At 38 years of age, iconic Brazilian attacking midfielder Rivaldo must have thought his stellar career was nearing its conclusion when he rejoined Brazilian minnows Mogi Mirim in late 2010. Yet in a dramatic turnaround, domestic heavyweights Sao Paulo subsequently swooped to sign the player on loan and the ex-Seleção superstar is back hitting the headlines once more.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the legendary No10 touched on a vast range of issues including staying fit as a veteran, gala displays in the European game, winning and losing in FIFA World Cup™ Finals and enjoying mutual respect with Zinedine Zidane.
FIFA.com: How does it feel to be back in Brazilian football after so long away?
Rivaldo: It’s been great so far. Of course there are still a few things I’ve got to get used to again after 14 years abroad, such as split training sessions and spending more time in hotels before matches. As far as Sao Paulo are concerned, I’ve never played for a club as well-structured as this. You can’t fail to train well: it’s paradise.
What’ll be your biggest challenge this season?
Everything in life is a challenge, but the size of the challenge is much greater for me because of my age. People look at you differently and they question whether you can play a full 90 minutes. Every player gets tired. Of course I’m not superhuman: I’m going to get tired, that’s normal. But after 15, 20 minutes of the second half everyone starts looking at me. Sometimes in games you get substituted for normal, tactical reasons, but when it happens to me people say it’s because I was tired, and that’s not always the case. I take part in every training session, morning and afternoon, to make sure I’m fit enough. If you can train with the rest of the squad, then you’re able to play 90 minutes. I don’t get any extra rest because I’m 38. People have that preconception (about older players) and it gets a bit annoying.
What kind of treatment can you expect from opposing players? We saw how Ronaldo endured some rugged tackling after he returned to Brazil, so has it been the same for you thus far?
People want to swap shirts with me, and there are players who tell me I was the best player at the (2002) World Cup and that really gives you a boost out on the pitch. But you’re out there, in the middle of all that chaos, so you just thank them then you’re off again. There’s not enough time to chat, is there? It’s really cool though. Sometimes you’ll get a player who’s marking you tightly and he’ll even apologise and say: ‘My coach told me to stick close to you and mark you. I know you’re a great player.’ But I tell him it’s fine, and to do what he has to do.
I’ve never played for a club as well-structured as this. You can’t fail to train well: it’s paradise.
You’ve always preferred to keep a low profile in public. Has it been hard to cope with all the fuss since your return?
I’m managing it ok. I’m a quiet, shy person and not someone who likes the limelight. I enjoy my job and I’m happy to do interviews, but I prefer them one-on-one like this. But I’m even getting the knack of doing press conferences: I’ve been called upon to do a few and everything’s gone ok! (laughs) I think that being the President of Mogi Mirim helped me, because I had to be a spokesperson for the club. But I don’t really like being on TV. I don’t want to rely on what people say about me to feel good: playing’s what I really enjoy.
When you were starting out at Santa Cruz back in 1991, did you ever imagine you’d enjoy such a stellar career?
I don’t think you can ever imagine that. When I was an amateur player at Santa Cruz, my dream was to sign professional forms at the club. But even though I played a lot of games for the Santa first team, I didn’t get a contract until I joined Mogi Mirim. I was at Mogi for a year and four months and suddenly possibilities started to open up for me. I went to Corinthians which was scary at first, but after a while I got used to it. It was there that I began to realise that I could go a long way, even further than the likes of Corinthians or Palmeiras. [Deportivo] La Coruna then came in for me, I went over there, took a few games to settle and realised I could aim even higher still. In 1996 I was rated as one of the best foreign players in Spain, after Ronaldo. I scored 21 goals and Ronaldo got 34 for Barcelona. I stayed there (with Depor) for just a year before I replaced him (at Barça). That put a lot of pressure on me but I always said that ‘Ronaldo is Ronaldo and Rivaldo is Rivaldo. You’ll have to take me as I am.’ I wasn’t a striker, I’m a midfielder – that’s why he scored 34 goals and I got 21. Things gradually started to go well for me, the goals flowed and I realised I was capable of becoming a fans’ favourite at Barcelona and could even become the best player in the world. Things were falling into place.
Was there a particular moment you feel kick-started your career?
My life changed, in terms of becoming famous, when I scored that goal (for Mogi Mirim) from the centre circle straight from kick-off against Noroeste. If I’m not mistaken, it was on 18 April 1993. My name was in all the papers the next day, talking about the kind of goal that even Pele had never scored. I wasn’t even 21 yet and I was being compared to Pele. Football’s about the little things sometimes, and that little thing changed my life. It’s what began opening doors for me.
What do you think is the best performance you’ve ever put in?
Can I mention several? The 3-1 first-leg win with Palmeiras against Corinthians in the final of the 1994 Brazilian championship. The game against Valencia in 2001 when I scored a hat-trick, one of which was an overhead kick. There was also that game for Barcelona against AC Milan in the San Siro (in the 2000/01 UEFA Champions League), when I scored all our goals in a 3-3 draw. And then you have the World Cup Final (in 2002), when I was involved in both Ronaldo’s goals. He scored the goals, but you can still see me on the TV replays! (laughs)
On the suject of the 2002 Seleção, how do you think that squad managed to perform so well despite the criticism dished out by the Brazilian media prior to the tournament?
We made hard work of qualifying, and only made sure in our final game against Venezuela. The qualifying phase was a difficult period for me, because in Ronaldo’s absence all eyes were on me. There was that game against Colombia at the Morumbi stadium (in Sao Paulo in November 2000), which we won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Roque Junior right at the end. We got booed, we got some stick. But then we had a get-together outside Brazil, the squad grew more united and the results started to come. Our confidence increased and when the lads took the field there was a good, relaxed vibe between us.
After the disappointment of defeat in the Final of France 1998, the sense of joy at winning in Korea/Japan 2002 must have been incredible.
There’s always talk about squad unity when you win the title, but we were a united squad in 1998 under [Mario] Zagallo too, even though we lost the Final. The lads were relaxed, but at the end of the day everything hung on that one game, and we lost to France. I’m not even going to talk about what happened to Ronaldo, because there are a lot of people from that Seleção who use that as an excuse: they say things would have been different. But I’m of the opinion that, even if he’d been 100 per cent, we’d have still lost because we played badly. I knew what had happened beforehand as I’d been to Ronaldo’s room to see him, but once you get out on the pitch you forget about all that. If we had won, everybody would have said how we’d overcome adversity, but because we lost everyone’s focus turned to that incident. Personally I felt fine as I took the pitch, just like any other game. France put in their best display of that World Cup and Zidane scored two goals from set pieces, which killed us off. And of course we were playing on their home patch, with them charging around at 200km per hour. I’d like to see how any other national side would cope if they were losing 1-0 against Brazil in the 2014 Final, for example. That was France’s big chance, but I don’t think even they expected to be 2-0 up in the first half after two set-piece goals. It was the worst defeat (I experienced). It was really sad, particularly with the amount of rumours and nonsense that were flying around afterwards. It got to the point where even my mum asked me if we’d been offered something to lose that game. But people don’t realise just how much it hurts to lose a final. We travelled ten, 12 hours to get to Brasilia and, though none of the players wanted to, we were forced to go there by the President of the Republic. Second place is nothing in Brazil. People were booing us, swearing at us, and only two or three were clapping. In other countries it’s a different story, but when it comes to Brazil and World Cups, only winning counts.
That said, on the back of that FIFA World Cup you went on to enjoy one of the finest periods of your career, which ended in winning the 1999 FIFA World Player award.
I was a good age, around 26 or 27 years old, an age when players are at their peak and when everybody respects you. When you get onto the ball, people think three or four times before deciding whether to try and tackle you. Your opponents respect you and your markers give you a couple of metres of space. I still remember the games I played later on against Real Madrid, after Zidane had signed for them. He’d get on the ball and I’d just shadow him, and he’d do the same with me. When I had the ball, I could sense that he was showing me respect – you could feel that it was mutual. You might end up being embarrassed, as you're dealing with a Zidane or a Rivaldo, and you can't let that happen. It’s better to let them control the ball, look around and pass it to someone else.