It seems hard to imagine now, but when Rivaldo joined Barcelona in 1997, unrest and instability were buzz words in Catalonia.
Johan Cruyff, who at that point was the most successful manager in the club’s history, had been sacked at the end of the 1995-96 season after two consecutive poor La Liga campaigns – Barça finished fourth and third in Cruyff’s final two seasons in charge – and his replacement Bobby Robson lasted only a year before he too was removed as manager.
Having won four straight league titles between 1991 and 1994, Barça had now gone three seasons without one. Robson delivered the Cup Winners’ Cup and Copa Del Rey in his one season in charge – but also a second-place finish in the La Liga.
The Englishman’s style of football was not to the taste of all locals either, but the biggest cause for discontent was when chairman José Núñez allowed Ronaldo to leave, also after only one – sensational – season at Camp Nou following a contract dispute.
Dissent towards the chairman was growing.
Núñez’s response was to appoint Louis Van Gaal in an effort to return the team to its famed Dutch style, with Robson moving into the role of general manager.
One of his first jobs, after initially trying for Liverpool’s Steve McManaman, was to push through the signing of Rivaldo. Suddenly Barça had another Brazilian to get excited about.
Rivaldo had just come off the back of a very successful debut season in La Liga with Deportivo La Coruna but still hadn’t established himself in the national side.
If he thought that playing for Barcelona would enable him to take the step up, he was right. It would be during his time at Camp Nou that Rivaldo reached the apex of his career.
Deceptively quick, often using sideways step-overs and feints, and with the ability to drill low, powerful shots from seemingly any distance, Rivaldo was deployed by Van Gaal on the left of midfield in the Dutchman’s Ajax model.
However, rather than following Van Gaal’s strict instructions of hugging the touchline, Rivaldo would drift inside, often to devastating effect on slaloming runs or to unleash swerving, bending shots from all angles. All with that unique long-legged gait and magical left foot.
Of the 109 goals Rivaldo scored in five seasons for Barcelona, only 12 of them were with his right foot. The opposition knew what was coming but still found it impossible to stop him. In fact, the longer Rivaldo remained at Camp Nou, the more important and effective he became, with his goal tally rising every season until his last.
He became known for scoring spectacular goals, with 15 of those 109 being free-kicks and a further 10 coming from outside the box, but he scored crucial goals too.
After Valencia (10 goals), Real Sociedad (7 goals) and local rivals Espanyol (7 goals), Rivaldo’s next most favoured opponents while at Barça were Real Madrid, against whom he scored five goals. Four of them were decisive.
Rivaldo was Barça’s top goalscorer in both of his first two seasons as they won back-to-back La Liga titles, yet Van Gaal refused to give in to his desire to play through the middle.
In fact, after the Brazilian had won the Ballon d’Or in 1999 and suggested to his boss that moving him into the No.10 role might be beneficial to the side, Van Gaal dropped him.
It wasn’t until the 2000-01 season, after both Van Gaal and Núñez had left following a trophyless season, that Rivaldo was finally freed to occupy the No.10 position he’d been craving.
That summer, Patrick Kluivert finished joint as top scorer at the European Championship and was named in the UEFA team of the tournament alongside Figo, Frank De Boer and Josep Guardiola. No other team could boast as many representatives.
Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, meanwhile, was appointed manager by new chairman Joan Gaspart after three years working in a director’s capacity at Camp Nou. He was seen to be ideally placed to understand the politics inside and outside the dressing room to help the existing squad.
It should have been the perfect moment for Rivaldo and the team that had been bubbling over the last few years to come to the boil. With a new chairman looking to impress and the club’s leading goalscorer in his favoured position, things looked rosy.
It turned out to be a disaster.
Before the 2000-2001 season had even started, Figo crossed the divide to sign for Real Madrid in a deal which sent shockwaves throughout the club.
Emotionally influenced, Gaspart tried to compensate by splashing out on Marc Overmars, Gerard Lopez, Alfonso and Emmanuel Petit, but the latter three would all depart within two seasons.
Serra Ferrer lasted even less time, sacked before the season was out as Barça exited the Champions League at the group stage and failed to challenge for the La Liga title, eventually finishing fourth.
Rivaldo, however, had his best season to date on an individual level, scoring 35 goals, including hat-tricks away at the San Siro against AC Milan and then on the final day against Valencia.
He had also scored a trademark free-kick and brilliant overhead kick in a 3-3 draw with Manchester United in November that ultimately was not enough to prevent Barça from slipping into the UEFA Cup, but it is that hat-trick against Valencia that he will perhaps be remembered most fondly.
In a sense, it was the quintessential Rivaldo hat-trick. A bending free-kick? Check. A low piledriver from distance with no back lift? Check. An implausible bicycle kick following a deft piece of chest control? You’ve guessed it.
These were goals that Barça fans had seen before from Rivaldo. His genius came in being able to conjure them all in one game to salvage the Catalans’ season.
They risked not even making the following season’s Champions League, but this win was enough for them to leapfrog their rivals on the night to grab the final qualification spot in Europe’s premier cup competition.
Joan Gaspart went on a similar spending spree at the end of that season, with similar conclusions, and the following 2001-2002 campaign would be Rivaldo’s last and least prolific in a Barcelona shirt as he registered just 13 goals in all competitions.
If that were not enough, the decision by the club to re-appoint the unpopular Van Gaal at the end of the season was a clear message to Rivaldo that his time at Barcelona was over.
He was, however, a World Cup winner by this point, having scored five goals at the 2002 edition in South Korea and Japan, earning a place in the FIFA team of the tournament – despite his comical collapse and face hug against Turkey in the opening game when a ball was shot at his knees.
For many, this would be their overriding memory of him.
Rivaldo moved to AC Milan on a free transfer, having been released from his contract a year early, and went on to win that season’s Champions League and a Coppa Italia, albeit in a reduced role, as Barça endured another disastrous campaign, again finishing fourth in La Liga.
It’s interesting to review that period in Barcelona’s history which was bookmarked by the managerial reign of the most famous of all footballing Dutchman (Cruyff) and one of his chief disciples (Frank Rijkaard).
Despite Van Gaal’s initial domestic success, there was always a sense that the team were never quite brilliant, cohesive or consistent enough.
Unfulfilled promise seemed to be a constant theme as Barcelona lost two Champions League semi-finals and a UEFA Cup semi-final during the Rivaldo years.
But perhaps worse still was Real Madrid winning ‘Ol’ Big Ears’ three times during that same period. A couple of La Liga titles and the lesser cup competitions were scant consolation for the Catalans.
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Perhaps this underachievement of the club at the highest level at the time is why Rivaldo is not held in the esteem that he deserves to be in Catalonia.
Furthermore, whereas Barça favourite Hristo Stoichkov (another man with an explosive left foot) garnered much affection for embracing Barcelonaism and for his aggressive, sometimes antagonistic approach, Rivaldo was undemonstrative, disinterested in getting involved in physical tussles and didn’t see buying a home in Barcelona as important.
On that aforementioned night against Manchester United in November 1998, the eventual winners of the Champions League that year couldn’t handle Rivaldo. But neither could Barcelona’s defenders handle Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke at the other end.
Perhaps that game was most indicative of Barcelona during that period: brilliant and fragile in equal measure, with Rivaldo’s stardom not quite appreciated due to the failings of others.
By Leon Wilde
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