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Some players are inherently likeable: Ronaldinho’s sheer joy to be on the ball inspired many of today’s great players; Roger Milla’s corner flag dance encapsulated a childlike pleasure that resonated with fans immediately – and before rhythmic goal celebrations and handshakes got tedious; and Peter Crouch’s honest self-assessments and down to earth persona universally endears him – unless you’re from Trinidad and Tobago.
Sometimes trophies – even a lot of them, and we’re talking league titles in Spain, a Champions League winners medal, a World Player of the Year award, and a Ballon d’Or – isn’t enough. Oh, and the World Cup too.
In Alex Bellos’ fantastic examination of Brazil and its football, Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, Rivaldo doesn’t get a single mention in the first edition. Despite winning the two greatest individual awards the sport has to offer three years prior to the book’s publication, coming after back-to-back La Liga titles with Barcelona, the Golden Boot and a winner’s medal at the 1999 Copa America, he’s not in the index once. Ronaldinho, who was yet to lob David Seaman or move to Barcelona, was listed, and the other one of the 3 Rs, Ronaldo, is namechecked over 20 times.
“Boris Becker is not living in Germany; Steffi Graf is not living in Germany; Michael Schumacher is not living in Germany; Franz Beckenbauer is not living in Germany; I’m not living in Germany,” Lothar Matthaus told Four Four Two.
“These are the biggest world superstars from Germany, but nobody lives there, and you have to ask why. It’s because you cannot live your life how you want. Boris Becker is in London and there they respect him. In Germany, you go on the streets and have to listen to stupid comments. It’s not nice.”
It could have been the same for Rivaldo. Brazil have a strong history of castigating some of their biggest footballing stars, no bigger example than that of Brazil’s 1950 World Cup goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa.
Even though he was voted goalkeeper of the tournament by journalists, Brazil’s fans blamed him for the winning goal scored by Uruguay’s Alcides Ghiggia, 11 minutes from time in the 2-1 defeat. He played just once more for the national team and suffered for conceding until his dying day, penniless at 79 years of age.
“Look at him,” Barbosa recalls of his treatment when a woman with her son saw him in a shop some 20 years later, “that’s the man who made all of Brazil cry.”
He described the rest of his life as worse than getting life in prison, which is a 30-year sentence in Brazil – “my imprisonment has been for fifty.”
There were racial undertones to Barbosa’s vilification. The other two players blamed that day were also black – Bigode and Juvenal – and neither would ever play for Brazil again. When Dida was Brazil’s goalkeeper in the 1999 Copa America, it was noted that he was the first black first-choice keeper for Brazil in 50 years.
The same couldn’t be said in Rivaldo’s case. The face of Brazil had changed. As Bellos states in his postscript that featured in later editions of his book, when Cafu, the last-minute stand-in captain lifted the World Cup in 2002, “he seemed to be a perfect representation of the Brazilian people.”
This is particularly important, Bellos points out, as Cafu, just a nickname, was considered an apt abbreviation of ‘cafuzo,’ the term used for the mixed-race descendants of blacks and Indians – even though that is not how it came about. Cafu would go on to represent Brazil for another 4 years to become the country’s most capped player with 142 appearances.
Rivaldo, as is well documented, was raised in the favelas of Recife. Bow-legged and missing several teeth due to a childhood in poverty, he then endured further hardship when his dad was run over and killed. Rivaldo was just 15-years old. The rags to riches story is a global narrative, and in football, it is often sold as a cheap romantic tale, but the reality is often much different. Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 film City of God is a much more realistic portrayal.
Growing up in a favela means growing up in a part of town historically neglected by the government. When your upbringing is in the sort of community which has been allowed to slip into an ungoverned territory, you cannot help but be affected by it in numerous ways.
The psychological impact, along with the lifelong physical remnants of such conditions, is a considerable factor, and one overlooked when commentators analyse why Rivaldo and Louis van Gaal didn’t get along, or why Rivaldo retreated within himself when he was garnering hostilities from Brazil fans throughout the second half of the 1990s.
Emotional stress fundamentally moulds how people feel, behave, and view the world. In an underclass upbringing, the degree to which social attitudes and norms are affected is above the average. To draw conclusions on Rivaldo’s demeanour and personality without contextualising it is inexplicable.
Raised in a society of violence and aggression, stress is ubiquitous and relentless, and the result is a constant state of alert; a hypervigilance that doesn’t rest. When this becomes the case, all of life is viewed through this lens. It is emotionally and physically exhausting and leaves a person in a persistent anxious state, anticipating threat even where there isn’t one. When you live in a favela, actively experiencing extreme poverty on a daily basis, you lose your dad at a young age and considered too weak to succeed in what may be your only route out of perpetual misery, a nervous and suspicious mindset creeps in and takes hold.
When a person lives in this way, they are predisposed to strong emotional responses when they feel under threat. So when Louis van Gaal returned to Barcelona in 2002, despite having just won the World Cup with Brazil, scoring five goals, being named as the player of the tournament by your international manager, and named in the FIFA World Cup All-Star Team, Rivaldo was more than willing to terminate his contract to avoid working with a man who did not respect him.
It was the same story 18 months later when he clashed with the authority figures at AC Milan. When his contract was terminated just months after he had scored in the Coppa Italia final victory over Roma, he described the experience as “humiliating.”
But when his own community questioned his commitment to his national shirt, instead of lashing out, instead of experiencing the primitive biological response to stress – a rush of blood to the muscles and an overload of adrenaline – Rivaldo was hurt and sunk into himself. It was a re-enactment of the abandonment, and in turn insecurity, he is likely to have experienced as a child; firstly, through the disenfranchisement of living on the edge of society, held there by government’s indifference; and secondly, the emotional abandonment he would have felt when his father died.
Such hormonal responses that accompany deep-seated stress manifest themselves in a multitude of ways, but in this case no more so than a fear of being in imminent danger or being disliked. This could be seen in his acrimonious endings at Barcelona, AC Milan, and Olympiakos; in the chastisement, he endured for the error he made at the 1996 Olympics against Nigeria that led to their semi-final defeat; and the abuse and criticisms he’d receive from his compatriot journalists and fans right up until the 2002 World Cup.
“He has only played one really good game for Brazil,” said former World Cup winning Brazil boss Carlos Alberto Parreira in November 2000, “a friendly against Argentina last year when he scored three beautiful goals.
“He’s become the team’s biggest problem. It’s proving very hard to find a position for him where he can be effective.”
Even BBC’s long-serving South American football correspondent Tim Vickery wrote, “Brazil has run out of patience. Rivaldo has been an international for seven years without much to show.”
He has only played one really good game for Brazil? An international for seven years, without much to show?
When these comments were made Rivaldo had achieved the following on the international stage: 26 goals in 49 games, Confederations Cup ‘97 winner, Copa America ‘99 winner, World Cup ‘98 runner-up, FIFA World Cup All-Star team ‘98, and Copa America Golden Boot & Player of the Tournament ‘99.
Unsurprisingly, within a year of Parreira being appointed Brazil manager for the third time in 2003, Rivaldo retired from international football. Religious Brazilians will thank god Parreira turned down multiple offers to coach Brazil ahead of the 2002 World Cup because had he taken it, we would not have had the exceptional Rivaldo performances we saw that summer. We probably wouldn’t have seen him at all.
Instead, we were blessed with Phil Scolari who made Rivaldo the creative hub of his World Cup side and was rewarded with 5 goals – enough for the Silver Boot – and performances that saw him declare Rivaldo the player of the tournament, and enough to be in FIFA’s best XI.
“I always put the squad first,” Scolari told France Football in 2002, “but the success of a squad is only possible if great players help it.”
“That was the case with Rivaldo who, for me, was the best player in the World Cup. Tactically as well as in his shots, he was very strong. and I’m not mentioning his new frame of mind.”
When he performed at club level, he was under-appreciated at home, and when he succeeded on the biggest international stage of all, he became a pariah for his club. With Louis van Gaal returning to Barcelona, Rivaldo’s contract was mutually terminated and with it went Rivaldo’s impact on Europe’s biggest stages. He would win the Champions League with AC Milan in the following season, but he did not feature in the final and played just ten minutes over the two semi-final legs. For Rivaldo, whichever way he turned, his worldview was reinforced: from the favelas to the summit of world football, an aggrieved sense of rejection and exclusion never abandoned him, placing him at odds with nearly every manager, Brazilian pundit and journalist he encountered.
The criticisms he received were rarely, if ever, well-meaning, and this made Rivaldo double down and pull up the drawbridge as an act of self-preservation. Parreira didn’t like him because he was everything the 1994 World Cup manager’s team wasn’t – creative, full of flair, and bohemian in the will to attack and attack. It is for similar reasons that, despite huge successes at Barcelona in his six years there, his relationships were often strained there too.
As Simon Kuper wrote for the Financial Times during van Gaal’s first stint at Barca, “van Gaal has treated Barcelona’s [non-Dutch] players as if they were Dutchmen. He is like the expatriate business executive who cannot understand the local way of doing things. The man whose favourite word is ‘collectief’ succeeded at Ajax thanks to a rigid tactical system in which each player carried out his task. To him, that is the only way.” It was at loggerheads with the enigmatic air and spontaneity with which Rivaldo, and Barcelona’s other creative forces, played with.
The built-in response was ready and had been honed 20 years ago, back in Recife. Gentrification has been much discussed, derided or lauded, depending on your footing on the class ladder, for the past decade or so in the U.K. It isn’t a new concept though and has existed for years as what it is – regeneration. But when it is at the expense of an insular society, insular only because it has been marginalised from the outside, it breeds resentment in a rapid and entrenched way.
In favelas like the one Rivaldo grew up in, involvement from the government is very rarely for the good of the local inhabitants, and a telltale sign is how consultation takes place. Any criticism and feedback suggested from its people is sanitised and the whole process stage-managed. It is fed into unwieldy bureaucratic mechanisms, made to leave the residents only involved in a tokenistic regard, left at the door of serious discussion.
When the community realises that this is what is occurring, they step up their criticisms and they louden their voices. In return, they are told to be more ‘constructive’, and that message normally comes with the tact of a drone missile – as misguided as it is well-meant. Imagine if an outsider rocked up to your neighbourhood – Rivaldo’s favela or football club – with money and authority, and then subjected you to vilification for your customs and for daring to involve yourself in the betterment of your fellow residents. You would feel hurt.
In 2013, during the run-up to the World Cup 2014, hosted by Brazil – and with Rio hosting the Olympics two years later – suddenly the government wanted to help these favelas.
“The authorities wouldn’t even enter our community in the past and there was no mention of moving us, but then Brazil won the right to host the World Cup and everything changed,” Maria do Socorro, 40-year resident of the Indiana favela in Rio, which has been marked for demolition, told the local council hearing. Indiana survived the social cleansing, but many others did not.
In that moment, on receiving the hosting rights to the two biggest sporting events in the world, Brazil was faced with the social and cultural legacy of years of neglect, intentional disregard, and managed decline. Those social injustices resulted in consecutive generations raised in poverty and all the disadvantages that it entails, resulting in a strong belief that they do not matter, and their opinions do not count.
Instead of learning from this, the Brazilian government, like governments across the world, introduce projects of gentrification and superficial facelifts. The locals know the game and quickly become yet more sceptical and yet more disenfranchised.
Rivaldo was a product of this environment 25 years before the false hopes and promises to host the World Cup and Olympics provided. So when Louis van Gaal came to Barcelona like an ‘expatriate business executive,’ Rivaldo had seen it all before.
“[He looks like] a credible Devil with his flat nose, patently false teeth, and poor body language,” Kuper wrote of the Dutchman, “a tall stiff schoolmaster, with an unlikely penchant for extravagant gestures such as when he famously asked a journalist ‘Are you so stupid or am I so smart?’”
And when van Gaal returned in 2002 after two years away, Rivaldo wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, and thus they lost their star player. Perhaps in hindsight, it was Barcelona’s mistake: half a season after reappointing him, the club sacked van Gaal as they hovered just three points above the relegation zone.
By now, Rivaldo’s eyes were deep-set and he wore a permanent frown that mimicked his hairline in an aggressive V-shape, from years of tiring of a world that seemed so hostile to him. He already looked much older than his 30 years, but it would be another 13 before he retired from the game he so desperately fought for the right to be universally acknowledged in.
Enduring throughout and to this present day, Rivaldo’s worldview is persistent, never able to change it during a 24-year career that reinforced everything he had believed and had been subject to through his formative years.
It is, therefore, no surprise that last year Rivaldo so publicly threw his weight behind the presidential campaign of right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro, despite many believing that his presidency would bring an increasing gulf between the richest and poorest of Brazil’s society. It does not immediately compute that an impoverished child from a Recife slum, still bearing physical testament of the hardships, would vote for Bolsonaro when the alternative choice, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party, would have been a return to the government that presided over Brazil from 2002 to 2014 during which time progressive redistribution programs helped millions like Rivaldo out of poverty.
But what did appeal, like it did with Donald Trump in the USA and Nigel Farage’s successful lobbying of Brexit in the UK, was Bolsonaro’s anti-establishment stance. When you’ve grown up to not only distrust the establishment, but actively believe it is against you, and have – in fairness – experienced proof of this, somebody in public office saying that they’re on your side and talk in a matter of fact way about everyday problems, the appeal becomes easier to fathom. This is even more understandable against the backdrop of the complete erosion of trust and integrity of the political system in place.
“The real problems in Brazil,” Rivaldo began an Instagram post during the election campaign, “[are] economic crisis, unemployment, violence, health, education and corruption.”
It’s a perfectly understandable and logical position, and issues Bolsonaro was incredibly vociferous about addressing.
The post continued:
“What we are discussing this election: gender ideology, misogyny, racism and feminism. Understand one thing: your vote will choose a president, not a father.”
For Rivaldo, and undoubtedly – and proven so – millions of other Brazilians, the issues of gender and feminism are esoteric concerns that do not have an immediate and measurable effect on people living their lives on the hills that surround cities, destitute and disadvantaged for generations. When a political vote is successfully polemicised and framed as real-life issues such as economics, healthcare and education vs. abstract notions such as identity and ideology it all seems understandable even if not agreeable on a personal level.
“We need him to fix our problems, not to teach us values, we have to learn that at home or in school.”
Rivaldo doesn’t excuse Bolsonaro’s homophobia or racism, per se, he just believes a government’s concern should be elsewhere, and when a candidate is promising to address issues that plighted his childhood and has framed his worldview ever since, he is enticed. The rest, he believes, should be taught at home. For Rivaldo, it was simply a case of the other option – the Workers Party – paying attention to the wrong things.
Paying attention to the wrong things could be a fair description of the abiding narrative of Rivaldo’s career. Remember him for his performances at the World Cup in 1998 and 2002, remember his overhead kicks, his rabonas, his thunderous left foot, all the things that did not need mentioning in this article; and you can also remember him for his antagonistic relationship with the Spanish press, with club owners and football managers, and his dive against Turkey; but most importantly, remember it all in context. Football is far more than just a game.
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