knees owing to childhood malnourishment. Having stated he owed something to Olympiacos fans, the first 12 months went a long way to repaying this self-imposed debt.
His second year at Olympiacos would not be quite as successful on a personal level, with it taking until the New Year of 2006 until he registered his first league goal. Of all teams for this to come against it was Panathinaikos, with a brace cancelling out Ezequiel González’s early penalty as Olympiacos won 3-2. There were also two goals in the Champions League, with a 25-yard strike in a 1-1 draw with Rosenborg alongside the winner in a famous 2-1 victory over Real Madrid.
These performances on the big occasions continued, with another brace coming late on in a 3-0 victory over AEK. The first strike saw a wonderful piece of control before the Brazilian rifled into the bottom corner. Meanwhile, the second was a far more audacious effort in injury time, nonchalantly lifting the ball over a helpless Stefano Sorrentino to seal the result.
Olympiacos would retain their Super League title, and Rivaldo would extend his deal for a further season. This would turn out to be the most successful of all, as the 34-year-old hit a remarkable 17 goals in 25 league games. Highlights were a brace against Skoda Xanthi on the opening day and hat-trick against Apollon Kalamarias. There was also a brace on the final day coronation against Ionikos.
Stuck at 0-0 just before half-time, Rivaldo performed a sumptuous turn on the edge of the box before lobbing the goalkeeper to open the scoring. Resigned to the genius of the Brazilian, on the floor in the back of his net, José Ramírez simply sat there and applauded.
Running out 5-3 winners, it would prove to be Rivaldo’s final appearance in an Olympiacos shirt. Issues over the extension of his contract led to a fallout with chairman Sokratis Kokkalis, who believed the South American to be too old. With his family happily residing in Athens, however, Rivaldo decided to remain in Greece and sign a two-year deal with AEK.
Labelling the club “a big team with ambition”, the Brazilian promised to bring an appetite to win and become champion again. Linking up with Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, his former coach at Barcelona, and a strong Brazilian and Portuguese contingent, things appeared promising.
It would begin poorly, however, with the club losing 6-1 to Sevilla to be eliminated in the Champions League qualifiers. In the league, AEK would fare better, winning all six of their opening games to take an early lead over Olympiacos and Panathinaikos. Such good form continued with a run between late September and mid-December where Rivaldo recorded an assist in every league game he played. He also performed well in the UEFA Cup, scoring an acrobatic volley to help AEK qualify for the group stage, netting a trademark free-kick in a 2-1 loss to Villarreal in the final group match.
Such performances left AEK sitting top going into the new year, well on course for their first title in 14 years. On 12 January he scored yet another wonderous free-kick to open the scoring in a 5-1 rout of Veria. AEK battled at the top of the league, although two losses in six days in February to Panionios and Larissa left them playing catch up to Olympiacos.
On a personal note, Rivaldo was able to grab two assists in a 4-0 home thrashing of his former club in late March 2008, holding up four fingers to the television cameras in celebration. Ultimately this hand wouldn’t grasp any silverware, as AEK controversially ended two points behind their opponents that day. This came after the Greek FA decided to award Olympiacos’ 1-0 loss to Apollon Kalamarias to the champions after Apollon fielded an ineligible player.
Rivaldo threatened to leave as “a team that was not good enough to win the title on the pitch does not deserve the trophy”, although it appeared would remain to see out the final year of his contract. Therefore it came as a surprise when, a month later, with a week of the transfer window left, Rivaldo announced he was leaving. Coming live on Greek radio, the Brazilian regretfully announced he was leaving AEK for Uzbek outfit Bunyodkor.
If anyone had doubted the motivations for his residing in Greece, there was to be no doubt about the appeal of Uzbekistan. Rivaldo even admitted so much, stating on air “something very positive has come up that anyone else in my position would not have said no to”. Whilst he refused to reveal the exact financial breakdown, it was rumoured to be in excess of €10m over two years. Despite initial reluctance to let their star go, AEK eventually relented having been offered a €1m transfer fee. With that, the biggest name in Greek football was gone.
Compared to the long-lasting nature of the foregone civilisation, the four-year stint of Rivaldo in Greece is a mere blip. Regardless, this was enough time for him to win over the people, providing them with a new figure to worship with the same level of adulation as the Olympians in ancient times.
By James Kelly @jkell403