With the “Seleção Legends” series, I want to look back on some of the greats of Brazilian football. It’s similar to my “Seleção Classics” series, except it will focus on individual players rather than matches. To kick things off, let’s take a look at one of the most fascinating players in Seleção history: Rivaldo.

Why is Rivaldo so interesting? Because almost everything about him was, and is, out of the ordinary. From his childhood background to his unique playing style and nomadic career, Rivaldo stands alone in many respects. Rivaldo is also interesting because few players have ever been so little appreciated during their time with the national team…and so quickly forgotten after their time had ended. You almost never read articles or testimonials about Rivaldo anymore, rarely see his name mentioned among the very greatest, or even hear his praises sung by other players. It’s bizarre…and depressing. Because this is a man who won a World Cup trophy and was the best player on his team while doing it. This is a man who won a Copa America trophy and was the best player on his team while doing it. This is a man who won the FIFA World Player of the Year award for a club floundering between dynasties. Most importantly, this is a man who overcame unbelievable pain and personal hardship to accomplish all that he did.

***

Some of you may know that I have a lot of different jobs, most of them related to writing in some form or fashion. One of my jobs is to ghostwrite custom messages for clients. These messages can be anything from long, analytical pieces on falling oil prices to heartwarming, “feel-good” messages centered around various holidays.

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece on Rivaldo – yes, this Rivaldo:

Rivaldo

I’m going to dive a little bit more into the nuts and bolts of Rivaldo’s game later on, but let’s peek into Rivaldo’s background and psychology first. If the following excerpt reads like it was written for football ignoramuses, don’t be offended, because it was.

Fathers and Sons

If you have been receiving my messages for a while now, you know that I sometimes feature various sporting figures and their stories. That’s because sports are, in some ways, a universal language. Since the dawn of time, mankind has loved playing games, and to this day sports are loved, played, and followed all across the globe. Of course, some sports are more popular than others, depending on where you live and what your background is. But every sport has its heroes, its villains, its glorious triumphs, and its crushing defeats. Sports are in many ways like a modern-day version of the ancient Greek dramas, and it’s why they produce so many stories both inspirational and touching.

Take the story of Rivaldo Vitor Borba Ferreira … or just Rivaldo for short. Rivaldo is a retired Brazilian soccer player, famous the world over for the goals he scored, the trophies he won, and the skill he displayed. But that’s not what makes his story so compelling … nor is it what this letter is about. This letter is not about Rivaldo the athlete, but Rivaldo the father and Rivaldo the son. It’s really about family.

Rivaldo spent his childhood in Recife, a city on Brazil’s northeast coast. Like most cities, Recife has both its glamor side and its less glamorous side, and it was in the latter where Rivaldo was raised, in the favelas (Portuguese for slums) of the giant port city.

Soccer has always been huge in Brazil’s metropolitan areas, especially in the poorer quarters. That’s because, for children growing up in a favela, soccer is more than just a game—it’s a means of escape. Rivaldo spent most of his days selling souvenirs to tourists in order to bring money home for his family, before devoting his nights to kicking a ball around on the beach. But while playing with his friends was fun, it wasn’t enough to stave off the effects of poverty, hunger, and physical want. Rivaldo and his four siblings all suffered greatly, especially due to malnutrition. Even today, as a famous and successful athlete, Rivaldo still seems unable to cast off the physical effects of malnutrition. His face and frame are still as gaunt as ever, and he’s worn dentures for years—the hunger he suffered as a child made his teeth fall out.

Hence, soccer; the only way to forget the pangs of an empty belly. When the tourists went inside their hotels to sleep, Rivaldo could play, run, and dream. Dreams of playing before thousands of adoring fans. Dreams of playing like the legends he saw on television. Dreams of a better, safer, easier life. But to Rivaldo, they were only dreams. “I never really thought I could be that good,” he once said.[1]

But one person did believe: his father, Romildo. The two were very close. Romildo had his own dreams, too. Dreams of a real escape from the slums, not just a fantasy one. He encouraged his three sons to train hard and get better at the sport they all loved. It was their best hope at a better life. “He always said to us that one of the three brothers would be a professional footballer,” Rivaldo recalled in an interview.1

But when Rivaldo was sixteen years old, his number one fan was taken away forever when Romildo was killed in a car accident. Rivaldo was devastated. Without his father, soccer meant nothing anymore, and he went a whole month without playing. But his mother begged him to continue, saying, “You can’t give up now. You must make your father’s dream come true.”1

So Rivaldo the son kept on playing for Romildo the father. And he worked, even going so far as to walk ten miles by himself almost every night in order to train with his team. He couldn’t afford a bus. But through it all, he once said, “My father never left my side; on the street, on the beach, he was always with me. He helped me on the road to becoming a professional, and now I play just for him.”1

And what a professional he was! By the age of twenty, he had turned pro. Soon he was playing for one of the biggest teams in Brazil. By his mid-twenties, Europe was calling. Rivaldo spent over a decade playing overseas, including a stint at Barcelona, one of the biggest teams in the world. He made more money than he ever thought possible, and listened as tens of thousands of fans chanted his name. Just like in his dreams. Just like in his father’s.

In 1999, he was officially named the best player in the world. Three years later, he won the World Cup with Brazil.

Despite his success, he never forgot his background. He founded his own charity, and always donated a part of his wages to help the children who looked up to him the way he had looked up to the legends of his own youth.

And he started a family of his own. Rivaldo the son had become Rivaldo the father.

One of his sons is named Rivaldinho, Portuguese for “little Rivaldo.” True to his namesake, Rivaldinho is a soccer talent, too, currently playing for a team called Mogi Mirim EC, one of the first teams his father played for … and the last.

Rivaldo’s long road out of the slums passed a new milestone on February 19th, 2014. Forty-one years old, Rivaldo returned home and signed with Mogi Mirim. On the aforementioned date, ten minutes into the second half, Rivaldo came off the bench and joined his eighteen-year-old son on the pitch for an official game. They played together for just over half an hour inside the Estadio Romildo Ferreira … the stadium named after Rivaldo’s father, Romildo.

“I thank God for this moment,” Rivaldo said afterward, shortly before retiring. “I am really happy to have played with my son.”[2]

Once upon a time, he had wanted to quit. But Rivaldo the son kept playing for his father, so that, in the end, Rivaldo the father could play with his son.

And that is a story I think we all can applaud.

***

A little maudlin, perhaps, but as a son who adores his father, and as a father who treasures his sons, I’ve always been inspired by Rivaldo and continue to be to this day.

But what about Rivaldo the player?

The Auxiliary Attacker

What was Rivaldo? He has been described both as an attacking midfielder and as a second striker. He could play on the left (although he hated to do it) or could even play by himself up top. In truth, he was all these things and none of them. His skills were so varied as to make such terms meaningless; his anarchic habit of roaming wherever he saw fit made defining his role an impossibility. This refusal to be labeled, to be constrained to any one position or role, was both his greatest virtue and his chief defect. It allowed him to lead Barcelona to two consecutive Liga titles at a time when the club was in transition. It enabled him to become Brazil’s key figure after injuries sapped Ronaldo of health and pace. But it also made him something of a nightmare to coach, as more than one manager discovered.

There are, of course, a few things that he definitely wasn’t. He was certainly no traditional number ten, someone who remained in the center of the pitch, pulling the strings and controlling the flow of the game. While he could and would drop deep whenever the mood suited him, his passing, as brilliant as it could be, wasn’t consistent enough for that. More importantly, he had a habit of holding onto the ball for too long before releasing it. “Rivaldo is a player who needs four touches to give one pass,” the famous Rivelino once said.

He was also no winger. Though he often enjoyed success moving out to the left, where he could use his incredible left foot to cross into the box (more on his left foot in a minute), I never felt that he had the pace needed to function as a pure winger. More importantly, he didn’t have, or refused to have, the mindset to play out wide. The most famous example of this is when he clashed with Barcelona manager Van Gaal, who wanted him to play on the left – the two never did see eye to eye on the matter.

No, Rivaldo was no orthodox anything. What he was is what I like to call an auxiliary attacker.

I can’t find the quote anymore, but I first heard this term used by Carlo Ancelotti when he was asked to describe Kaka’s role for Milan. The word “auxiliary” is defined as “a person or thing providing supplementary or additional help and support” and as it was true for Kaka (who has similarly resisted all attempts to be classified), it was true for Rivaldo. A person providing supplementary help and support…throughout almost every area of the pitch except for in defense. Rivaldo could drop into the midfield, let a teammate surge past him, and supply a deft, defense-splitting pass. He could venture out to the left and send in a perfect, pinpoint cross. He could play a one-two with a center forward, receive the return pass on the edge of the box, and with a sublime first touch, finish deftly past the keeper. He could drift into the center of the area and score a header with surprising confidence. And when the opposition prepared for all these things, he could score a long-range skimmer from well outside the box.

This was his genius. How could you prepare against a player like Rivaldo? Mark him one way and he’d simply beat you another. Deny him one channel and he’d find a second. He was playmaker, penetrator, and punisher all in one.

Rivaldo’s Skillset

Rivaldo could do a little of everything, but he had three truly great skills:

  • A superb first touch
  • A perfect understanding of how to play off another striker
  • A simply magical left foot

In the late 90s, there were three players who seemed capable of taking out an entire defense with their first touch: Zinedine Zidane, Dennis Bergkamp, and Rivaldo. Receiving the ball on his left foot, Rivaldo could freeze a defender in place, turn him inside out, flick a pass to a teammate, squeeze the ball between two defenders, or set himself up with enough space to unleash a shot.

For Brazil, this is the famous example:

Another favorite of mine starts at 1:06 in this video:

And even at an advanced age, he was doing this:

There are more, of course, but the point is that even in tight spaces, Rivaldo knew better than anyone that your first touch is the most important.

Another great skill was Rivaldo’s amazing knack for playing off another striker. His partnership with Ronaldo was superb, but equally impressive was his relationship with Patrick Kluivert:

Notice the classic Rivaldo traits on display here. The pinpoint crosses early on in the video; the predilection to play one-twos with Kluivert; his ability to either feed Kluivert’s goals or finish his own; how he routinely got himself into positions normally reserved for center-forwards to score headers and half-volleys; and his staggering display of wonderful first touches.

Partner Rivaldo with a mobile striker, as both Ronaldo and Kluivert were, and you’d get a player could bang in goals and cash in assists with equal proficiency.

And of course, there was Rivaldo’s legendary left-foot.

He could do everything with that foot. We’ve already covered his ability to control the ball with it, but what about his magnificent free-kicks?

But the thing I remember most about his left foot is how stunningly accurate and powerful he could be from long range. In all the long, storied history of the Seleção, only Zico and Rivelino equal Rivaldo in this regard.

Notice too the sheer variety of goals Rivaldo scored for Brazil.

Of course, his long-range prowess wasn’t limited to the yellow shirt. Behold, one of the great Rivaldo games:

Rivaldo’s Legacy

So why isn’t Rivaldo remembered more fondly?

It very likely stems from the inordinate amount of abuse Rivaldo endured during his career – some of it justified, but much of it unfair.

First, I think it’s safe to assume that Rivaldo had to live with a certain amount of prejudice no amount of stardom could allay. Unlike many of the great Seleção stars, Rivaldo was no Carioca or Paulista (meaning he came from the states of Rio or Sao Paulo). Rivaldo hailed from the northeast of Brazil, an area long considered by many to be too poor, too rough…and maybe even too black. Others who are more familiar with Brazilian culture may have a different opinion, but that’s how it always seemed to me. Rivaldo himself seemed to feel the same way. From the article mentioned above: “If I had been born in Rio or Sao Paulo, it would have been a lot easier for me.”1

Overcoming that bias must have been hard indeed, and for a long, long time, the Brazilian media made Rivaldo a scapegoat at every opportunity. For that reason, his international career took a surprisingly long time to take off. He was blamed for Brazil’s defeat to Nigeria in the 1996 Olympics. (It’s true he had a poor match, but so did Ronaldo.) As a result, he was left off the 1997 Copa America squad. He was criticized for not stepping up during the ’98 World Cup final. (Again, he had a poor match…but who didn’t?) Even winning the Copa America in ’99 (he shared Golden Boot honors with Ronaldo, and was named the best player in the tournament) did little to solidify his reputation. When Brazil struggled to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, Rivaldo received the most criticism. (Sometimes the criticism was justified, but again it was without context. Ronaldo was hurt, Ronaldinho not yet fully formed, and only Romario, in and out of favor, was a consistent goal-scoring threat. Rivaldo still scored 8 goals during qualification, tied with Romario for most on the team.)

Rivaldo was also less charismatic with the press as some of his peers. He was a difficult man to know, and thus, a difficult man to love.

It has to be said that part of the problem was Rivaldo’s own doing. For as skilled as Rivaldo was, he was prone to long stretches of inconsistent or indifferent performances. There were entire matches where almost nothing he did came off. Passes would go awry, his long-distance shots would seem self-indulgent, and even his amazing touch would let him down. That in itself wasn’t so bad. Zidane, for example, was equally inconsistent during the 90s, both for Juventus and for France. But Zidane kept himself mentally engaged and fit and went from strength to strength for both club and country until 2006. Rivaldo wasn’t quite as disciplined.

Then too, Rivaldo didn’t do enough to make up for his lapses, either on the pitch or off it. When things didn’t go his way, he would turn sour and disinterested rather than try to impact the game through sheer effort. And in the press room after matches, he would shift blame away from himself. Said the great Gerson: “What he needs to think about is his performance on the pitch. He has complained about anything and everything, and been given what he wanted. He played up front, and played badly. He played further back, and played badly. Now he was given a more central role and still played badly.”[3]

His positional anarchy caused headaches for his managers as much as his opponents. Said Carlos Alberto Parreira, “It’s proving very hard to find a position for him where he can be effective.”

Still, Rivaldo was hardly Brazil’s only problem-child. Romario could be similarly listless and difficult. Ronaldo was seen as a prima donna early in his career. Ronaldinho’s off-field issues are well known. But these three are all revered, remembered, and respected throughout the world.

Less so Rivaldo. And that’s a mistake.

Rivaldo by the numbers

Look at these stats:

Goals scored:

Team Games Goals Goals per/game
Palmeiras 45 21 0.46
Deportivo La Coruna 41 21 0.51
Barcelona 86 157 0.54
Brazil 35 74 0.47

Trophies won:

Palmeiras

  • Brazilian Série A (1): 1994

Barcelona

  • UEFA Super Cup (1): 1997
  • Spanish La Liga (2): 1998, 1999
  • Copa del Rey (1): 1998

Olympiacos

  • Greek Super League (3): 2005, 2006, 2007
  • Greek Cup (2): 2005, 2006

Brazil

  • Confederations Cup (1): 1997
  • Copa América (1): 1999
  • FIFA World Cup (1): 2002; Runner-up (1) 1998
  • 1996 Summer Olympics (1): Bronze Medalist

Individual Awards

  • Ballon d’Or: 1999
  • FIFA World Player of the Year: 1999
  • Copa América 1999 Top Scorer
  • Copa América 1999 Most Valuable Player
  • Spanish League Footballer of the Year: 1999
  • UEFA Champions League Top Scorer: 2000
  • FIFA 2002 World Cup Silver Boot

Rivaldo’s Greatest Game

This needs no analysis or commentary:

Conclusion

When you look at those stats or watch those videos, the truth is clear: Rivaldo is one of the immortals. He is a man with a troubled past and an unsettled career…but also a man of incredible skill, achievement, and perseverance. Of all the glittering stars in the Seleção firmament, Rivaldo’s belongs among the very best. He deserves to be recognized not only as a legend of the game, but as one of the ten finest footballers Brazil has ever produced.

 


 

[1] “Rivaldo: In the Name of the Father,” FIFA.com, February 1, 2000. http://www.fifa.com/ballon-dor/news/y=2000/m=2/news=rivaldo-the-name-the-father-74934.html

[2] Matthew Nash, “Rivaldo and son Rivaldinho play at Rivaldo Stadium,” Metro, February 19, 2014. http://metro.co.uk/2014/02/19/rivaldo-makes-history-by-joining-son-in-brazilian-league-action-at-the-age-of-41-4309839/

[3] Tim Vickery, “Brazil Questions Rivaldo’s Role,” BBC, November 19, 2000. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/1031130.stm