Long-legged Brazilian star Rivaldo has won every major soccer championship since he began playing professionally at 19: the Champions League, Cup America, Confederations Cup, the World Cup and a Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player in 1999.
Retiring last year at 41 years-old, Rivaldo says he has no regrets. But one knotty memory has stuck in his brain from his times with Barcelona, where he lived through a tense relationship with then-coach Louis Van Gaal. The Brazilian star remembers the moment he felt Van Gaal, now the manager of Manchester United, deprived him of the opportunity to be the Blaugranas’ great playmaker.
The story went down like this: fifteen years ago, Rivaldo won the Ballon d’Or. He was at the top of his game, and approached Van Gaal about switching things up, telling him: “I don’t want to play on the left anymore. I want to play behind the strikers.” According Boudewijn Zenden, another player on the team, the Dutch coach answered “Right. That’s your decision,” and then proceeded to send Rivaldo to the bench. In Van Gaal’s regime, only the manager could decide player positions.
We sat down with Rivaldo to talk about his controversial relationship with Van Gaal, the state of play of the Brazilian national team, and his epic goal against Valencia.
Some Barcelona fans fondly remember your times at Camp Nou. We still wonder, what would have happened if Rivaldo had been a playmaker and not on the right side?
These things happen in soccer. Van Gaal is a pretty good coach, but I’m Brazilian and I like to do different things on the pitch. At that time I didn’t like him. He sent me to the right side of the field, and I prefer to play behind the strikers in the middle, so I’d end up playing as a midfielder regardless. He disapproved. One day I confronted him and I told him I don’t like to play on the side.
How did Van Gaals approach telling you you wouldn’t be on the pitch as a playmaker?
To be honest, he told me “You have a nice touch to center the ball and you make a lot of assists.” He always insisted that I’m a right side player, not a midfielder, because I lost a lot of balls. Anyway after Van Gaal, I played many games midfield and became a very good player. No hard feelings.
Do you think there are similarities between that situation and Falcao’s experience with Van Gaal as coach of Manchester United? He relegated Falcao to the bench. Did you find it difficult dealing with him?
I don’t know what he’s like now, whether he’s difficult or not. Every situation is different. All coaches watch their players and then try to get the best out of them. I don’t think he did what he did to me because he thought I didn’t like him. [After all], he’s the one that brought me from Deportivo La Coruna to Barcelona FC. These things happen in “futebol” – there’s always fights between players and coaches.
What happened with Brazil? Where did the jogo bonito go?
Since losing to Germany in the World Cup, it has been a difficult time for Brazil. The way we lost was traumatic. We need to change everything up, because the most important thing in Brazil is the World Cup and soccer. We’ll have to wait until 2018 to see if our work yields results. Normally, Brazil is always at the top of the FIFA rankings, and right now we’re not even in the top five.
Your most beautiful goal was a bicycle kick against Valencia in 2001. Can you recount that memory for us?
It was the last La Liga game season (2000-2001), and we needed a win to qualify for the Champions League the following year. It was the last minute of the second half and I just did a bicycle kick to make the goal. The next year we were playing in the Champions League thanks to my goals. [He scored a “hat trick” that night].