False dawns and quiet frustration: The story of Rivaldo at AC Milan

It is the summer of 2000 and the height of Serie A’s spending power. Inter have just signed the much sought after Spanish midfielder Javier Farinós from Spanish side Villarreal. It was a huge deal, not only in terms of money but the fact that Inter had beaten rivals AC Milan to his signature. The Rossoneri had to act and their fans knew it.

200 hundred ultras descended on Milan’s headquarters on Via Turati to get answers. A few days later their calls were answered by President Silvio Berlusconi from his villa in Arcore. “Don’t worry,” he responded, “we will get Rivaldo”.

Months later, after Berlusconi had tried in vain to do, in his own words, “the impossible” and buy Rivaldo, the Brazilian came to San Siro with Barcelona and delivered a performance for the ages. Rivaldo scored two free kicks, the first a stroke of genius as he deceived the Rossoneri players by waiting for them to jump and then sliding the ball underneath the wall. A late equaliser from the Brazilian denied Milan what would have been a historic double over the Catlan’s in the group stages of the Champions League. Milan coach Alberto Zaccheroni lamented the problems Rivaldo caused his side whilst Berlusconi simply called him wonderful.

In the following spring, the biggest 20 clubs in Europe were after Rivaldo, apart from Real Madrid who already had Luis Figo. Roma, Inter, Juventus and Lazio completed the five Serie A outfits hoping for the Brazilian’s signature.

The talented frontman had moved to Europe in August 1996 to join Deportivo La Coruna and then secured a lucrative transfer to Barcelona the following year. He claimed the World Player of the Year award in 1999 as well as the European Player of the Year, confirming his status as one of the best forwards of his generation.

Milan made a huge offer for Rivaldo, but it was turned down. Barcelona had been scarred by the Figo deal which had seen their previous prize possession leave to arch rivals Real Madrid. The Brazilian though kept performing, scoring 36 goals in the 2001/02 season in a below par Barca side.

Heading into the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, Rivaldo’s Brazil were firm favourites along with Italy and France. Despite his comical antics against Turkey in the group stage, Rivaldo starred. Alongside Ronaldo and youngster Ronaldinho, the forward trio swept aside all that came before them.

Only Ronaldo scored more than Rivaldo’s five goals in the tournament, but that does not tell the whole story. Rivaldo was often selfless, particularly for Ronaldo in the final. Playing just off the main striker, he was given a license to create and it suited him perfectly. On top of the world, it seemed that Rivaldo was at the peak of his power. But things quickly unravelled.

As he returned to Barcelona, he was met by a familiar face. Louis Van Gaal had left the Nou Camp after three seasons, the first two as champions with a young Rivaldo at the core of his side. But with Real Madrid winning two Champions League titles in three seasons, Barcelona needed to react and turned to a man they trusted, even though the Dutchman endured a terrible time as the Netherlands coach, taking them from a third-place finish in 1998 to failing to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

In his first spell, Van Gaal had shipped Rivaldo out to the left, something Rivaldo had not forgotten. This spelled the end for the Brazilian’s time in Catalonia and Rivaldo himself cited the Dutch coach’s return to Spain as his reason for leaving.

But there were other factors at play. Rivaldo never really won the fans over at the Nou Camp. Despite his impressive goal return, the Barca faithful accused him of saving his best performances for Brazil. Barcelona had also just signed a young Juan Roman Riquelme putting pressure on their non-EU quota, as well as Gaizka Mendieta from Lazio. Rivaldo was being forced out as much as he was trying to get away.

An agreement was made to rescind his contract and Milan swooped in. Many clubs were put off by his wage demands, but Berlusconi was adamant the Rossoneri would finally get their man. People at the time had no real idea, but Rivaldo was on the decline.

silvio berlusconi trophy

Silvio Berlusconi: AC Milan’s Great Conductor

He was 30-years-old and having played so often for his club and country, he had suffered numerous knee injuries over the course of his career. This hampered his speed and vibrant style of play. Rivaldo would also go through a tough time while in Milan.

Half way through his debut season, he separated from his wife and was, for the first time, away from his children. Rivaldo was used to such tough times. When he received his Ballon D’Or he dedicated it to his father, who had been his mentor and who had tragically died in a traffic accident. A slow start at San Siro was understandable.

A first goal and good performance came at home to Udinese. He scored the only goal of the game and looked to have turned a corner. But it was just one of several false dawns during his time at the Rossoneri.

Milan ended the year as winter champions. But this had little to do with the Brazilian’s flair and more to do with the Italian core in the side, which included Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso and Filippo Inzaghi. Rivaldo made no mark in the Champions League group stage either, which was a particular disappointment given the fact that he had been signed to help break Milan’s nine year wait for Europe’s top prize.

In the second half of the campaign, Rivaldo continued to struggle. Despite scoring the winner in Moscow against Lokomotiv and a consolation at the Bernabeu in the second group stage, it was not enough for Rivaldo to win over coach Carlo Ancelotti or the Rossoneri faithful. The Brazilian was effectively dropped to the Coppa Italia side.

At the time, Andriy Shevchenko was Milan’s main front man. Everything went through the Ukrainian. Rivaldo struggled to form a partnership with him or Inzaghi. In a packed midfield, with the likes of Pirlo and Rui Costa conducting the play, Rivaldo struggled to carve out a place in the side and despite the admiration of Berlusconi, he spent most games starting on the bench.

Rivaldo’s best moment in a Red and Black shirt came in the Coppa Italia final,  where he demonstrated the big game mentality that had attracted Berlusconi in the first place. Milan beat Roma 4-1 in the first leg at the Olimpico, but two early goals from Francesco Totti in the return tie had turned the tide. The Rossoneri had to respond.

Rivaldo headed home from close range with just 20 minutes left to seal the trophy. But there was no celebration from the Brazilian, only an act of frustration as he volleyed the ball back into the net after already scoring. As his teammates swamped him, Rivaldo remained unmoved, quietly exasperated at how his season had panned out.

Ironically, Milan actually went on to break their nine year wait for a Champions League win with Rivaldo still amidst their ranks. A first all Italian Champions League final was decided by a penalty shootout after a tense 0-0 between Milan and Juventus at Old Trafford. Shevchenko scored the decisive penalty, but Rivaldo could only look on as an unused substitute.

Once again the Brazilian was facing a summer of uncertainty at a club where he was not really wanted. He played 15 minutes in the European Super Cup but soon after his time in Milan came to an end. This 15 minute appearance proved crucial as this also meant he could not play in Europe in the upcoming season. Rivaldo was left humiliated and returned to Brazil to join Cruzeiro on loan.

Just 22 Serie A appearances and five goals told its own story. Funnily enough, despite the fact Rivaldo had failed to live up to expectations in terms of performance, his Milan career did deliver in terms of silverware, as he added the Champions League and Coppa Italia to an already decorated list of honours. Ultimately though, his spell in Lombardy is regarded as a huge disappointment. This was the last time the Brazilian played for a European super club. Until the end of his career, he became a nomad, spending brief spells at far flung clubs across the globe, an ending hardly befitting of one of the most naturally talented Brazilians of his generation.

When Rivaldo signed for Milan, Adriano Galliani proclaimed him to be one of the best players in the world. It was seen as the signing of the summer, a former world player of the year on a free should have been a steal. But instead his time in Italy left a feeling of unfulfillment.

Poor performances and off field issues ensured Milan’s €5 million overlay on Rivaldo’s wages was seen as a waste and his stay in Serie A was short-lived. But as one Brazilian departed in obscurity, another arrived to capture the imagination of Milanisti. A young baby faced star by the name of Kaka started the first games of the 2003/04 season and within weeks, he had endeared himself to fans at the San Siro in a way that Rivaldo never managed.

Words by Richard Hinman: @richardhinman