Rivaldo: The Underappreciated Genius Who Lit Up Camp Nou

Ross Jackson
Rivaldo inspired Louis van Gaal's Barcelona
Rivaldo inspired Louis van Gaal's Barcelona

Followers of Barcelona have been treated to some truly magical sides down the years.

Whether it be Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ spearheaded by the brilliant Hristo Stoichkov, Frank Rijkaard’s European conquerors inspired by the magic of Ronaldinho or Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka machine driven by Lionel Messi.

Rivaldo battles with Liverpool's Danny Murphy
Rivaldo battles with Liverpool's Danny Murphy / CHRISTOPHE SIMON/Getty Images

However, very few supporters of the Blaugrana will reminisce with such fervour over Louis van Gaal’s Barça side of the late 90s, and for this reason the generational talent of Rivaldo goes criminally underappreciated.

Born into abject poverty in the favelas of north east Brazil, Rivaldo would be forced to overcome a whole host of obstacles on his route to professional football, including severe malnutrition which caused him to suffer bow-leggedness due to lack of essential nutrients.

He would scoff in the face adversity, snubbing calls from his coaches to give up on his footballing dream given they believed him too physically weak to prevail, continuing to walk the 15km route to training every day. His undeniable talent and irrepressible drive would eventually see him rise through the ranks of Brazilian football before catching the eye of a number of European sides.

Rivaldo embraces teammate Pep Guardiola
Rivaldo embraces teammate Pep Guardiola / Firo Foto/Getty Images

In 1996, Parma announced the signing of Rivaldo alongside his Palmeiras teammate Amaral, with the Italians paying a princely £8.5m for the pair – just £2.5m of which was attributed to the former – yet their announcement was to prove premature.

With Rivaldo seeming set for a move to Serie A prior to heading to the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, by the time he had returned the move was off. A rumoured contract dispute is said to have put a halt to negotiations, but regardless of the cause it would be Deportivo La Coruna who would capitalise as they snapped up the recently-crowned Olympic bronze medallist.

His agility, athleticism, close control and sledgehammer left foot took La Liga by storm, notching better than a goal every other game in his only season at Estadio Riazor, including a phenomenal spell of 20 goals in just 16 games as Carlos Alberto Silva’s side secured a third place finish.

Meanwhile, Barcelona were a team in relative turmoil; three years without the Spanish title, Ronaldo heading for pastures new, Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ a distant memory and the club soon to embark on their third manager in little over a year.

The shock departure of Ronaldo meant Barça were in need of a goalscorer, with one of Bobby Robson’s final acts as manager being to dissuade the club from signing Liverpool’s Steve McManaman, reportedly citing the England international’s poor finishing as the cause of his scepticism towards the move.

Instead he convinced the Blaugrana hierarchy to sign Rivaldo from Deportivo for €24m, a move which would serve as the catalyst for change in the club’s recent fortunes.

Despite Van Gaal’s pragmatic approach meaning Barça scored 24 fewer league goals than the season prior, Rivaldo’s 19 La Liga strikes in his debut campaign at the club would see the return of the Spanish top-flight title to Camp Nou, with Copa del Rey glory securing a historic domestic double in his first season at the club.

Barcelona would go on to retain their title the following campaign, with Rivaldo securing a career-high 24 goals in just 37 league games, yet the Champions League title would elude the Brazilian throughout his stay in Catalonia, and perhaps it's for this reason that he isn’t as fondly remembered as he should be.

The sides created by Cruyff, Rijkaard and Guardiola either side of the forward’s stay in Barcelona all sat at the apex of European football at least once, but Rivaldo would have to wait until his spell with Milan before finally being crowned a Champions League winner.

Despite Barça’s success under Van Gaal, all was not well behind the scenes. The Dutchman and Rivaldo endured a turbulent relationship, with the pair conceding they rarely saw eye-to-eye, and simmering tension reaching boiling point once the veteran tactician had refused to play his talisman in a central role.

Van Gaal departed Camp Nou following a trophyless campaign in 1999/00, however, he would return in 2002 and his re-appointment would spell the end of Rivaldo’s time at the club.

Van Gaal's 2002 re-appointment at Camp Nou saw Rivaldo move to Milan
Van Gaal's 2002 re-appointment at Camp Nou saw Rivaldo move to Milan / Grazia Neri/Getty Images

“Van Gaal is the main cause of my departure,” said Rivaldo when asked of his Camp Nou exit back in 2002. “I don’t like Van Gaal and I am sure that he doesn’t like me, either.”

In a strange sort of way, Rivaldo is far removed from the archetypal South American samba star we’ve become accustomed to in European football. He wore a frown and would experience regular fallouts with the coaching staff.

This, coupled with the underwhelming Barcelona team of the late 90s, means Rivaldo is rarely mentioned in the same breath as some of the icons to have played in red and blue stripes.

He was respected but not idolised, appreciated but not adored, yet when you strip back the politics and circumstances and consider the pure talent he possessed, it’s impossible not consider him a legend of the game.