Courtesy of our friends at VICE Sports Spain, the latest inductee to The Cult is mercurial Brazilian genius Rivaldo. You can (in fact you must) read our previous entries here.
Cult Grade: The Outsider
Louis Van Gaal was pissed off. That was nothing new, but it's noteworthy that this rage was totally justified. The 1997-98 season had just begun but the missing piece in his Barcelona team – the one he had asked for – had not been delivered.
The days passed. Barça played Latvian side Skonto Riga in the first leg of their Champions League qualifying tie; the Spanish side won 3-2, without fanfare. Last season's star, the Brazilian Ronaldo, was on his way to Inter Milan; the public became impatient and began looking towards the directors' box.
It was clear that a catalyst – someone with the ability to change everything – was needed. And so the president, Josep Lluís Nuñez, decided to play all his cards at once, lavishing €26 million to match the buyout clause for Deportivo de La Coruña's own Brazilian star: Rivaldo Vítor Borba.
Van Gaal had the missing piece of the puzzle, the player who would lead his new project. Rivaldo's era at Barcelona – and the love-hate relationship between he and his new coach – had begun.
Just minutes after he landed in Barcelona, everyone realised a truth that would mark the evolution of the player and his team: Rivaldo was not a particularly nice guy. He didn't have the magical smile that Ronaldinho would flash in the years to come, nor the freshness of the young Ronaldo, or the eternal calm of Romario.
Rivaldo was not precocious: Rivaldo was all business. Give him the ball and he'd charge his wonderful left foot and send it into the top corner of the goal. Forget about rabonas, elasticas and espaldinhas: the man they called 'Rivo' had no time for decorative stuff. His feints were drier than a desert, his shots harder than granite. The Brazilian was a killing machine with no poetry; Rivaldo was the Terminator.
In the hybrid game that Van Gaal desired for Barcelona, a wonderful 'Latinized' version of his Ajax side, Rivaldo was a complicated fit. On one hand he was clearly the star of the team, its best player and the most decisive one; but on the other, surrounded by so many players with a special love for passing the ball, he seemed an odd piece, like a robot wondering in a botanical garden.
But the invention worked. In his first season, Rivaldo scored 27 goals and led the club to a league and cup double. The team's look and style were not wonderful, and the beginning of the season was particularly difficult – Barça finished last in their Champions League group following two historic whippings against Dynamo Kiev – but they recovered to claim the two domestic titles.
Yet that first season also revealed some of the issues that would muddle Van Gaal's project. This was never a friendly team – how could it be when its manager and star player were anything but? It never gained the fans' hearts and, above all, destiny was not on its side: after winning La Liga and the Copa del Rey in the same year, Real Madrid won the Champions League in Amsterdam to rather overshadow the Catalan victory party.
Van Gaal's Barcelona had to face up to that. Added to their own failure in European competitions, it would prove to be lethal.
Point of Entry: High
The 1998-99 season likely marked Rivaldo's peak at Barcelona (which is incredible given that he was still playing professionally in 2015). His 29 goals in 46 games helped the side retain their La Liga title and he was awarded both the Balon d'Or and FIFA World Player of the Year (then separate awards) for 1999.
And yet, though nobody could have predicted it at the time, this represented the beginning of the end.
Years later, Van Gaal explained that after receiving his award, Rivaldo brought together all the Barça players in a training session. The coach thought that Rivo simply wanted to thank the others for their work and share the prize, but that wasn't the case. Quite the opposite: Rivaldo stated that, since he was the best in the world, he should be able to play wherever he wanted and demanded to move into the central area of the pitch.
Unsurprisingly, the principled and strong-willed Van Gaal flatly refused this imposition, and punished him with a couple of games in the stands. Their relationship was fatally wounded and the team suffered the consequences. Presently, Rivaldo returned to the starting line-up, but nothing would be the same.
This clash of egos resulted in an unexpected winner: Valencia. Los Che, and especially their striker Claudio López, became a thorn in Barça's side. The best example came in the 1999-2000 Champions League semi-final: Valencia won 4-1 at Mestalla to book their spot in the final.
As if this wasn't enough, the Catalan club dropped off at the end of the season and Deportivo, Rivaldo's old team, snatched the La Liga title. It was a harsh end for Van Gaal, who left the club that summer in the midst of a covert revolt against President Nuñez.
After several years of complete mediocrity, Rivaldo finally terminated his contract in the summer of 2002, just after winning the World Cup with Brazil in Korea and Japan. He departed for AC Milan, where he began a long-running retirement tour that later took in Greece, Uzbekistan, Angola, and finally his native Brazil.
If something characterised Rivaldo, it was doing things his own way. He won the Golden Ball, but declined to share his success with anyone; he was instrumental in Brazil's 2002 World Cup win, but the public will forever remember Ronaldo as the architect; he scored hundreds of goals and made countless more, but you always got the feeling that the 10 teammates around him were a kind of hindrance to playing football his way.
Barcelona played AC Milan in the group stages of the 2000-01 Champions League. The game ended in a 3-3 draw, Rivaldo getting the lot, but it was not enough – Barça finished third and crashed out.
That day, Rivaldo deserved more than he ultimately received. This was the case for much of his career, but it was inevitable: there is always a price when you do things your own way.
The Moment: 17 June 2001, making Camp Nou roar
If you follow Spanish football you'll probably know that the post-Van Gaal era was not exactly pretty for Barcelona. For the next three and a half years, until the arrival of president Joan Laporta in the summer of 2003, the club suffered one of its darkest periods on a competitive level.
Barça's sense of decline was heightened by the comparison with Real Madrid: between 1998 and 2003 the great enemy enjoyed years of sustained glory thanks to the Galacticos.
Rivaldo was the club's most potent weapon in el Clásico, which in those dark years seemed the only bright spot of the season. Beating Los Blancos provided a form of compensation, if only a moral one. It was common for Barça to fake a potential injury to Rivaldo just before the matches against Madrid, hoping to gain a psychological edge.
The conclusion to the 2000-01 season exemplified their misery, and Rivaldo's vital importance. Gone from the Champions League in the group stages, fifth in the league, and with an interim coach following the dismissal of Llorenç Serra Ferrer, Barça had to beat Valencia in their final La Liga fixture to seal fourth spot and scrape into the Champions League.
87 minutes into the game, the score was 2-2. Rivaldo had put Barça ahead twice, but Rubén Baraja tied things for Valencia after each. Then Frank de Boer put a ball into the box, where Rivo controlled it, and then...
The roar of the fans in Camp Nou was brutal. The coach, the always-chilled Carles Rexach, could hardly believe what he was seeing. The wild celebrations of Joan Gaspart in the directors box would go down in history.
The club had only managed to qualify for the Champions League, but in the midst of a famine Rivaldo had at least managed to maintain the hopes of Barcelona. And this was priceless.
"One day in training, I saw Rivaldo shooting the ball, turning three-quarters of his body. I tried to tell him that it was easier if he used a more natural movement and didn't turn so much on himself. The next day he scored a goal giving a whole turn, so I decided to let him do as he wished."––Carles Rexach, former footballer and a tolerant coach.