As absurd as it no doubt sounds to Corinthians fans, the uniquely gifted Roberto Rivelino has always been a diehard supporter of arch Sao Paulo rivals Palmeiras, a devotion he shared with the rest of his family.
A futsal player in his formative years, it was as a 16-year-old that Rivelino would first come to prominence. Appearing for Banespa against his beloved Palmeiras in a Sao Paulo state juniors final in 1962, he turned on such a stylish display that a member of the Verdão board called him to offer him a trial.
Rivelino accepted and completed a couple of training sessions before it all turned sour. Turning up for a third time, he was standing with a group of other young hopefuls when coach Mario Travaglini approached them. “Listen lads, you can get changed if you want,” said Travaglini, “but I’m not sure you’re going to be doing any training.”
Convinced of his abilities, particularly with his exceptional left foot, Rivelino angrily declined the offer and stormed out, never to return. Within a few short months he had joined the youth set-up at Corinthians.
One club’s loss became another’s gain. Standing head and shoulders above his fellow young pretenders, the temperamental teenager was a unique talent that required careful nurturing. Recognising this, Corinthians granted Rivelino the opportunity he had been looking for, an opportunity he would seize to become quite possibly the greatest player ever to pull on the Timão jersey.
“Corinthians welcomed me with open arms and gave me the chance to achieve everything I achieved in life,” he would later comment. “It was a second home for me.”
Reaching the pinnacle
The greatest of those achievements would come in the yellow and green of Brazil, most notably at the 1970 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. Prior to that, however, Rivelino had to serve his apprenticeship, and after breaking into national side in 1965, he would have to wait another three years before becoming a familiar face in the squad.
The reason for that was Brazil’s embarrassment of attacking riches at the time. Despite his burgeoning reputation as one of the most accomplished players in the land, the up-and-coming No10 found his path to regular international football blocked by the likes of Tostao, Jairzinho and the peerless Pele.
It was only when Mario Zagallo came in replace Joao Saldanha as Brazil coach just months before Mexico 1970 got under way that Rivelino became an integral part of the side. Changing the formation, Zagallo found a niche for the Corinthians star on the left side of attack, where, sporting the No11 jersey, he linked up to perfection with his no-less talented team-mates.
The displays A Seleção went on to produce in Mexico have been held up as the epitome of footballing perfection. Rivelino made his own special contribution, scoring three goals on Brazil’s triumphant march to their third world title: a thunderous free-kick against Czechoslovakia in their opening game, and pinpoint strikes in the quarter-final meeting with Peru and the semi against Uruguay.
Finally inheriting the fabled No10 shirt from the retiring Pele, Rivelino would play in two more FIFA World Cup finals, leading the team to an ultimately disappointing fourth place at Germany 1974, and making only fleeting appearances under coach Claudio Coutinho as Brazil took third at Argentina 1978.
At club level Rivelino’s status at Corinthians was such that he was dubbed O Reizinho do Parque (The King of the Park), after their home ground Parque Sao Jorge, an allusion to the undisputed king of Brazilian football, Pele.
Despite being an institution at Corinthians, Rivelino was unable to help them win the trophies they craved, earning a place in the club’s annals instead with his amazing dribbling skills and fearsome shooting from distance.
His lengthy spell with Os Alvinegros happened to come in the middle of a 23-year trophy drought, the worst in the club’s history, although they did claim a share of the Rio-Sao Paulo title in 1966 with Botafogo, Santos and Vasco da Gama, the tournament being cut short at the semi-final stage due to scheduling problems.
The one championship the fans really wanted was the Sao Paulo state title, which had last come O Timão’s way in 1954. The closest they would come to it during Rivelino’s watch was in 1974, when their hopes were dashed by a shock 1-0 loss to Palmeiras in the final at the Estadio Morumbi.
Stunned by the defeat, Rivelino returned to the dressing room, picked up his bag and promptly set off for home on foot, keeping his head down as he picked his way through the crowd. Though he did not know it at the time, it would prove to be his final farewell to a club he had grown to love. The fans never forgave him and accused him of being an unlucky charm, a man incapable of leading the team to the titles they yearned for.
“It was the biggest disappointment of my life,” said Rivelino, who even commented at the time that he would gladly swap the world title he helped win at Mexico 1970 for that Paulistão championship. “Obviously that was a crazy thing to come out with, but in the heat of the moment you always end up saying things like that. I don’t know, I think I was somehow destined not to win the championship with Corinthians.”
A man fulfilled
Corinthians promptly sold their fallen idol to Fluminense, a piece of business that paid immediate dividends for O Tricolor Carioca. Making his debut in front of a 100,000 crowd at the Maracana, the new signing scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 friendly win over his old club.
That was only the start. With Rivelino playing a starring role in a classy side that would become known as A Máquina Tricolor, Fluminense won back-to-back Rio de Janeiro championships in 1975 and 1976, the second of those successes coming under Mario Travaglini, the man who had dashed his dream of glory at Palmeiras 14 years earlier.
And when Corinthians broke their trophy curse in 1977 by winning the Sao Paulo championship, a contented Rivelino, following events from Rio, declared he was “happy and relieved” that waiting was over.
Having had their prayers for silverware answered, Corinthians fans could finally put Rivelino’s contribution into perspective and recognise him for the star he undoubtedly was. And though he might not have won the trophies his talent promised, Rivelino’s ability to work miracles with his left foot impressed even the most feted of observers, Diego Maradona among them.
“When I was a kid I used to watch Brazil play,” El Diez once commented. “I wasn’t bothered about what Pele was doing, though. I used to watch out for Rivelino, on the other side of the pitch. He was everything I wanted to be as a player. His dribbling was flawless, his passes perfect and his shots unstoppable. And he did everything with his left foot. It didn’t matter if his right foot was only good to stand on, because there was nothing he couldn’t do with his left. To me it was beautiful.”
That eulogy merely underlines something Rivelino already knew when Palmeiras, the club closest to his heart, turned its back on him: that his was a truly divine left foot.
Born: 1 January 1946 in Sao Paulo
Position: Attacking midfielder
Clubs: Corinthians (1965-74), Fluminense (1974-78), Al Hilal (1978-81)
National team: 92 caps (26 goals)
Rivelino has been attributed with inventing the elástico, although he has always maintained that he learned the dribbling trick from Sergio Echigo, a midfielder of Japanese descent who was a youth-team colleague of his at Corinthians. Riva’s contribution in popularising the move was nevertheless considerable.
Rivelino has had a passion for birds, and finches in particular, since his playing days, and even takes his pets to songbird championships around Brazil.
Rivelino’s fierce long-range shooting at Mexico 1970 earned him the nickname A Patada Atômica (The Atomic Kick).
Rivelino left Fluminense for Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal in 1978 and went on to win three league titles before retiring from the game in 1981.