Rarely, if ever, do players score goals that truly fit the occasion but with the clock ticking down, and Barcelona about to miss out on Champions League football, Rivaldo decided to take matters into his own hands...
It was a humid summer evening in Barcelona and the Metro to Maria Cristina was hot and airless, packed with a noisy mixture of local fans, English stag parties and American tourists. After ten months in Catalonia I was finally making my first visit to the Camp Nou – or, as it’s known in England for some reason – the Nou Camp.
Ramon Pietx, the owner of my local bar in Torello, couldn’t get to the last game of the season against Valencia so he generously offered me the use of his season ticket. He probably couldn’t face going. Barca were spluttering to the end of a poor season that had started with plenty of promise. In their opening Champions League fixture they’d soundly beaten my team Leeds 4-0, but by November our fortunes had reversed and they’d failed to make it out of the first stages.
Before this final game of the season they were trailing in fifth place in La Liga, looking very likely to end up with the unwelcome consolation of a place in the UEFA cup. To make matters worse their former golden boy Lluis Figo was leading the galacticos of Real Madrid to the title. (the following season Barca fans welcomed him back to the Camp Nou by hurling a pigs head at him). By contrast Barca’s talisman, the Brazilian genius Rivaldo, was going through a lean spell by his standards having failed to score in the previous eight games.
It was the perfect goal. The third of a brilliant hat trick, in the last minute of the last game for a major prize in world football – and best of all it was absolutely spectacular.
Valencia had narrowly lost the Champions League final to Bayern Munich on penalties and were now sitting above Barca in fourth place with three more points and exactly the same goal difference. Only a win could rescue the season for Barca – and it only needed to be by one goal. A goal that would be priceless.
Despite the importance of the game and sheer scale of the stadium, I couldn’t help feeling slightly underwhelmed as I entered the ground. I was more accustomed to the blood and thunder roar of Elland Road, and despite the massive flags and flares, I thought the atmosphere felt slightly reserved. Having said that, I think I was in the posh seats as a well dressed old couple next me had unwrapped a tea towel and were tucking in to a picnic of bread, ham and cheese.
As a neutral it was a decent game. Barcelona took a very early lead through a brilliant free kick curled in by Rivaldo, but Ruben Baraja levelled for Valencia in the 26th minute. It stayed that way until just before half time when Rivaldo beat two players on the edge of the area and blasted a low shot in to the bottom corner. Another superb goal, it allowed the fans the luxury of enjoying the interval, but within minutes of the restart up popped Baraja again to cancel out the Brazilians effort.
It had almost become a game between two players and as the game drew to it’s conclusion it appeared that neither had the time or guile to win it. Barca’s attacks were looking more pedestrian and everything that was being lumped towards Kluivert was being mopped up by Valencia’s back four who had firmly locked the door in hope of a draw. Every time wasting trick in the book was being employed, particularly by Cañizares who, to the fury of the crowd, was taking an age with every goal kick.
With a minute to go it was clearly going to take something very special to turn this game around.
And right before my eyes it suddenly happened.
The next day I went to see Ramon and give him a clump of Camp Nou grass. He laughed, but I bet he’s still absolutely gutted that he didn’t get to see the greatest goal ever scored
Frank De Boer chipped a hopeful ball forward to the edge of the area where Rivaldo had his back to the goal and was being tightly marked by two defenders. Baraja lunged at it and almost made contact with his head, but the ball floated on towards the Brazilian. He took it on his chest perfectly so that it hung in the air at just the right height, giving him enough time to spring up and backwards whilst swinging his left boot through the ball and executing a perfect overhead kick. The ball flew in to the bottom corner of the net giving Cañizares no chance.
I finally got to hear what the Camp Nou crowd were really capable of. There was an explosion of noise. Flares, flashes and fists flew skywards as the entire stadium seemed to orgasm in a pulsating wave of unmitigated joy.
Rivaldo peeled off his shirt and sprinted across the pitch before being engulfed by a sea of blue and red nylon as his ecstatic team mates mobbed him. It was the perfect goal. The third of a brilliant hat trick, in the last minute of the last game for a major prize in world football – and best of all it was absolutely spectacular.
The referee blew for time and I joined the mass pitch invasion. The turf around the penalty area was completely scalped by fans hungry for a souvenir of a special moment.
The next day I went to see Ramon and give him a clump of Camp Nou grass. He laughed, but I bet he’s still absolutely gutted that he didn’t get to see the greatest goal ever scored. Apart from this one of course…
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