When Rivaldo Vítor Borba Ferreira left Barcelona in the summer of 2002, speculation abounded that the reason for his departure was the recent reinstallation of Louis van Gaal as the club’s manager. The Brazilian was troubled by such stories and immediately set out to put an end to the conjecture.
“[Louis] Van Gaal is the main cause of my departure,” he said, substantiating rather than denying the claims. “I don’t like Van Gaal and I’m sure he doesn’t like me either.”
The feeling was indeed mutual. Van Gaal responded in typically vociferous fashion, blasting Rivaldo’s character and professionalism just weeks after he had helped Brazil to their fifth World Cup crown in Japan and South Korea.
“He lacked commitment to the club,” the Dutchman said, “and he was only interested in making more money and playing less. He was chosen as the best player [in the world] in 1999, but he hasn’t handled himself well since then and hasn’t behaved like a footballer should.
“He had illusions about Barça and was requesting to take holidays when important Champions League games were approaching. He then hides back home in Brazil. Three years ago I tried to sell him, but [president] Jose Luis Nunez stopped the transfer.”
Van Gaal may have won two La Liga titles and a Copa del Rey in his first spell at the Camp Nou, but the relationship between manager and club was always an uneasy one. Upon leaving Barcelona the first time around, Van Gaal sarcastically congratulated his “friends of the press” and then admitted he had been “struggl[ing] every day” to get to grips with an environment in which his philosophy was at odds with the culture of the country.
Was this a rare instance of introspection from the didactic Dutchman, an admission that he should have done more to adapt to his new surroundings? Not quite.
“In this place the players always say, ‘we are the best’… no, we are not the best because we have to show it on the field every year,” he said. “What has Barcelona won in 100 years? How many Champions Leagues? In six years at Ajax I won more than Barcelona had won in 100 years.”
There was little doubt about which player Van Gaal was directing most of his ire at. Rivaldo had thrived in his first two seasons in Catalonia, scoring 19 goals in 1997/98 and 24 in 1998/99 as Barça swept all before them in La Liga, yet he was dropped midway through the following season. Van Gaal didn’t take kindly to the Brazilian’s latest request to be moved from the left wing to a more central berth, believing as he does that individuals must always be subservient to the system.
Rivaldo, for his part, didn’t appreciate the overbearing management style of Van Gaal, a man so demanding that had he been present at the miracle of the five loaves and two fish would have pushed his way through the crowd to complain to Jesus about the absence of dessert.
In 2001/02 a relieved Rivaldo responded to Van Gaal’s exit with 36 goals in all competitions. Three of those came in a game in which the attacking midfielder didn’t so much grab the bull by its horns as put it in a headlock, notching the greatest hat-trick of all time in a final-day victory over Valencia. It was a treble that sealed Barcelona’s place in the Champions League and confirmed Rivaldo’s status as a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals.
His stunning bicycle kick to win that match is widely considered the best he ever scored, but that tag would perhaps belong to an extraordinary attempt against Deportivo La Coruna nine months later had the ball sneaked into the far post rather than pitching agonisingly wide of it. Javier Saviola was on hand to slot home and ensure that Rivaldo at least received an assist for his efforts, but that was scant reward for a piece of control and dexterity which would have left the lovechild of Dimitar Berbatov and Dennis Bergkamp salivating.
Deportivo arrived at the Camp Nou in February 2002 as defending champions and title contenders. Barcelona had just risen to third following a goalless draw with Mallorca, but that was the highest they had been in the table since November. It was therefore not much of a surprise when Diego Tristan put the visitors ahead in the 10th minute, although parity was restored when Cesar Martin turned the ball into his own net soon after.
Deportivo started the stronger of the two sides in the second half and duly reclaimed the lead through Sergio in the 66th minute. Yet while Barcelona looked there for the taking at that stage of the game, Javier Irureta’s men proceeded to not just take their foot off the gas but also pull the key out of the ignition and take a nap on the bonnet. Even so, they could hardly have legislated for what Rivaldo had up his sleeve when he darted in behind the Deportivo backline in the 73rd minute.
Had he had a right foot, Rivaldo might have been tempted to unleash a first-time volley after running on to Frank de Boer’s long pass. Instead he cushioned the ball beautifully on his left peg, then insouciantly flicked it over Nourredine Naybet’s head before it touched the ground. It was a moment of skill exceptional in both its conception and execution; Rivaldo not only had the technical ability to pull it off but also the presence of mind, appreciation of space and speed of thought to spot the opportunity in the first place.
He wasn’t done there. Lesser players might have looked to lash a shot at goal as quickly as possible so that their flash of inspiration wouldn’t go to waste, but Rivaldo – along with Zinedine Zidane the most graceful player of his generation – had other ideas. As goalkeeper Jose Molina came flying out towards him, the ex-Deportivo man lofted a delicate lob over his head and towards the far corner, only to see the ball drift just wide of the post. There really is no justice in the world.
Rivaldo barely reacted when Saviola applied the decisive touch to level the scores at 2-2, but it was instructive that most of his team-mates rushed to congratulate the creator rather than the converter. They knew that they had just witnessed something sensational, a display of genius from a footballer who possessed both ability and imagination in abundance. Even Louis van Gaal couldn’t argue with that.