Growing up as the son of a poor family in the Brazilian coastal town of Recife, Rivaldo was no stranger to hunger as a boy. At the age of 16 he lost his father, but despite all the hardships of his early years his talent has allowed him to carve out a successful career in world football. At the age of 27 a dream has come true for him; he has been selected as FIFA World Player 1999.
There's nothing that Rivaldo likes more than a good run upfield, shrugging off any opponents who try to stop him. And this pattern can be said to be true of his life in general too. He has had a long hard road, paved with many difficulties. His career as a forward seemed even until recently to be beset with what looked to be unsurmountable obstacles, but with a great deal of effort, strength of character and strong will he has managed to overcome them. At first sight it might seem that many other players have followed similar routes, but Rivaldo's progress has been particularly dramatic. Even the fact that he was born in Brazil, a country known for producing an unending stream of footballers, has its paradoxical side. The only advantage he had as a boy was the fact that he lived near the beach and could play there and acquire his superb ball skills.
He came into the world in a quarter known as Jardin Paulista near Recife in the state of Pernambuco in the north-east of the country, a long way from the home territory of the other great Brazilian players such as Pele, Romario, Rivelino and Ronaldo. The south of Brazil - an area that is justifiably very proud of its own ability to keep turning out great footballers - seemed unwilling to accept that a player from the north could also rise to stardom, never mind being worthy of wearing the magical number 10. Down there they prefer Ronaldo or even Romario. "If I had been born in Rio or Sao Paolo, it would have been a lot easier for me," says Rivaldo with trace of both sadness and anger in his voice.
For Rivaldo nothing was delivered on a silver plate - he had to work for everything he wanted. A football pitch is still a workplace for him as well as being where he has fun, just as it was 15 years ago on the beach at Recife. His daily routine was selling souvenirs to tourists in the morning and playing football with his friends in the evening. His father Romildo worked in the prefecture in Recife and his mother Marlucia was the heart and soul of the family. With his two older brothers and two younger sisters, Rivaldo suffered poverty and hunger. He did not have much to laugh about; in fact he lost his real teeth due to malnutrition and had to have them replaced with a false set.
He does not like to talk about those times very much; not that he is ashamed of his dentures or his origin but because he does not want to be reminded of those dreadfully hard times. "Anyone who has not experienced life as far down as I have will never be able to understand it," he attempts to explain. The moment in the day that did make him happy was when the beach guests gathered their towels and went back to their hotels. Then he could put on his shorts, grab a ball and for a while leave it all behind. The beach belonged to him; he was Zico, the star from the south, dazzling the crowds in the Maracana Stadium. His strong legs, reminiscent of those of Garrincha in also being a bit crooked, continued to develop as did his body swerve. His dreams started to develop too. "I never really thought I could be that good. When I was 10 years old, I saw Zico on television, and I never thought I could achieve what he had, especially since I came from the north-east," he admits quite frankly.
A hard blow from fate
The only one who believed in the young Rivaldo was his father; he and his son were inseparable. The goal-scorer recalls: "He always said to us that one of the three brothers would be a professional footballer." And in Brazil, becoming a professional player in the first division is the only way to escape from poverty. Romildo was one father among many who believed that one of his sons would make the breakthrough.
But at the age of 16, Rivaldo was dealt a cruel blow, the only stroke of misfortune that he was unable to do anything about. His father was killed in a car crash. This was the worst moment in Rivaldo's life, and also the most pivotal in terms of his future. He wanted to give up football and did not kick a ball for a whole month. "You can't give up now. You must make your father's dream come true," his mother begged him.
Fortunately Rivaldo listened to her words and got back on the track towards stardom. "My father never left my side; on the street, on the beach, he was always with me. He helped me on the road to becoming a professional, and now I play just for him."
The details of the life of a Brazilian football star appear in the local press because everyone wants to know about the man behind the public figure, and such details in this case reveal anything but a fairy story. "It has taken a lot to get this far," Rivaldo notes sadly. But he is also proud when he looks back on the many evenings when he had to walk 15 kilometres to attend a training session because he did not have enough money for the bus fare.
Thinking about his past is painful for Rivaldo, but questions about his title of World Player of the Year are not. This has been an ambition that he has had in mind as if it were the only way to pay tribute to his father. As if he owed it to Romildo. That's what he has fought for, that's what he has suffered for.
For example he suffered when his name was not even on the list for the World Player of the Year 1998. So he did not even attend the gala in Barcelona that time. Too often he has been overlooked and valued at less than his true worth, but today he is regarded as the best.
"When I was playing in Santa Cruz or Mogi Mirim, they told me I was not the best. Nobody believed in me. The others would always be the top stars. But I did not let that get me down," he says. Of those other "stars" no-one has ever heard.
So Rivaldo battled on; playing for Corinthians or for Palmeiras he earned the adoration of the fans. Yet he suspected that the Brazilian press blamed him for the country's elimination from the Olympic tournament in 1996 and traced it back to his origins. Loss of the ball in midfield - Nigeria equalise, get the decisive goal - Rivaldo becomes the scapegoat, and is not selected by Zagallo any more. But he had one compensation; the fans at Deportivo La Coruña loved him, at his first European club, and there he felt like a true number 1 for a short time.
An atypical Brazilian
From the purely sporting angle he became famous when he was signed by Barcelona in the summer of 1997. Ronaldo was still the name on everybody's lips there, but the club decided to buy another Brazilian and paid Deportivo the horrendous transfer fee of 4000 million pesetas (about USD 26 million). But he proved to be more than worth the money.
Barcelona had already had experience with Brazilians. With them you never know what you are getting, that was the general opinion. They are brilliant players but can also have their faults. They are different. Rivaldo would be too: "When I came to Spain, people thought I would fly home again after the holidays, stay up all night celebrating and would have no discipline. That may be true of other players, but it's not my way. You don't see me with glamorous women as I leave. I prefer to be with my family. Now they all know who Rivaldo is and that I fulfil my commitments."
Rivaldo was right; his problems have been elsewhere. He is open, direct and emotional, not one who conceals what he thinks. In the changing room he once said to coach Luis Van Gaal that he no longer wanted to play on the left wing. Since his career had been anything but an easy route he and he had suffered a lot on the way, he felt that he had the right to make some demands. But he overdid the tone and was punished by the coach.
Respected not idolised
Rivaldo is not a simple footballer. The spectators in Barcelona loved players like Neeskens, Simonsen or Krankl, brilliant players all, but not of the calibre of the Brazilian. However Rivaldo has not managed to capture the hearts of the fans. They respect him as a player but do not idolise him as a world star deserves. Perhaps because he does not deliver what the public wants to hear - platitudes, superficial remarks, false laughter - that can be reported in the tabloid press.
It is difficult to learn more from Rivaldo. Details of his life are not easy to obtain, with the exception of pictures of his Ferrari, and even then he does not like to be photographed with the car. He prefers to issue his photos to aid charitable causes, such as collecting spectacles for children in Brazil, or to assist in the foundation of a charity that bears his name and to which he donates part of his wages in order to be able to help children in his homeland and in Barcelona: "Many people still live in poverty, but thanks to my present position, my name and my reputation I can hold out a helping hand towards them."
Rivaldo is a home person, happiest with his family, with whom he spends most of his free time - his wife Rose and his sons Rivaldinho and Thamyris. He leaves the spotlight to his son Rivaldinho - an appealing youngster who has appeared in a number of TV commercials in Spain and is already a star - and does his best to avoid interviews himself. "A man without a family has nothing from life. I need my family in order to enjoy life when things are going well. And when things are not going well, they give me support," he says.
So that is Rivaldo, a 27-year old child, who escaped the poverty of Recife and is on the way to writing his own chapter in the book of football history. He still likes the beach; he can see it and the sea from his luxury apartment.
"My dream is to be FIFA World Player of the Year," he said over and over again during the last few months. His dream has finally come true.