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Rivaldo, a bright star in Barcelona’s darkness

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Header Image by Christophe Simon / AFP via Getty Images

In his 48th birthday, we relive the career and time at Barcelona of Rivaldo, the genius that was eclipsed by the club’s dark period.


After his early years in his native Brazil, Rivaldo Vítor Borba Ferreira arrived to La Liga in 1996. Like PSV for Romário or Ronaldo Nazário, Deportivo de la Coruña was the intermediate step for the young South American before making the leap to Barcelona. After just one season in the Galician city, on 15 August 1997 – the final day to register players in the Champions League –, Barça paid the release clause of Rivaldo, which stood at around €24 million. It had been the blaugranas‘ manager Bobby Robson who had convinced the board to sign him over Steve McManaman.

The transfer was a hard blow for Dépor, who had already lost their other star Bebeto a year earlier, and it was a moral boost for Barcelona, who managed to put it back together after the traumatic sale of Ronaldo to Inter. So, as the culés had not won a league title since 1994 with Cruyff’s Dream Team, two new individuals arrived in town to instil hope to the fans: Rivaldo as Ronaldo’s replacement, and Louis van Gaal to succeed coach Robson.

With them, the Catalans rose again. In his debut campaign, and partnered by the likes of Pep Guardiola, Figo and Luis Enrique, Rivaldo scored 28 goals to help the team conquer La Liga and Copa del Rey. Despite the domestic double, though, Barça were knocked out of the UEFA Cup in the quarter-finals. The following season, the 1998/99, was supposed to be a special one, as it was the centenary year for the institution. With important signings, like the De Boer brothers, Phillip Cocu or Patrick Kluivert, all Dutch under their countryman Van Gaal, Barcelona achieved an impressive turnaround in La Liga. But, again, the second league trophy in a row was coupled with an early European elimination, in the group stage of the Champions League. Meanwhile, Rivaldo was scoring left, right and centre, with 29 goals in all competitions.

Rivaldo Luis Enrique Phillip Cocu Barcelona

Rivaldo’s shirt celebrations were iconic | Photo by Phil Cole / Allsport via Getty Images

With the collective improvements and the stellar form from the number 10, it looked like a happy story. However, in the third season came the problems. In 1999, Rivaldo won the Ballon d’Or, yet he began running out of goals. There were whistles at the Camp Nou. “It’s very sad to be whistled on the same day that they give you this award. I want to show that I can be an extraordinary player in the centre of the pitch”. But, while his relationship with Van Gaal had always been far from ideal, it now started to deteriorate even more. The Brazilian refused to play on the left wing, as he wanted to be in the centre, in midfield. Nonetheless, Louis was rigid and adamant, and his orthodox positional play didn’t grant its star such freedom. After all, the coach and footballer were both very stubborn men.

Rivo‘s lack of collective sense and sacrifice didn’t fit into such tactically disciplined scheme. Besides, as the team continued to fail in Europe, its successes in Spain stopped too. In 2000, the azulgranas lost La Liga to Deportivo, and Van Gaal left right after it. He was replaced by Serra Ferrer, but, with different managers, Barcelona had five consecutive trophyless campaigns from 1999 to 2005. Even so, with Serra Ferrer and Carles Rexach, Rivaldo managed to solve the group’s dysfunctions with goals and magic. In the last game of the 2000/01 term he produced one of the greatest hat-tricks ever in a 3–2 win over Valencia to qualify Barça for the following Champions League edition. First it was a trademark bending free-kick, then a long shot into the bottom left corner and, in the 89th minute of the match, a bicycle kick that produced an explosion of emotions at the Camp Nou. It was a stroke of genius.

Rivaldo Barcelona Brazil

Rivaldo, during a friendly between Barcelona and the Brazilian national team at the Camp Nou to commemorate the club’s centenary year, in 1999 | Photo by Phil Cole / Allsport via Getty Images

Rivaldo was a player that, if compared to others, could fall short of the top spot, but his brilliance was expressed by what he did on his own, shocking fans with his unbelievable pieces of wizardry. He didn’t have Romário’s touch, Ronaldo’s explosiveness, Ronaldinho’s smile or Neymar’s dribbling. He seemed a sad and melancholic guy, without charisma, and he didn’t change the club’s mood like Dinho did. And, in spite of this, he had everything: skill, creativity, technique, balance, control, agility, subtlety, dribbling, and a sharp goalscoring instinct. He recorded 130 goals during his time at the club, including many of his traditional artistic and efficient goals: strikes from long range, short range, free-kicks, volleys…One of the best and most delicious left feet of his generation.

❛ Van Gaal is the main cause of my departure. I don’t like Van Gaal, and I am sure that he doesn’t like me, either ❜

Rivaldo
in 2002

Notwithstanding, in 2002 the storm returned: Van Gaal was back. The first thing he did was to release Rivo on a free transfer to Milan. Their harmful relationship had reached a climax, and Louis argued that Rivaldo “was only interested in making more money and playing less. He was chosen as the best player in 1999, but he has not handled himself well since then and has not behaved like a footballer should. He had illusions about Barça and was requesting to take holidays when important Champions League games were approaching. He then hides back home in Brazil. He plays for Brazil like we needed him to at Barcelona”. It is true that Rivaldo possibly was the solution and the problem at the same time. Still, his greatness was unfairly overshadowed by one of the club’s darkest eras in recent memory and the later smile of Ronaldinho that would change the fate of the team.

See also

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An all-time Barcelona XI with only one player per country

As someone once said, football is the most important of the least important things in life. Football, though, is a passion lived 24 hours, 7 days a week. My life could not be understood without Barça. Having always lived in Barcelona, the deep love for this club was transmitted to me from before I can remember. With an affection that can be found in my most profound roots, my goal now is to share this admiration with other football enthusiasts.

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Ricardo Zamora: The greatest between the posts

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Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

Guest Author: Amal Ghosh

Ricardo Zamora has a rollercoaster of a footballing career, flooded with controversies. Despite that, he is said to be arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time.


“He is alone, condemned to watch the match from afar. Never leaving the goal, his only company the two posts and the crossbar, he awaits his own execution by firing squad.” Eduardo Galeano perhaps wrote the most melancholic description of a goalkeeper’s life of solitude.

The memoir of a goalkeeper lies between the thin line of glorious feats and eternal damnation. There were not many of them in the yesteryears of world football that we still reminisce. In fact, many of those who survived the rushing cavalries of the opposition attack were shot, shun, or shaded by that one slip or misplaced dive.

At the beginning of the 1900s, when the game was a far cry from the sophisticated version of the present day, the football pitch was a grant arena to celebrate the sparring between the defence and offence. Stars and idols were born and illustrated for the knack to score goals or the flamboyant display on the pitch.

In 1916, a skinny sixteen years old from Barcelona, who had a fortuitous debut for Espanyol against Real Madrid, went on to become the first superstar in the history of Spanish football. Moreover, the first goalkeeper to make a name for his style and to become an inspiration for the generations to come. Ricardo Zamora Martinez was one of the greatest goalkeepers both in the history of FC Barcelona and La Roja. He was the first and finest of his kind and left a gargantuan legacy behind.       

Zamora could do things never seen before. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Born on 14th February 1901 in Barcelona, Zamora grew up and learned his craft in goalkeeping on the backstreets of the Catalan city. What started as a leisure activity in the neighborhood, it maneuvered Zamora’s interest in the game and transformed him into a guardian in between the sticks. Challenging and extreme measures to prevent the opposition from scoring often would end up in frayed clothes and bleeding elbows. His parents were unhappy about his pursuit to become a professional footballer as his father wanted him to inherit his field of medicine.

In 1913, Zamora was sent to attend university, which was a turning point in his life. Along with picking up nicotine addiction, he also joined a local team, Universitari SC, and started playing full-time football.

At the same time, the founder of Barcelona, Joan Gamper (Hans Kamper) was scouting for young and fresh talents across Catalonia to bolster the transitioning Blaugrana outfit. Gamper inadvertently encountered a young Zamora who was delivering a staggering performance in front of the goal. Enthralled by his astounding shot-stopping technique and anticipation along with the aplomb character on the pitch, Gamper encouraged him to pursue professional football. Despite acknowledging his talent, Gamper was unsure about recruiting him due to his age, which would make it difficult for him to serve as an immediate replacement at the club. However, at the age of fifteen in 1916, Zamora signed for the rivals Espanyol and made his debut at sixteen. 

Pere Gibert, the starting goalkeeper for Espanyol was absent and the club approached young Zamora to accompany them on their trip to face Real Madrid. Zamora delivered an impressive performance against a Los Blancos led by Santiago Bernabeu. The match against Madrid announced the teenage sensational in the Spanish football and promised the starting spot ahead of Gibert. He safeguarded the Espanyol goal till 1919 and inspired them to lift the Campionat de Catalunya in 1918.

However, a dispute with one of the Blanquiazul directors resulted in him leaving the club and signing for the cross-town rivals Barcelona. Zamora dawned the garnet and the blue for the first time on 31st May 1919 in a friendly match against an international eleven consisting of players from the allied nations that had succeeded in the First World War (France, Belgium, and England).

The mere friendly match at the old Carrer Industria ground was in fact much more. It was a monumental instance for its symbolic representation of diplomacy and the introduction of two of the greatest players in the history of Blaugrana — Zamora and Josep Samitier. Both the players became the Blaugrana legends and defined the history of both Barcelona and Spanish football.

Zamora (R) captained Spain through a revolution. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

The 1920s witnessed the first footballing revolution in Spain. It was the dormant period for the political insurgencies in Catalonia, where the proletarian uprisings and anti-anarchist movements ceased temporarily. Instead, the populace was witnessing another revolution, the rise of the first golden generation at the Les Cortes. Moreover, it was the inception of the Spanish National Team as a major footballing power in world football. Zamora along with Samitier and Paulinho Alcantara were the three pivots responsible for the transformation of Barcelona in the 1920s. Zamora was selected to represent the Spanish national team in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.

It was the first-ever Spanish team to compete in an international tournament. He made his debut in La Roja’s first international match with a 1-0 victory over Denmark. Though the rampant Spaniards defeated in the final against Belgium, Zamora’s performance throughout the tournament established him as the best shot-stopper in the world.

It was an eventful tournament for Zamora in some other ways as well, who also grabbed some unwanted attention on and off the pitch. He was sent off in the match against Italy for punching and breaking the jaw of an opposing player. Another time, airport customs officials caught him smuggling Havana cigars across the Belgian border which caused the entire team to get detained and searched before leaving for Spain.                                        

At Barcelona, he earned the nickname El Divino (The Divine One) and his road to stardom surviving the assaults from opposition attacks bagged massive applause from the Culés. He possessed an immense threat in anticipation to charge down attackers in his own box and had all the physical attributes that modern-day football demands from a player. Enormous, build stature, and nonchalant character, Zamora wore the iconic high-necked polo jumper and a hard cap and stood in front of the goal to wait for the unleashing thunderbolts and storm. His style was imitated by many of his contemporaries, who could mirror all but that nerve-wracking stare at your soul.

Calm, composed, yet aggressive. (Photo by A. Hudson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

At Barca, he moulded into one of the athletic goalkeepers of the time. His agility and quick reflexes along with the physical superiority often perplexed the attack. Zamora helped Barcelona to lift two Copa del Rey titles and three Campionats de Catalunya. He led a lavish and celebrity life; in fact, he was the first one to explore the scope of marketing the sporting stardom in Spanish football. The Spaniard spent his time with Tango singer Carlos Gardel, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and drowning in his favorite cognac tipple. Zamora and Samitier had famous night outs in the 1920s, at the time when Barcelona was becoming one of the fashionable cities in Europe. There were poems and songs flattering his honor, cocktails were named after him. Zamora even acted in a film called ‘Zamora Weds At Last’.        

Zamora’s three-year-long stint at Barcelona came to an end under some controversial circumstances. It was reported that in June 1922, Zamora allegedly asked the Barca board for a wage of 50,000 pesetas. He wanted a move back to Espanyol and Barca was reluctant to approve of the transfer. Even though he managed to convince them for the transfer; in 1922, a yearlong ban from the association for deceiving the tax authorities about the transfer fee resulted in delaying his return. Zamora stayed at Espanyol until 1930, guiding them to win their maiden Copa del Rey title, and also played the first La Liga season in 1929.

In 1930, Zamora’s performance with a broken sternum in an international friendly against England at Estadio Metropolitano de Madrid was enough for Madrid to pick him up for an astounding 150,000 pesetas, of which he personally received an enormous 40,000 pesetas, making him the highest-earning player in Europe of the time. Zamora’s eventual move to Madrid resulted in a downfall with his once admired Barça fans, who suspected him of having allegiance with anti-Catalan institutions.

At Madrid, Zamora partnered with the stopper-backs Ciriaco and Quincoces to form one of the best defenses by conceding just 15 goals from 18 matches in the league and lifted the first LaLiga title with an unbeaten record. The following season Los Blancos signed his compadre and Barca teammate Samitier and retained the league title by conceding only 17 goals. In spite of the disappointments in the league in 1934 and 1936, he guided them to lift the 1936 Copa del Rey trophy by playing a crucial role in the final against Barcelona. It was inarguably one of the best and crucial performances of his career.

The Cup final tie played at Valencia between Barcelona and Madrid was the last competitive match before the Civil war. The match was going into the final minutes with Madrid leading 2-1 and Barca was pressing high and surrounded Zamora alone in the box. After receiving the ball in the final third, an inform Jose Escola who already scored one back, fired the ball hard and low aiming for the inside post. The dry pitch was covered with blinding dust and it was obscuring the view. The crowd was already screaming and started celebrating the goal. When the dust was cleared, Zamora stood there indifferently holding the ball in his hand. A photograph that was taken near the post, the dive he pulled off seconds before the stupendous save remains one of the iconic images of a goalkeeper in the world of football. A photograph that broke the heart and soul of cules.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936. Zamora who had a sound relationship with the Franco regiment was captured by the left-wing militia and imprisoned at the Modelo prison. However ABC, a pro-nationalistic paper reported the execution of Zamora and finding his lifeless body in a canal-side in Moncloa district. Nationalistic forces used this as an opportunity to strengthen their propaganda.

Zamora hailed as a gallant victim of the radical left violence. Nationalists were able to exploit the commotion caused by the alleged death of Zamora and in 1934 he was awarded a medal of the Order of the Republic by his namesake by then president of the second Spanish republic, Niceto Zamora. Whilst all this was happening, Zamora was in fact living his life with his regular three-pack cigarettes and cognac in the town of Nice in France. He was partnered with Josep Samitier who fled the country for the same cause, for the third time to play for the local club OG Nice.

Always in the public eye. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Zamora returned to his native in December 1938 to participate in a benefit match between Spain and Real Sociedad, for the Francoist militia. He was later honored by the Franco regiment by the Great Cross of the Order of Cisneros in the 1950s, an evident validation for the great services to the regime. Zamora died in 1978, leaving behind a rather complicated and memorable career. La Liga honoured his majestic contributions by naming the award (Ricardo Zamora Trophy) for the best goalkeeper in the league after him. 

“As with so many figures from the dark ages of football, it is difficult to separate the truth from the misty-eyed recollections, but everyone seems to insist that Zamora was the greatest, better than Yashin, Zoff, Banks, Arconada, and any others you care to mention”.    

Phil Ball | Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football (2003)

He remains one of the most important figures in the history of Barcelona and in Spanish football. He might have left on bad terms, but the Blaugrana still adorns the impact and legacy that Zamora left behind. The golden generation of the 1920s was the foundation that established Barça as one of the best sporting entities in Spanish football. His magnetic presence in front of the goal not only won them trophies but inspired the generations of talents to pursue the keeping role. The times when goalkeepers were overlooked for their contributions and presence on the pitch, It was the ‘the divine one’ sent by the heavens to finally write a new testament for those who guard the goal post.   

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