On the final day of last season, Rivaldo scored an epic hat-trick in Barcelona's 3-2 win against Valencia. His last minute winner was an implausible bicycle-kick reminiscent of Pelé's clincher in the film Escape to Victory, the cinematic decoy helped Sylvester Stallone and co escape from a prisoner-of-war camp. Rivaldo's replica earned Barca an 11th-hour reprieve from the UEFA Cup.
Four months later Barcelona's Brazilian saviour made his 2001-02 home debut against Lyon. Boos and whistles echoed around Camp Nou every time he touched the ball. Forget the fact that Barca would not have been playing Champions League football in the first place if it hadn't been for Rivaldo; it was a mind-boggling response to four years of unwavering brilliance.
In Rivaldo's first two seasons at Camp Nou, Barca were Spanish champions. In 1999 he was the FIFA World Player and European Footballer of the Year. No Barca player in the past 25 years can match his 125 goals in all competitions. His 31 goals in Europe are a club record. Despite his bow-legged gait and languid demeanour, Rivaldo is neither fragile nor fickle. He has played in 140 of 162 League games since his 1997 transfer from Deportivo La Coruna. Tellingly, Barca managed a modest eight victories in the 22 games he missed. The Brazilian's ability to raise his game on hostile stages is legend. Last season he became the first ever visitor to score three goals at Milan in European competition. Only a dubious offside call prevented him becoming the first Barca player to score a hat-trick at Real Madrid.
So what has Rivaldo done to deserve such shoddy treatment?
Ten days after Barca's League bow at Sevilla, Rivaldo damaged knee ligaments playing for Brazil against Argentina. On his return to Spain, Barcelona's doctors aired the possibility of surgery. Coach Carles Rexach publicly resigned himself to losing his star player for at least two months. Rivaldo’s decision to fly back to Rio for rehab was slated as an unprofessional whim. Yet, miraculously, he was back at Camp Nou within 14 days. Forty-eight hours later Rexach left him out of Barcelona's match at Real Sociedad citing lack of match fitness. World Cup duty against Chile meant the Brazilian missed Barca's next two games as well. Hence the tardy home debut against Lyon. Needless to say, Rivaldo was the only one of 29 Spain based players to face a chorus of boo-boys on his international duty.
But what exactly was his crime? Getting injured? Recovering in record time? Flying 17,000 kilometres to face Real Sociedad only to be snubbed? Taking absolutely no part in the slanging match between Barcelona and Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari?
Not for the first time Rivaldo was a pawn in a political spat. This time it was Barcelona and the Brazilian federations at loggerheads. In the past, former Barca president Josep Nunez consistently undermined his own player as a way of attacking his arch-enemy, Josep Minguella (Rivaldo s former agent). In a city that boasts two daily sports papers with myriad hidden agendas, Rivaldo’s refusal to curry favour has created powerful enemies. He was accused of using Luis Figo's defection to Real Madrid to secure a handsome new contract from incoming Barca President Joan Gaspart. The fact that Nunez had refused to sit down with Minguella and Rivaldo for several months before Figo's move was conveniently ignored. Rivaldo was again chastised by the media during financial wrangling this summer. As it turned out, Barcelona owed him £2million in back-pay.
The Brazilian spent a dirt-poor childhood in Recife doing 15-mile round-trips to training on foot. A six-inch scar on his right foot is a reminder of when a wall fell on him en route. Can you blame him if he wants to get paid in full? And nobody barracks Patrick Kluivert or Luis Enrique (two players with the de rigueur media acolytes) for earning silly money.
“The Barcelona fans are much too quick to turn against their own players," says former coach Bobby Robson. Especially those who don't spout politically correct platitudes about Barca's status as a Catalan flagship. Hristo Stoichkov, Camp Nou's last great idol, was happy to play the crusader in a nationalistic crusade. Rivaldo, on the other hand, has never pretended to be anything other than a professional footballer, on call for the duration. When Stoichkov isn't playing for Chicago Fire he still calls Barcelona home. Five years after being sacked by Barca, nothing has tempted Johan Cruyff away from his home 10 minutes' drive from Camp Nou. Ronald Koeman has built a house on the city outskirts and makes no secret that his ambition is to coach Barca one day. Yet there is more chance of Osama bin Laden buying a condo in Manhattan than Rivaldo settling down in Catalonia when he retires.
God made Rivaldo articulate with a football but shy and inexpressive in civvies. Ronaldo, his Brazilian predecessor at Barcelona, was more problematic but more charismatic too. He also had a multinational PR machine behind him. The ability of Rivaldo, a long-time Mizunho man, to just say no is a continuing affront to Barca sponsors Nike.
None of these things should matter. Nor do they in the dressing-room. Rivaldo's team-mates were incensed by the latest outbreak of heckling. Rexach swears by "the most decisive player in the world". Barcelona's more perceptive fans worship at his altar, too. "Rivaldo, you're God. Forgive those who whistle you”, read a banner at Camp Nou before the Brazilian's two goals against Betis in his second home game. The perpetual frown on Rivaldo's face these days suggests that's easier said than done.
Rexach admits that squeezing Rivaldo, Kluivert and Javier Saviola into the same forward line can be a problem. Kluivert 25, and Saviola, 19, are both under contract until 2006. Rivaldo is 30 in April and out of contract in June 2003. Long-time suitors Lazio and Juventus have made a note of the latest episode of disharmony. Realpolitiks suggest Barcelona will cash in this summer at the latest.
This article originally appeared in the December 2001 edition of World Soccer.