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Sad shame Rivaldo best known for fakery

World Cup antics overshadow brilliant career

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There are two images that stand out from Rivaldo's near quarter century as a professional footballer.

The first is the attacker upside-down in mid air -- executing a spectacular bicycle kick that completed his hat-trick in Barcelona's 3-2 win over Valencia on the final day of the 2000-01 season.

It was a treble that secured Champions League football for the Camp Nou outfit, and it capped off a remarkable campaign in which the then-29-year-old amassed 36 goals in all competitions.

The second, captured just over a year later, is Rivaldo clutching his face -- feigning injury during a World Cup group stage match and conning the referee into ejecting Turkish wingback Hakan Unsal, who had merely kicked the ball toward the Brazilian at the corner flag.

Still regarded as the most famous piece of play-acting in football history, it is this moment, this picture of Rivaldo, that still defines the man -- one of the sport's most thrilling performers -- as he enters a much-deserved retirement at the age of 41.

And that's a shame.

"It is arguable," wrote Rob Smyth in The Guardian back in 2008, "that if you took everyone playing at the absolute peak of their game, Rivaldo was the best and most unstoppable footballer since Maradona."

He certainly had the physical attributes of a rare superstar.

Tall, broad and bow-legged, his close control on the dribble was extraordinary, and his cultured left foot could deliver powerful drives, inch-perfect passes or delicate flicks and layoffs as the situation required.

And his bullish determination -- willpower mixed with fury -- made him more than a match for the vast majority of defenders he faced while at the height of his powers.

Indeed, at the turn of the century there was no better player in the world -- the 1999 Ballon d'Or merely underlining the obvious.

But even then, with the infamy Ulsan still three years off, Rivaldo was very much unloved.

Vilified in his home country for a misplaced pass that led to Brazil's elimination from the 1996 Olympic Games, he became the focal point of the public's frustration during the difficult 2002 World Cup qualification campaign, in which it was said his best performances were saved for Barcelona.

The abuse came to head in November 2000, when shouts of "Rivaldo -- you're useless!" rained down on him from the stands at the Morumbi.

"They booed me and treated me so badly that night," he later recalled. "I don't remember being so miserable at the end of a game."

Spurred on by the criticism, Rivaldo scored three goals in Brazil's remaining matches -- more than any of his teammates.

But even those displays -- nevermind an outstanding World Cup in which he tallied five times, put Belgium to the sword, equalized against England and helped his side to a 2-0 win over Germany in the final -- failed to earn him the plaudits reserved for Ronaldo, who was largely credited with Brazil's fifth championship.

Even the praise of manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who heralded Rivaldo as "the best player in the World Cup," seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Sixteen months later Rivaldo played his final match for the national team, after which he went on a footballing roadshow that took him to Greece, Uzbekistan and Angola before a return to Brazil that included a stint with his son at boyhood club Mogi Mirim.

It was at Mogi in April 1993, on the day before he turned 21, that he had made headlines with a daring shot straight from kickoff that found the back of the net against Noroeste. A final, definitive image, and maybe the most appropriate.

Here was a player afraid of nothing -- at once audacious, inspired and creative; a player who simply loved playing, and who would do so until his peers had long since hung up their boots.

"Among trophies, medals, awards and titles," he stated upon retiring last weekend, "in a land where everything is consumed, here I leave a story."

Tragically, it's a story that has yet to be appreciated.

But somewhere down the road, at that place where retrospect becomes a gift, perhaps history will remember Rivaldo for what he truly was: One of the greatest players in football history.

jerradpeters@gmail.com Twitter@JerradPeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 C11

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