A silky dribbler with a mighty left foot, Roberto Rivellino became a football legend playing for Corinthians, Fluminense and the Brazil national team. He was a member of three World Cup squads, including the magical team that in 1970 became world champions in Mexico.  

Born on 1 January 1946 in São Paolo, ‘Riva’ spends his days at his estate some 70km away from the madness of the Brazilian metropolis. He owns a lovely villa with a five-a-side pitch and pool surrounded by a sea of green. His black locks are gone, but he still has his trademark moustache – albeit it is now grey.

Casually dressed in flip-flops and shorts, he leads me to a semi-open leisure area complete with barbecue, bar and pool table. On the walls hang images of his glory days as a player and a shirt signed by Maradona who idolised him as a child. Other than football, his passion is songbirds. He has more than a dozen, which fill the air with their music. 

Roberto, how did it all start for you? 

I have a photo of me kicking a ball when I was about three years old. My mum took it. The funny thing is the way I kick the ball in that photo is the same as I kicked it as a grown-up. Same style. Same kind of movement. I don’t know how to explain. It’s a God-given talent, I guess. As a kid I was always playing on the street. But I also played for two clubs: Banespa, where I played futsal and Indiano, a small club in the south of São Paolo, where I played campo [football]. Life was very different in those days. I just loved playing and never thought about being a professional player. Things just happened naturally. Today, you have parents convinced their three-year-old is the next Ronaldo. 

You always played both indoor and outdoor? 

Always. I used to like outdoor more than indoor, but playing indoor was very important to me, as it gave me close ball control and taught me to think rapidly. Indoor football is so much more dynamic. 

How did you turn professional?

One day a director of Palmeiras saw me play indoor and asked me if I played outdoor as well. There is still this misconception that someone who plays well indoor doesn’t play well outdoor. I remember my dad being around that day. My dad loved me playing, but he didn’t run after me all day. He let me be. He was very proud. And so was I. I’ve never denied I supported Palmeiras at the time. How could I not? My whole family is Italian! 

I was 16 and came to train under Mário Travaglini, who later would become my coach at Fluminense, but who was then in charge of the Palmeiras youth. Having trained twice, I started doing tricks, hoping Travaglini would see me. But he didn’t pay attention at all. The next training he gathered me and some eight others and said, “Guys, no need to change, because you are not going to play today.” Puta merda, I was so pissed off. I took my bag, walked up to my godfather, who used to take me to the training ground, and told him, “Let’s get out of here, I never asked to play in this shit anyway.” [Laughs] 

So that was the end of Riva at Palmeiras and the beginning of Riva at their arch-rivals Corinthians? 

Yes, as I said, I also played at Indiana. One director knew someone at Corinthians and arranged a try-out. That was in January 1963. By then I still had two games to play. At one of them Travaglini was watching. I played well. After the game he came up to me and asked when I was coming back.  So, I told him, “No, no, no, I’m going to play for Corinthians.” He tried to change my mind. Said he would send a car to pick me up. But I said, “No, no, I am going to play for Corinthians.” [Laughs] 

Thank god, the try-out went well. I had just turned 17. Corinthians opened the door for me. Every day I would wake up at five in the morning to take a bus to the city centre, where I would take another bus to get to the Parque São Jorge. A journey of more than an hour. But I loved it. To me it was an adventure. Today Corinthians is the club I love. It is my second home.

Who was your idol as a teenager? 

Luizinho – an attacking midfielder who played over 600 games for Corinthians. He was very small. His nickname was Pequeno Polegar (Tom Thumb). He was incredible. A great dribbler. A genius. I used to watch his tricks and try to imitate them. At the end of his career, I once had the pleasure of playing with him. I came on as a substitute for him. That was very special.

You are known as the inventor of the elastico or flipflap. Was Luizinho the one who inspired you? 

I am not really the inventor. Luizinho inspired me. But the first player to do the elastico was a Japanese kid, Sergio Echigo, whom I played with in the Corinthians youth team. He showed me. I only perfected the move. And became famous for it.

What happened to him? 

He played a couple of games for Corinthians, but did not quite make it. He then played for some smaller clubs in Brazil before playing in Japan. 

You made your senior debut for Corinthians at 19 and went on to play for the club for nine years, scoring 144 goals in 474 games. But this was not the most successful era in the club’s history. Your time at the club was part of a 25-year title-less streak. How come?   

Well, it didn’t help that we had a president who would buy two strikers when we needed a midfielder. But more importantly, the other teams at the time were simply superior. You had Santos with Pelé, and a lot of other fantastic players. You had Palmeiras, which had a great youth academy. You had São Paolo, with Gerson and Pedro Rocha, who in 1970 and 1971 became back-to-back state champions. You even had Portuguesa, who today play in the second division, but in those days had a marvellous team. We could make life difficult for all of them, but as a team we were inferior. 

On 22 December 1974, you came closest to becoming champion but instead the lost final against Palmeiras turned out be the last game you ever played for Corinthians…  

The 1974 state championship was played in a different format to today. It was divided into two rounds. We won the first, Palmeiras the second, after which a two-legged final decided the championship. Even though we had lost the last regular game against Palmeiras 4-1, expectations were sky high. Corinthians had then not won a title for 20 years. So there was a lot of pressure. This was the chance finally to win something . 

We had drawn the first leg and so we had to win the second at the Morumbi Stadium, which was filled with over 100,000 people, most of them Corinthianos.It was a very tense game that never really got going. Let’s not forget Palmeiras had a great team with players like Dudu and Ademir da Guia1. And because of the draw in the first game, we couldn’t afford to let them score. We didn’t create much and 10 minutes before the end they scored the only goal. It was a huge disappointment for everyone, including me. I wanted to be champion more than anyone. 

I hadn’t played very well, nor very badly. Like the whole team. But after the game there was this journalist who started a campaign against me. According to him it was all my fault. And other media started adopting the same message. I don’t know why. Perhaps, with all those expectations, someone needed to be blamed. I assure you I never wanted to leave Corinthians. But in the end the club wanted me out. As I had joined the club as a youth player, they never paid anything for me. I think the club president just thought it was the right moment to sell in order to still make some money on me.  

So, Fluminense came calling and you made your debut against Corinthians…  

The strange thing was that at first I did not receive any proposals. For six months I stayed at home without playing football. I was very angry and upset about how Corinthians had handled things. I even talked with my dad and brother about quitting. But then appeared the best club president I had in my life: Francisco Orta. He really wanted me to play for Fluminense. And I did not need long to make up my mind.

I made my debut in a game against Corinthians and scored a hat-trick. It was only a friendly, but I enjoyed that one! I spent four marvellous years in Rio. We had a very good, technical team, with players like Carlos Alberto, Dirceu and Edinho, and became state champions in 1975 and 1976. But we never won the Brasileiro. 

In 1975 we lost 2-0 against Internationale, who went on to become champions. And the following year we lost against Corinthians. This was the famous game of the ‘Corinthian invasion’2. Some 70,000 fans travelled from Sao Paolo to Rio to attend the game in the Maracanã Stadium. We were favourites. We had the better team. But that day it rained a lot. We scored the first goal but Ruço scored a stunning equaliser. In the second half it was almost impossible to play. At times the ball would hardly roll. The game went to penalties and we lost. In the final Corinthians lost 2-0 against Internationale.   

Rivellino made his debut for the Brazil national team in 1965, but only became a regular in 1968. In total he played 92 games for O Seleção, scoring 26 goals. He was one of five No. 10s included in the legendary team that won the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. He also captained the sides that reached the semis at the 1974 and 1978 World Cups.

70 years ago you were part of what many consider the best team to have ever won the World Cup. What do you think of that billing? 

We enchanted the world in 1970. But people forget that no one expected us to be successful. We had a great qualification campaign, but a few months before the World Cup our coach João Saldanha was replaced by Mario Zagallo, who had been a great player, but did not have much experience as a coach. Also, in 1966 we failed to qualify for the second round. And in Mexico we were put in a very tough group with 1966 world champions England, the 1962 runners-up Czechoslovakia, and Romania, who were a sensation at the time. So, expectations were very low.

The first game against Czechoslovakia was very tense. The World Cup is a short tournament, so you have little time to analyse. [Ladislav] Petráš scored the first goal and I had the pleasure to equalise, but we did not play the way we wanted. In the break Pelé did the talking: “Pora, merda, what are we doing? Vamos, caralho!” After the break we realised that the Czechoslovaks were not as good as we thought they were. Pelé scored the goal that made it 2-1 and fired us up again: “Vamos, caralho!” And we did. Jairzinho scored two more and we in the end we won comfortably by 4-1. 

The second game against England was the most difficult game we played in the whole tournament. We won 1-0 but, honestly, it could have easily ended 1-1 or even 2-1 to England. But we won, which made the game against Romania a formality. From then onward we played without pressure and truly played some fantastic football.  

One thing that greatly helped was that physically we were very well prepared. We arrived in Mexico a few weeks before the World Cup and trained at high altitude. We were very fit. That is why our second half was always better than our first. And I’m sure that if we had to play another three games we would have won them too. 

Was this the best football you played in your life?

I think so. We had such movement and understanding in the team. Pelé would do something and I knew beforehand what he wanted. Gerson would do something and I knew what he wanted. Jairzinho started on the right flank but would drift inside. Carlos Alberto would storm forward. And Tostão, playing as a false No. 9, was unstoppable. It was a magic moment. 

Today it would be unthinkable to field a team with five No. 10s ... 

Officially, four No. 10s. Jairzinho at Botafogo, Gerson at Sao Paolo, Pelé at Santos and me at Corinthians. Tostão at Cruzeiro played in the number 8, but I agree he was a 10 really. In those days the No. 10 shirt still meant something. In my days we played with numbers 1 to 11. Today, you see players with 40 or 80. It has become more like basketball.  

From the many stars in that team, who was the star of stars? 

Pelé. He had already won two World Cups, but people forget that in 1958 he was very young and hardly played, while in 1962 he only played a few games because he got injured. In 1970, he played all games. And he had something to prove. Before going to Mexico Pelé faced a lot of criticism. People were saying he was too old and that he was no longer at his best. 1970 Mexico was his World Cup. 

Is he the best player you ever played with?

Him and Garrincha3. We should pin the No. 7 and 10 shirts onto the Christ the Redeemer and never touch them again! Pelé was a huge star. The best player in the world. Ever. To me there is no equal. He always led by example on and off the pitch. And, even though he was a huge star, Pelé never shouted that you had to play the ball to him. Never. He always had a positive attitude and always made others play better. 

But many people forget about Garrincha. I like him a lot. He was a genius. He was very fast. The way he created space for himself was incredible. Not even Pelé could do that. And don’t forget he won two World Cups for us in 1958 and 1962. History shows that Brazil never lost a game when Garrincha and Pelé played together. 

In 1974 Brazil did enter the World Cup as one of the favourites, but could not quite live up to expectations. What happened? 

In 1974, we entered as world champions. But we had a very different team. Only me and Jairzinho remained. In the first round we didn’t play well. We didn’t score in two draws against Yugoslavia and Scotland and only just qualified thanks to a 3-0 win over Zaire. In the second round, however, we beat East Germany and Argentina and suddenly had a chance to reach the final. But then we met Holland. In 1974, it was Holland that enchanted the world. 

What do you remember from that match?

We played a very interesting game against them. We had two good chances in the beginning of the first half and could have scored. But Holland put us under a lot of pressure from the start. They didn’t give us any time or space to play. 

It was a very hard game. There was only one red card. If played today there would be five players sent off. There was an incredibly heavy atmosphere. In the break we almost had a physical fight near the dressing rooms. I don’t know why. The culprit was the referee. If you make a foul on me and he does not say anything, I’m going to do the same to see if he will say something then. This is how the game ran out of hand.    

But, unlike today, no one complained. No one asked for cards. The only one who talked a bit was [Johan] Cruyff. He tried to influence the game by talking to the referee. But Cruyff was a malandro [rascal], as well as a cracking player. My god, what a fantastic player. Very focused. Intelligent. Great vision. It is hard to find an offensive player with such vision. Normally, it is the zagueiro (central defender) or volante (holding midfielder) who have great vision. 

But they had other great players too of course. [Johan] Neeskens, [Jonny] Rep, [Rob] Rensenbrink and a short, stocky midfielder, Wim Jansen, pora, what a player. Very tough. But Cruyff was the star. It was him who set up one goal and scored the other. Holland won 2-0.  And they deserved to win. They were the team of the tournament. Pity they didn’t win it. 

Do you see similarities between the Netherlands and Brazil?  

Certainly. If you take the 1974 Dutch team and see how they fluctuate and change position, and the overall quality of the team, there are definitely similarities with the 1970 Brazil team. Holland love to have the ball, to create, to play offensively. And technically they have always had great players. Germany too have always had great players. But their teams are more mechanical. It is better today, but if you ask me to choose between German or Dutch football I will always chose Dutch. I love the way they play, their philosophy, even today. 

Finally, what about your last World Cup in Argentina? 

The only World Cup I don’t like taking about is Argentina. I had injured my ankle, so I only played a bit towards the end. But that’s not the reason. A lot of weird things happened. Of course we can’t prove anything, but how come Brazil played Poland first, followed by Argentina v Peru? Why didn’t Argentina play first? Why didn’t we play at the same time? 

Argentina knew exactly the result they needed. We beat Poland 3-1, so Argentina needed to win by four goals against Peru. And Peru had a good team at the time. They had [Teófilo] Cubillas! And yet Argentina won 6-0. We can’t prove anything, but everyone says the game was bought. Even people in Peru say so. If you think about it: people talk about 1970 and 1974. They talk about Brazil and Holland being great teams. They talk about many World Cups. But no one ever talks about 1978 and Argentina. Never.