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The real story on why Bolton never signed Brazil star Rivaldo

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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For just a few days, the whole footballing world watched in disbelief as ‘little old’ Bolton Wanderers seemingly closed in on the deal of the millennium.

Exactly 20 years ago, Rivaldo, the World Cup-winning former World and European Footballer of the Year, was considering a move to Lancashire.

And better still, he was mulling over the chance to join a squad which already boasted the international footballing pedigree Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo and Jay-Jay Okocha.

The prospect of such a luxurious quartet plying their trade in the shade of Winter Hill caught the world’s attention, and nearly broke the website where the news first broke.

Straining under the weight of traffic, the Bolton Evening News’ site was suddenly the focus of a story which burned brightly, and then sunk without a trace. But while the Whites’ brief pursuit of an attacking superstar has periodically been pulled out of the archives as a curiosity in the last 16 years, we thought it was time to examine the details.

“I’ve got a fax in my pocket which arrived this morning saying he wants to come to us," beamed Phil Gartside, who was also ready to claim that Rivaldo would shun Celtic to become Sam Allardyce’s latest Galactico.

Whether the late chairman would come to regret that over-exuberance we will never know but at that precise moment in time Bolton did look the most likely destination for a 32-year-old player who was desperate to extend his international career.

To put Rivaldo’s situation into some context, he was back playing in Brazil after his contract with AC Milan had been terminated the previous September.

His move to the Rossoneri had not worked out, in fact to use the player’s own words it had been “humiliating.” Carlo Ancelotti’s well-driled side lifted the Champions League at Old Trafford the previous summer but, not for the first time, the Brazilian was an unused sub. He scored just five times that season in Serie A.

The Italian press had branded him a flop and though some high-profile efforts were made to secure him an English club in the January transfer window – Manchester United and Arsenal mooted by the tabloids at least – he was forced into a rather embarrassing move back home with Cruzerio, a deal bizarrely funded by a local pharmaceutical company.

Although Rivaldo was still technically part of Brazil’s national set-up, it was a team in transition under Carlos Alberto Parreira and building toward defending its World Cup title in Germany. His last cap had come in November 2003 and he knew he needed a profile-raising move to get back aboard.

Interest had emerged from the Middle East in Saudi Arabian team Al Ittihad but was rejected, suggesting that money was not the be-all and end-all. Other deals were offered in Spain and Russia but the player, it would turn out, had instructed his representatives to find a Premier League club as it would give him the best possible chance of impressing Parreira.

Bolton were first made aware of the deal by a Europe-based agent, Manuel Auset, but he was by no means the only person claiming to represent the player.

The club used the UK-based agent Peter Harrison to do their bidding, initially, although given his tempestuous relationship with Gartside at the time they knew it could be a risky strategy.

Wanderers were confident that if they could actually get Rivaldo in the building, they would complete the deal. The Reebok was a huge selling point, as was the Euxton training ground, but the closest they got was the Lowry Hotel.

Although Bolton never verified the meeting – Rivaldo’s agents, now plural, said they had met with Allardyce and Gartside at the Lowry Hotel in Manchester, a claim which was backed up by the player himself a few years later when we met him in Greece.

By the start of May, Allardyce was also grinning like a Cheshire cat, sensing he was about to land a deal that was going to make waves.

"We have taken in all kinds of waifs and strays, people who were out of shape and out of sorts and we've turned them into proper players again," he told Sky Sports.

"Sometimes it just comes down to putting an arm around a player and making him feel wanted again. Football can be a lonely environment when you are on a downer.

"Even the best players can feel lost when things turn against them which I think is what has happened in Rivaldo's case."

But behind the scenes, Wanderers were already doubtful that the move was going to happen and as the weeks ticked by – and despite the player also making positive noises in the Brazilian press – fans became more sceptical too.

A pre-season trip had been lined-up to Portugal, with the players staying at Sporting Lisbon’s training ground. When Rivaldo’s representatives were pushed on whether he should be factored into the trip, they became more difficult to contact.

It then emerged that Rivaldo was looking at Qatar, despite a warning from Perreira that it would end his national career. His head had been turned.

"I think as far as we are concerned, the Rivaldo situation is finished," lamented Gartside.

"He indicated by talking to people in Qatar he is looking at the money aspect, not the football aspect.

"We were told he wanted to resume his international career by playing in the Premiership.

"But that doesn't appear to be his main focus. He is not going to get that kind of exposure if he goes to Qatar."

In-fighting between the players’ representatives began – and though Qatar SC also rolled out the red carpet in anticipation of his arrival, he swerved again, this time heading to Greece to sign for Olympiakos.

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Rivaldo competed in the Champions League again but the move was not enough to revive his Brazil career.

In the summer of 2008, in a dark underground car park at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, Rivaldo emerged after competing in a friendly against Bolton.

He had missed a penalty but the Greek side won 1-0 after Wanderers had played most of the game with 10 men following Gary Cahill’s 20th minute dismissal.

Speaking through a translator – Rivaldo admitted he had wished the move had worked out.

“Four years ago I met the manager and the chairman but in the end we could not reach an agreement, which meant it didn’t sign for Bolton,” he said. “I cannot say why it didn’t happen. It is a great shame.

“The Premier League is a very strong league and I would like to have played in England for Bolton.

“When I am not playing here in Greece I watch a few games. The Premier League is a good competition and it great to watch.”

What a treat it would have been to see if Allardyce could have revive the career of one of the giants of his generation.

But the Brazilian ace was by no means the only near miss.

Dutch striker Patrick Kluivert sat in the Chairman’s Suite at the Reebok just a month after Bolton had conceded defeat on Rivaldo.

Unsettled at Barcelona, who were desperate to get his £5.3million-a-year salary off the books, the 28-year-old had reservations about his other option in England, Newcastle United, where he would be competing for a first team spot with home favourites Craig Bellamy and Alan Shearer.

Unlike the latter days of the Rivaldo deal, Wanderers genuinely felt they had a chance with Kluivert because he had seen what they had to offer. And after signing Gary Speed the same week from Tyneside for £750,000 were confident they could add another illustrious name to the squad before the close of the window.

Alas, it didn’t work out. Allardyce later admitted Tyneside’s pull had been too strong.

"If Newcastle had not come in for him, I think we could have had him here," said the Bolton boss, who did at least add a certain El-Hadji Diouf and Fernando Hierro to the squad that summer. "It was nice to be able to get a player of his ability to come and look at what we had to offer, and I know he was impressed.

"It wasn't so much Bolton Wanderers that would have attracted him, but Premiership football on a regular basis. But when you got a club like Newcastle involved, that was the end of the matter."

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