Throughout the years, Celtic have come close to signing many players who really could have been marquee arrivals. When it was time to replace Henrik Larsson in 2004, it probably should come as no surprise that we tried to sign two before finally settling on our new number 7!
In this series of articles, we will take a look back at some of those players we were interested in, some who were perhaps on trial, and many others who ultimately got away.
For the first in this retrospective, we decided to go big and where bigger in the world of football than Brazil?
Not only were Celtic intent on bringing a Brazilian in to replace Larsson (even after what happened with Rafael Scheidt), we were actually in for three. First up? None other than the great Rivaldo.
THAT TIME WE OFFERED RIVALDO A TRIAL
When you think of some of the most gifted footballers of the last 30 years, Rivaldo is most certainly up there in the very highest of echelons.
The Brazilian attacking midfielder will go down as one of the finest players of the modern era. Around about the time Rivaldo was considering a move to British football, Pelé named him in his list of the 100 greatest living players.
Rivaldo came to the wider attention of European football in 1997, and after some fine performances in his sole season at Deportivo La Coruña, the Brazilian got his big move to Barcelona for a fee of around €23.5m.
In his first season with Barca, Rivaldo finished as the league’s second top goal-scorer with 19 goals as Barcelona won both La Liga and Copa del Rey.
In his second season, he again finished as the league’s second top-scorer with 24 goals, whilst picking up his second consecutive league title. That year the Brazilian would win the Ballon d’Or and be named FIFA World Player of the Year.
During his five years at the Spanish giants, Rivaldo scored 130 goals, making him the eighth highest goal-scorer in the club’s history, joint with Samuel Eto’o.
In 2002, at the age of 30, Rivaldo was part of Brazil’s attacking three consisting of himself, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, who inspired the side to a World Cup win.
From 1993-2003, Rivaldo played 74 games for his country, scoring 35 goals, making him their seventh highest goal-scorer. He was also inducted into the Brazilian Football Museum Hall of Fame.
Shortly after the World Cup, Rivaldo moved to Serie A side, Milan on a three-year deal.
Although the Brazilian would only play for the club for one season, he won the Coppa Italia, Champions League and the UEFA Super Cup.
Despite winning three trophies, Rivaldo did not live up to expectations in Milan and would be awarded the Bidone d’Oro award, which was given to the worst Serie A player during that particular season. He would later leave the club to return to Brazil after seven years in European club football. He opted to sign a one-year deal with Cruzeiro after spending the previous 18 months warming the AC Milan bench.
His time at Cruzeiro was even less enjoyable, with him walking out only two months into a twelve-month contract due to the departure of his manager and mentor, Vanderlei Luxemburgo.
With the Brazilian once again a free agent, the inevitable interest flowed in from world football. Surprisingly, the strongest contenders for Rivaldo’s signature came from Glasgow and Bolton.
Bolton Wanderers, then of the English Premiership, had already been in talks with Rivaldo about swapping Rio for The Reebok. Discussions between the Brazilian and Sam Allardyce took place in Manchester’s Lowry Hotel in April 2004, with Rivaldo initially agreeing a two-year £40,000-a-week deal. It looked as though Allardyce – who previously tried to sign the player from AC Milan after the 2003 Champions League final at Old Trafford – had beaten Newcastle United in the race for the former World Footballer of the Year.
With Bolton in the driving seat, Celtic manager, Martin O’Neill, told Sunday Life (25 April 2004), “Bolton are well-positioned now in terms of knowing their TV revenue and that’s a big thing. Good luck to them if it happens. If you can attract a player of the calibre of Rivaldo, assuming that he’s injury free, it is a massive coup for Bolton.”
But with the deal at an advanced stage, Rivaldo travelled to Spain to consider Bolton’s offer, prompting his English representative Peter Harrison to claim, “There’s nothing untoward about the delay. Rivaldo just wanted time to think about it.”
A week later, Rivaldo was back in Brazil, which prompted Sam Allardyce to admit that the chances of him signing for Bolton were now “fading”.
Things were looking up, however, after Allardyce held further discussions with the 32-year-old’s Brazilian representatives, prompting the Bolton gaffer to proclaim to Irish Independent (3 May 2004), “I don’t think Rivaldo wants to sit back on the beach in Brazil just yet. Sure, he has made money but there are other things that football brings. It gets in your blood and you don’t want to let go. Players of his ability need that adrenaline rush. These players need to be wanted and be a star. They have had it for so long – for it to stop is like coming off an illegal substance.”
Celtic’s interest broke as they prepared to face Dunfermline Athletic in the 2004 Scottish Cup final, a match that would be Henrik Larsson’s last competitive appearance in a Celtic jersey. The Swede was virtually irreplaceable and an iconic figure that the fans adored. Only someone very special could come close to filling the boots of the Barcelona-bound talisman, and Martin O’Neill had something unexpected up his sleeve.
Speaking to the Irish Independent (8 May 2004), O’Neill explained, following an apparent hitch in the Bolton deal, “I am going to go right to the top and then make my way down. Like anything else, we’d prefer to keep these things quiet – we have been linked with so many players.”
Rivaldo’s agent, Carlos Arime, urged O’Neill to make an approach, as quoted in the Sunday World Dublin (9 May 2004), “Celtic are are free to make their move and speak to us. In my opinion, it would be better for Rivaldo to move to Celtic rather than Bolton because they are a bigger club. Celtic will be playing Champions League football next season and are very well known as they have very passionate fans. Rivaldo is still free and available for anyone who wants him.”
By that stage, Celtic had another Brazilian international, Márcio Amoroso, on a one-week trial in Glasgow. Amoroso was 30 at the time, and had most recently starred for Borussia Dortmund where he scored 43 goals in 89 appearances, winning a Bundesliga in 2002. His previous two transfers (Udinese to Parma in 1999 and Parma to Dortmund in 2001) totalled €53.5m, but his time in Germany ended on a sour note, with Dortmund terminating his contract due to a “lack of respect to his employer”. This fall-out was following Amoroso’s failure to return to Germany following knee surgery in the USA.
O’Neill had only managed to watch the striker in training once, but was keen to see more to ensure he had overcome that serious knee injury. “I wouldn’t mind having another look at him if that’s possible,” O’Neill told Evening Herald Dublin (14 May 2004). “Seemingly the injury’s okay but an extensive medical would go a long way to resolving that (concern)”.
When asked during Amoroso’s trial period about the prospects of signing for Celtic , his agent Nivaldo Balde claimed:
“We like Scotland because we love shortbread. Coming here is interesting to him.”
Talking to The Guardian in 2004 about pursuing Rivaldo, O’Neill said: “If we want to make sure that we have a driving ambition in the Champions League next season, why not?
“When somebody like Rivaldo becomes available you have got to be interested. He is a class player that we would be looking to buy.”
With Martin O’Neill weighing up whether or not to pursue Amoroso or Rivaldo (or both), even Henrik Larsson weighed in on the debate, as quoted in the Evening Herald Dublin (10 May 2004): “I don’t know Rivaldo personally, but I know he can handle the pressure. There is no problem there. They are going to get somebody in anyway because the way we have had injuries to our strikers over the last year has been unbelievable… I am sure the gaffer knows what he wants to do and then it is up to the board to get it.
“The club needs quality players because when you are playing for Celtic there is a lot of pressure. It is a big city but it is still a small city, because you have your two camps. You need to be able to handle the things that come with it.”
Larsson’s team-mate, Neil Lennon, had this to say to the Irish Independent (14 May 2004): “If we got him, it would be a major coup and I would pay the admission fee myself to see him play”.
Rivaldo himself broke his silence when pointing out the importance of the European platform Celtic could provide, when he said, “To play in the Champions League is very important to me and that will be a favourable point. Glasgow is a temple of football. It would be very nice to play there.”
With Celtic due to go on a pre-season tour of the States, Martin O’Neill decided to invite Rivaldo over as a trialist. For some reason, this seemed to irk the Brazilian’s agent…
Talking to the BBC about the offer, Carlos Arime said:
“People will be crying tears of laughter when they hear Celtic wanted to take Rivaldo on trial.”
“My client has been one of the best players in the world for many years and I don’t think he needs to play friendly games in order to prove himself. How dare Martin O’Neill ask Rivaldo to go for a trial in America? That is an insult to my client and to football. What kind of mentality is that? Big-name players will not be attracted to Celtic if that is O’Neill’s attitude.”
O’Neill was being cautious, which is completely understandable when you consider Rivaldo’s age and last two spells in Italy and Brazil, but the nature of the offer slammed the door shut on the move.
Rivaldo decided instead to try his luck in Greece with Olympiacos, and went on to win three consecutive league titles and two consecutive Greek Cups, whilst scoring 43 goals in 95 games into the bargain. His career wound down with spells at AEK Athens, Bunyodkor, Sao Paulo, Kabuscorp, Sao Caetano and Mogi Mirim before retiring ten years after Celtic offered him a trial.
Many years later, Rivaldo looked back on Celtic’s interest: “Replacing one of the biggest players in the history of the club wouldn’t have been easy,” admitted the Brazilian, “but I’m sure that I could have made my own story at Celtic if that was to be the case.”
Having lost out on Rivaldo and Amoroso, Martin O’Neill turned his attention to another Brazilian 2002 World Cup winner…
When Henrik Larsson’s ‘replacement’ finally arrived, it was in the shape of Middlesbrough legend, Juninho, who was paraded with the iconic number 7 jersey on 25 August 2004, flanked by a beaming Martin O’Neill. Celtic fought off the attentions of Manchester City for the Samba Superstar, which really was a sign of the times.
Who knows what the other two targets would have achieved in the green-and-white hoops of Celtic? But their countryman, Juninho, was an unmitigated flop, playing just 22 games and scoring a solitary goal. We certainly didn’t see him at his best, but even if the World Cup winner was at the peak of his powers, I doubt he would have been able to replace the King of Kings.