In the summer of 1996, Rivaldo Vítor Barbosa Ferreira was public enemy number one in Brazil after a disastrous Olympics.
Brazil made no bones about the fact they were going for gold in Atlanta. Despite their dominance in the World Cup and Copa America, the Olympics was the one major international honour which had, up until that point, eluded the Samba Boys.
The pressure was on Brazil, and Rivaldo especially.
Two years earlier, he had seemed on the brink of earning a place in Carlos Alberto Parreira’s Brazil squad for the 1994 World Cup.
After being named in the Brazilian league’s team of the year for two years running and scoring on his international debut, Rivaldo appeared the answer to Parreira’s concerns about a lack of creativity in attack.
But a late change of heart from the manager saw Rivaldo omitted from the squad amid concerns he was too selfish and unreliable, with Parreira preferring the defensive steel of Dunga over Samba flair.
It was a decision that crushed the young Rivaldo, with Parreira’s damning assessment quickly becoming public knowledge. Matters were made worse when his workmanlike Brazil went on to lift their first World Cup in 24 years.
By the time the Olympics rolled around, however, Parreira was out as Selecao manager and Rivaldo was back in, recalled by Mario Zagallo to join a forward line led by Ronaldo.
Yet Rivaldo looked shorn of the confidence he had shown before. Though Brazil progressed to the semi-finals, Rivaldo failed to find the net for the Selecao and there was worse to come.
Facing a talented Nigeria side featuring the likes of Nwankwo Kanu and Victor Ikpeba in their pomp, Brazil, and Rivaldo in particular, endured a nightmare.
Leading 3-1 with just 12 minutes to go, they threw away a two-goal lead before going down to a Kanu golden goal just four minutes into extra time.
In the immediate aftermath of their Olympics disappointment, the Brazilian press identified Rivaldo as the most obvious scapegoat.
The 24-year-old attacker was certainly more culpable than most, having missed a string of chances and been at fault for Nigeria’s second when he was dispossessed trying to dribble out of his own half.
Parreira’s assessment of Rivaldo as selfish and unreliable had come to fruition, with the attacker quickly emerging as a hate figure among a nation of football fanatics.
He returned to Brazil as persona non grata; newspapers proclaimed he was the architect of Brazil’s capitulation in a manner not dissimilar to the English press’s handling of David Beckham in the wake of England’s 1998 World Cup exit.
“I retain a bitter memory of this period, but it allowed me to find the motivation to show that the criticism of me was unjust,” he later reflected.
Already 24, the scandal did at least serve as the catalyst for Rivaldo to complete his long-awaited jump over into the European game – but that was not without its hitches.
Prior to the Olympics, Rivaldo had been set to join Parma, who went as far as announcing his signing earlier that same summer.
By the time he returned from the tournament, however, the deal was off amid reports suggesting the Italian club baulked at the Brazilian’s wage demands.
Whatever the case, Parma’s loss ended up being Deportivo La Coruna’s – and Rivaldo’s – gain.
Like Rivaldo, Depor were at something of a crossroads in 1996. The departure of star striker Bebeto that same summer had left a sizeable void in their ranks.
Over the previous four seasons, the Brazilian had scored 86 goals in 136 games to help put the club on the map in La Liga. Replacing him would not be easy.
Desperate to maintain the momentum with another South American star, Deportivo president Augusto Cesar Lendoiro pursued deals for Amaral, Savio and most notably, Giovanni, yet came up short on all three fronts.
When it became clear Giovanni was Barcelona bound, Lendoiro turned his attentions to the newly-available Rivaldo. It proved a shrewd, if expensive, move.
Signed for a club-record £10.5million, 6,000 Depor supporters turned out for the Brazilian’s unveiling with Lendoiro telling fans he was “better than Barcelona’s Giovanni”.
Rivaldo, for his part, turned down interest from Borussia Dortmund after being sold on the club by Bebeto and fellow Brazilians Mauro Silva and Donato, who were already in place at the Riazor.
“Bebeto as well as Mauro Silva talked in such a positive way about the city and the supporters that I am looking forward to playing here,” he said.
It helped that he was being handsomely paid too, earning a reported $1million-dollar salary.
But anyone expecting Rivaldo to show the same flagrant disregard for his employers and love of the nightlife as Romario at Barcelona would be in for a surprise.
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“When I came to Spain, people thought I would fly home again after the holidays, stay up all night celebrating and would have no discipline,” Rivaldo later recalled.
“That may be true of other players, but it’s not my way. You don’t see me with glamorous women as I leave. I prefer to be with my family. Now they all know who Rivaldo is and that I fulfil my commitments.”
Still smarting from his Olympics embarrassment, Rivaldo immersed himself in his club and surroundings with explosive results.
Known for his distinctive, languid style, Rivaldo’s heady mix of speed and impeccable close control saw him make the kind of impact few could have predicted. There were goals. Lots of goals.
Rivaldo’s first five La Liga games in the blue and white of Depor saw him net five times.
The Brazilian had it all, with his gangly limbs offering an uncommon level of flexibility that made him adept at everything from intelligent finishes to poachers’ tap-ins.
Rivaldo’s wand of a left foot could hit the ball with a deadly combination of force and accuracy as Scud missile-like strikes against Legrones and Sporting Gijon demonstrated. Alternatively, he was capable of applying the necessary finesse to free-kicks as Celta Vigo and Real Sociedad soon found out.
All that while remaining a first-rate header of the ball too. It almost wasn’t fair.
There’s a reason the 1996-97 season is still referred to as “the Rivaldo season” at the Riazor.
A season earlier, Depor had languished in mid-table. With Rivaldo in their ranks, Super Depor ended 1996 unbeaten in La Liga, level with Barcelona and just two points behind leaders Real Madrid.
In hindsight, the Depor move couldn’t have been more perfect, giving Rivaldo a greater freedom to express himself at a club without the same pressures of a Real Madrid, Barcelona or Brazil.
Rivaldo Ferreira en su única temporada en el Real Club Deportivo de La Coruña (1996-97) allí fue su explosión como futbolista! Hay fotos que solo con verlas lo dicen todo😍 pic.twitter.com/RLHftT9NRe
— Fútbol Sin Fin (@futbolsinfin) May 23, 2019
He was playing with a confidence and freedom rarely seen in the game – think of Cristiano Ronaldo in his final years at Manchester United. Such unbridled freedom and sense of fun might not have been possible at a bigger club, but Deportivo was not without its limitations.
Had the club been able to call on the likes of Roy Makaay or Diego Tristan at the time then they might have sustained a title bid. Instead, they faltered.
That they finished third behind a Real Madrid side led by Raul and a Barcelona team featuring Ronaldo was impressive enough and largely down to Rivaldo, whose Fabrizio Ravanelli-style shirt over the head goal celebration became a familiar sight that campaign
Rivaldo ended the season with 21 goals in 41 games; beyond impressive for a player primarily signed as an attacking midfielder and a sure sign he was destined for bigger things.
Those bigger things duly arrived in the summer of 1997.
In one of the final acts of his all-too-brief tenure at the Camp Nou, Bobby Robson persuaded Barcelona to spend the money generated from Ronaldo’s sale on Rivaldo.
Robson even dissuaded the Catalans from recruiting Steve McManaman in favour of a move for the Brazilian, claiming the South American would score more goals. He wasn’t wrong.
In five years at Barcelona, Rivaldo bagged 130 goals in all competition. By the time he left, he was the club’s ninth highest goalscorer of all time, a two-time La Liga winner, a Copa del Rey winner and a winner of both the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year.
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He had also shaken off the ghosts of that Olympics disappointment, winning the 1999 Copa America and 2002 World Cup with the Selecao to silence the criticism of Parreira, for a time at least.
Things couldn’t and ultimately wouldn’t get much better for Rivaldo on the pitch – but then they didn’t need to.
The Brazilian had started out as an impoverished kid with dreams of playing football for a living. By the time he hung up his boots well into his 40s he had achieved all that and a little more besides.
He couldn’t have done it without talent and determination, but maybe, just maybe, he couldn’t have done it without Depor.