Name: Roberto Rivellino
Born: January 1, 1946, Aclimacao, Sao Paulo
First Professional Club: Corinthians
Rivellino – The Boy From Brooklin
Rivellino was born in the Sao Paulo suburb of Aclimaçao on New Year’s Day, 1946 but grew up in the neighbouring district of Brooklin Paulistana.
In the 1950s, Sao Paulo was still a city of open spaces. As a kid Rivellino played his pelada at Ponte do Morumbi, an open area of full-sized pitches on the site of what is today Brazil’s second-biggest stadium, the vast, bowled, 150,000 capacity Morumbi stadium. ‘Those fields do not exist any more. Today I have this school because there is no space,’ he says, standing on one of the astroturf pitches at his academy in Sao Paulo.
It was at Ponte do Morumbi and on the pitches of the nearby Clube Atletico Indiano that Rivellino realized the ferocious power he could generate with his shooting. ‘I was born with that ability. I always hit the ball very strongly, it was something that God gave me,’ he says. One day one of his thunderbolts hit a school friend. ‘He was a kid who didn’t like to play that much,’ he recalls. The shot was so powerful it knocked the boy out. ‘He was unconscious for three days. My friends tortured me: “You have killed the guy”, “You will be arrested”. I cried,’ he admits.
He would not keep the habit for long, but Rivellino said prayers for his first footballing victim. He admits his devotion to the Catholic Church, where he was a coroinha, an altar boy, had less to do with faith than the free cinema tickets his priests used to bribe boys like him with.
‘If you went to Mass you won a ticket to see the serial the following Sunday. It was a beautiful childhood, I was a child of the streets in a good sense.’
It was away from the streets, within the confines of the five-a-side-style futebol de salao courts that Rivellino’s talent was spotted. When overseas coaches come to Brazil in search of the source of its natural born footballing skills, futebol de salao is invariably at the heart of the thesis they return home with. Played, usually indoors, on a hard pitch the size of a basketball court and with a ball that is smaller and heavier than normal, the game polishes the skills learned in the peladas. Players learn to think and act faster in the tight spaces. Control and technique are improved by the fact that the ball rarely leaves the floor. By the time the good salao player graduates to the full-size version, he should have a clear advantage.
Rivellino played for a city bank, BANESPA, where he quickly became a star of Sao Paulo’s futebol de salao league. As a boy with Italian blood in his family he was inevitably a Palmeirense, a supporter of the green and whites of Palmeiras, the club founded by Italian immigrants in the early decades of the century. When he shone against his boyhood favourites, in the final of a tournament, he could barely believe that the club’s coach, Mario Cavalini, invited him to join his training sessions. ‘We won and I played very well. I was fifteen,’ he says.
Cavalini was not the only one whose interests were aroused that fateful afternoon. Until then Roberto’s father Nicolino had been a rare spectator at his son’s games. In his day football was a third-class profession. ‘I was beaten for playing,’ he says. ‘I was invited several times to go to a big club, but my salary at the telephone company where I worked was higher.’ When he heard Roberto was a keen player he intervened.
Nicolino ran the Rivellino house with iron discipline. As a boy the talkative Roberto had the nickname curio, the name of a particularly loud songbird. On the streets Nicolino was happy to let him fly free. ‘A boy must be a moleque, he must play football in the streets, he must break windows,’ he smiles. But at home his word was absolute. ‘I cut his wings a lot,’ says Nicolino. ‘He was beaten a lot with a belt, as was his brother. I wanted their understanding, I wanted them to be good people, to see what life is like.’
When he saw the gifts his son had developed – and the money now available in the game – he became his son’s first unofficial manager. Roberto was happy to have his father take the reins. ‘He saw a lot of qualities in me so he motivated me very much,’ he says.
Word of Rivellino’s talent had spread to Palmeiras’ greatest rivals in Sao Paulo, Corinthians Paulista. When they made a more lucrative offer, Nicolino recommended Roberto follow his head rather than his heart. Roberto went on to wear the white and black of Corinthians Paulista for more than a decade.
Rivellino’s heroes were Didi, Chineisinho, the star of the Palmeiras side, and Jair da Rosa Pinto, a reserve in the Brazil squad of 1962 and a master of the dead ball situation at Portuguesa. Rivellino would spend hour after hour trying to replicate Jair’s lethal armoury of bater falta, free kicks.
His rise through the game in Sao Paulo was rapid. He was far from a one-trick pony. As well as his shooting skills he possessed a flair for Garrincha-like dribbling. Like the Joy of the People he revelled in handing out the humiliations his sleight of foot could inflict on defenders. Like his grandfather and father, he was also a fighter. His high-octane style soon made him a darling of the Corinthian crowds.
By 1965 he had been drafted into one of Feola’s squads preparing for England. He sat on the bench during the 5–0 thrashing of Hungary by a predominantly Paulista team at Morumbi. He would have to wait until after the disaster of Brazil’s disastrous 1966 World Cup campaign to win the first of his record 121 caps, however.
Watch Rivellino score against Czechoslovakia in Mexico 1970.