Rivellino Q&A: “We never imagined we could win in 1970”

Roberto Rivellino was a star of Brazil’s World Cup-winning team in 1970. Known for his powerful long-range shots, close control and attacking creativity, the midfielder was named by Maradona as being among his inspirations growing up. As well as his remarkable ability on the pitch, Rivellino’s moustache made him recognisable all around the world. To celebrate our ongoing exhibition “Brazil 2014 Revisited”, we have been chatting to the former world champion about his career, about being the supposed inventor of the “elástico” and winning the World Cup.

When did you realise that football would become such an important part of your life?

Well, things were a bit different for kids back then. Nowadays, you have parents who will do everything to help their sons to become players. Me, I just liked to play football. I would play the whole day, if I had the chance. I was always on the street, and that’s why my first book is called “Sai da Rua, Roberto!” (Get off the street, Roberto!). For me to become a professional, it was a natural progression.

How did that happen?

My team was playing a match against SE Palmeiras, and one of their directors was impressed. They invited me for a trial. My whole family were Palmeiras supporters, and so was I. However, the trial didn’t go well – I don’t think the coach even looked at me. I was furious, I grabbed my things and left. It was hugely disappointing. It hit me really hard. Can you imagine? And I ended up at their arch rivals, Corinthians! I was around 15 or 16 years old. It could all have been so different. The funny thing is that this same coach, Mário Travaglini, would cross my path a decade later. We won the title together with Fluminense. The world goes round, as we can see.

How did you end up at Corinthians?

There was a director at Indiano – another club that I used to play with – who had some contacts with them. They liked what they saw and invited me to start the season with their youth team. At this time, Travaglini showed some regret and tried to persuade me to come back to Palmeiras. But I had decided and I was also a bit stubborn. It went well and I progressed quickly – I didn’t even have to take part in the try-outs. I got some lucky breaks, with injuries to others, but also because of my talent. Our youth team was very good. If the main team was struggling, the youngsters quickly became popular among the supporters. They would arrive early at the stadium to watch our matches. Then, it was just a matter of time…

How did you develop your signature move, the “elástico” (the flip flap)?

I have to give the credit to a team-mate at Corinthians, Sergio Eshigo, someone who is still a friend of mine. I first saw him do it during a training session. He completely fooled a defender who ended up off the pitch. It really intrigued me. I thought “Wow, what has this Japanese guy done?” I went to him after the session and he taught me. I had to work a lot to master the dribble. In a way, I ended up doing it a bit differently to him, because I took more of a side position to the ball and then my leg would stretch a bit more with the ball. He said that I perfected his move. It’s a really quick action and sometimes the defender doesn’t even know what’s happened. Nowadays, it’s a delight for me to watch some of the finest players in the world doing the same. The other day I was watching the Spanish league and Cristiano Ronaldo did it. That was exciting!

Before the 1970 World Cup, did you or your team-mates feel you could do something special in Mexico… that you would be thought of as one of the greatest teams of all time?

We honestly never imagined that. The truth is that when we left for Mexico, no-one thought we had a chance. We had a disappointing World Cup in 1966 and we had been drawn in a really strong group with the defending champions England, and Czechoslovakia and Romania, who were both seen as dark horses. Obviously, we had Pelé and some great players. But did we have a team? Nobody knew for certain what would happen.

You got off to a great start...

The first match against Czechoslovakia was very important. It calmed us down. That’s why I say that one of the most important goals of my career was the first against them. They went ahead very early, and I equalised. Before we knew it, we were winning 4-1. It gave us lots of confidence. Then came the match against England. It was an epic match and it could easily have gone either way. It was the most difficult game of the finals for us. They had a great team. What was great about our team was that we improved game by game. In the end, I believe that we could have even beaten an all-star team from the World Cup. It was a terrific tournament.

And Pelé?

I can say that I never played with such a positive, optimistic person. His attitude was amazing. He would give us that kind of confidence on a daily basis.

You played in two more World Cups. Which was the better Brazil team: 1974 or 1978?

1978, I don’t even like to talk about that tournament… I don’t believe we would have been allowed to win. In 1974, I think we were a bit unlucky although we did struggle at the start, even against Zaire. We did improve and we had our chances against the Netherlands. But I think they deserved to be in the final against West Germany. Football was different then – it wasn’t global as it is now. So, we didn’t know anything about the Dutch team. We didn’t even know about Cruyff. When I first saw them play, against Uruguay, I was amazed. They were incredible. The Dutch captivated the whole world. They revolutionised football and we can still see the impact they had today. I thought that they would win the title, but the Germans were a great team too, with lots of big stars.