Rivaldo: A Forgotten Phenomenon?

Ross Mackiewicz on how one moment of infamy can change it all.

There are a select few sportsmen who define a generation and become icons within their sport. Many have left a lasting impression and legacy that is revered by their peers in the game. However, some experience a defining moment that can damage their reputation in one fell swoop, seeming to extinguish the memories of their God-given talent.

Rivaldo, one of Brazilian football's most decorated players, seems (in the UK and Turkey, at least) only to be remembered for that infamous incident in South Korea during the 2002 World Cup when his simulation resulted in Hakan Unsal's dismissal. People: I plead with you to erase that displeasure from your mind and remember the genius who before that incident had produced some of the most spectacular individual football ever seen in Europe. Rivaldo Vítor Borba Ferreira, I salute you.

Rivaldo's lanky, bow-legged gait belied his ability. He was a riveting performer for club and country who had the ability to hurt teams with a piece of magic. He was an artist on the ball who was so majestic as he glided down the left wing bamboozling opponents with his technical flair. He was blessed with strength and vision that allowed him to play defence-splitting passes as well as a composed nature and precision that made his finishing in front of goal look effortless. Rivaldo was blessed with more or less every attribute there is. His left foot rippled the backs of nets and his heart and desire to retain and grab a foothold in games emphasised his bullish nature.

His abilities first came to light in his native Brazil with Mogi Mirim where he had the audacity to shoot straight from kick-off in a game against Noroeste and ended up finding the net. His confidence never faltered from that moment, and journalists drooled at the prospect of a new Rivelino. He was a phenomenon in his position and as he gained more experience in Brazil, he inevitably gained the attention of European clubs, who began sniffing around for his signature. He ended up signing for Deportivo de La Coruña in Spain and in his one solitary season he bagged 22 goals in 46 appearances with Depor finishing third that season.

Unsurprisingly the bigger clubs were aware of his talent and Barcelona paid a hefty 4000 million pesetas (around US$26 million at the time) for his services. It was in Catalonia that he played the best football of his career, even through some turbulent times. He was born to play in the red and blue shirt of the Blaugrana. His sleek yet poetic movement amazed those in the Camp Nou who looked on starry-eyed as this young man from South America wowed them with his football. In tandem with Ronaldo in the only season they would play together for the club, Rivaldo came behind him in the scoring charts with 19 goals in 34 appearances.

Ronaldo's departure to Internazionale of Milan saw the him pass the baton to Rivaldo, who grabbed it with both hands. He repeated his goal for Mogi Mirim with a carbon copy during a game against Atletico Madrid. He was an integral part of Barça's attack, reverting from a left-sided player to one who could play just off the front-man or as a standard attacking midfielder. Wherever he did play, he always had the capability to be a match winner. His hat-trick against AC Milan in 2000 in the UEFA Champions League along with his brace against Real Madrid in the Clásico of 2001 saw him scrape his side into the reckoning more or less single-handed on both occasions . Not forgetting his goals against Manchester United in 1998.

He defined his legacy on the last day of the 2000/01 season, when his team needed a victory against Valencia to book their place in the UEFA Champions League for the following campaign. This was one of the biggest games in the club's recent history, with millions of pesetas at stake. It was win or bust. Who was the saviour on that famous night? Rivaldo.

He put in a performance as iconic as that of Diego Maradona in 1986 against England, Zinedine Zidane against Portugal in 2000, or Paulo Rossi in 1982 in the World Cup Final. His first goal was a typical trademark left-foot stunner via a direct set-piece. He beat Santiago Cañizares, one of the best goalkeepers in the world that time, from thirty yards. Los Che grabbed an equaliser but on the stroke of half time the great man weaved his magic again. Picking up the ball just outside the D, he worked open a little pocket of space as he cut onto his left foot before smashing the ball with such ferocity that it passed Cañizares before he could even dive for it. It was trademark robust strike that had power and precision implemented in one. Valencia again equalised and looked set to be the biggest party-poopers in Catalonia with Barcelona coach Carles Rexach looking to set to miss the club's objective of finishing fourth and dining at Europe's top table the following campaign.

As the old saying goes, cometh the hour, cometh the man. The bow-legged Brazilian produced one of the most riveting displays of skill in the game's modern history as he grabbed the winner two minutes from time. He had the sheer audacity and confidence to make the most of a standard long ball into the mire by Frank De Boer by chesting the ball up with his back to goal, outside the eighteen-yard box, before executing a beautiful bicycle kick with his left peg that rustled into the bottom left corner of Cañizares' goal and lifted the Camp Nou into orbit with pure jubilation and hysteria. The suits in the President's suite were in tears as Rivaldo's team-mates embraced him in amazement of what their friend had just done. To define the beauty of the goal, as well as the importance and the timing, it has to go down as one of the greatest in history, it must!

There was no in between with Rivaldo. He either played at the peak of his powers, or he just didn't turn up – which was a rare occurrence. He was always a predominant figure in the Brazilian national team but a minority in his homeland held a grudge against him for their failure to clinch gold in the 1996 Olympic Games. This was accompanied with a groan or two that disputed that he only performed for his club and failed to show up when he adorned the blue and yellow.

Nevertheless, his role in the 2002 World Cup was as pivotal of that of Ronaldo, who finished top scorer with eight goals. Rivaldo produced a piece of beauty in the last sixteen against Belgium, stretching his long limbs to bring the ball down with his toe before swivelling and executing a gorgeous half-volley – with a slight deflection – that beat Geert De Vlieger in the Belgian goal. His equaliser against England on the stroke of half time in the quarter-final was without a doubt the most important of his country's eighteen goals that year. Again, his deadly left foot was lacked no precision as he placed his effort to the right of David Seaman. The Samba Boys were victorious and went onto lift the coveted trophy in Yokohama. Rivaldo had proved his credentials, but his whole career seemed to nose dive following an altercation with Turkey in the group stage.

With his country coasting to victory, Rivaldo stood hands on knees to catch a breather as he waited to take a corner. Hakan Unsal kicked the ball in the direction of him, and when it hit his thigh Rivaldo fell to the floor clutching his face. Unsal was sent off as millions around the world viewed the replay of Rivaldo evidently play acting. Many were angered – no more so than the Turkish. It’s true that one moment can define a career and unfortunately for the Brazilian that incident will always stain his reputation. He was never a cheat but one moment of madness has seen him labelled with that tag and he has been continuously ridiculed for it.

His time in Spain was at an end and he signed for AC Milan following the World Cup for one last pay-day before being released two years later following a disappointing spell in which he made a minimal contribution. He did pick up a Champions League winners medal in 2003 but viewed the whole of the Rossoneri's victory from the bench – a huge contrast to the summer before as he was one of the World Cup's star players, flooded in tears as he paraded the trophy to his people.

A successful spell in Greece followed with Olympiacos where he reproduced some of the form of his early days with a beautiful left-footed curler in the Greek Cup final against Aris.

At 38 years of age he has returned to Brazil following a spell in Uzbekistan and has taken up a unique role as a player/president at Mogi Mirim. For marketing purposes he has recently joined São Paulo on loan, scoring a beauty on his debut.

Although he won the Ballon d'Or in 1999, Rivaldo is highly underrated. Surely he should be mentioned in the same breath as Rivelino, Romario and Ronaldo. On his day he was virtually unstoppable, a man who mixed power and beauty in his play with the technical prowess that brought to mind one Diego Maradona. That incident against Turkey in South Korea will unfortunately shade his name with a dark black cloud but really it shouldn't. Rivaldo was a superstar and his credentials should not be forgotten.

You can follow Ross on Twitter @RossMackiewicz, and find more of his writing at IBWM and Soccerlens, among others.