Rivaldo, the Brazilian World Cup winner, took the unusual decision to join Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan in August 2008. It had been quite a ride.
Between 1997 and 1999, he wins three straight La Liga titles. In 1999, he wins the Ballon d’Or. In 2002, he wins the World Cup. In 2004, he receives the highest honor of all, a position in the FIFA 100. When he’s smacked in the midriff, he always holds his face.
Rivaldo was a phenomenon during the zenith of his dominance.
The dynamic forward reached his peak with Brazil and Barcelona in the late 1990s and early 2000s, forging one of the greatest striking trios in international football and single-handedly carrying Barcelona to league triumph.
Rivaldo was less glamourous than Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, but on his day, he was as good as anyone in the game. However, by his early 30s, he appeared to be all but done at the top level. Rivaldo returned to Brazil at the age of 31 after a dismal career at AC Milan ended in embarrassing fashion. His days appeared numbered just a year and a half after winning the World Cup.
However, appearances can be deceiving.
Rivaldo, at 31, would go on to squeeze another 12 years of football out of his aging legs, traveling around the world on a perpetual victory lap, postponing retirement, retiring, coming out of retirement, and eventually retiring again.
Rivaldo’s final decade in football is certainly bizarre when seen as a whole. And it was his two-year experience with Bunyodkor in Uzbekistan, from 2008 to 2010, that grabbed the most attention.
Let’s not mince words: Rivaldo joined Bunyodkor for the cash. He’d just finished a successful season with AEK Athens, where he shared the field with four other Brazilians, two Portuguese, and fellow entrepreneur Mohamed Kallon.
It’s safe to assume that life in Greece was very nice.
However, in late August 2008, the attacker informed AEK of his intention to move to Uzbekistan, apologizing for leaving it so late in the transfer window.
Rivaldo revealed, “It was a difficult decision to make, but I have received an offer that is very beneficial for my career.”
“It’s just that things moved quickly and I had to go.” Anyone else in my position would not have turned down a deal like this.”
He was most likely correct. The deal was worth £8 million over two years, an absurd amount for a 36-year-old who couldn’t even run.
There was only one problem.
AEK had not decided to trade Rivaldo despite the Brazilian’s statements, and the club swiftly clarified that he was “under contract… until the end of current season” and would “only move if the club finds a replacement.”
When Bunyodkor stumped up just shy of £1million, however, the deal was done.
Rivaldo adapted to Uzbek football as easily as a duck to water. Water that is murky and greasy.
Bunyodkor has risen to the top thanks to enormous (and anonymous) financial backing, despite the fact that it had just been established in 2005. By 2008, they were making ridiculous offers for players like Samuel Eto’o.
Rivaldo thus joined an already good squad that was unbeaten in the Uzbek League after 18 games at the time.
Bunyodkor won the title with two games to spare after his arrival: two goals on his debut were followed by seven more, and he scored two more goals on his second appearance.
Rivaldo’s contract was extended after only a few months at the club, citing his wish “to contribute to the growth of football in Uzbekistan.”
“I am happy with the conditions,” he added, “and I have decided to stay in this lovely country for a long time.”
Rivaldo was the league’s top scorer in 2009, scoring 20 goals in 29 starts to lead Bunyodkor to another title victory.
During that campaign, there were several highlights. Between May 14 and June 29, the forward was on a scoring spree, scoring one goal, two goals, three goals, and four goals in a row. (Rivaldo put four past a helpless Sogdiana Jizzakh in front of a crowd of 5,416.)
Bunyodkor, on the other hand, was eliminated in the Asian Champions League quarter-finals, a competition in which they were supposed to advance further.
Despite his on-field success and Bunyodkor’s willingness to engage not one, but two Brazilian coaches (first Zico, then Luiz Felipe Scolari), Rivaldo’s only complete season in Uzbekistan was in 2009.
He announced his resignation midway through the 2010 season, with a healthy six goals in 11 games.
Rivaldo tweeted that his contract has been canceled, with an exclamation mark for good measure. He was given no further information and traveled to Brazil the next day.
Not long after, the truth was revealed. Rivaldo was suing Bunyodkor for not paying his wages, it was revealed.
Rivaldo’s lawyer, Luis Pereira, stated, “By the time he departed, he had only been paid for one season.” “The deal was not fulfilled.”
Pereira stated his client had deliberately requested the help of Gulnara Karimova, the millionaire socialite daughter of Uzbek ruler Islam Karimov, in order to resolve the issue, in what must undoubtedly go down as the most fascinating portion of Rivaldo’s stay in Uzbekistan. Karimova, who also had a pop career under the pseudonym ‘GooGoosha,’ was said to be Bunyodkor’s de facto controller. She is currently being held in custody on corruption charges.
Paying the price
It’s hard to have a lot of sympathy with Rivaldo after his shortchanging at Bunyodkor.
While athletes cannot be role models in all aspects of their lives, there is an argument to be made that Rivaldo should never have played in Uzbekistan or called it a “beautiful country” after signing a lucrative new contract with Bunyodkor.
During Karimov’s reign as head of state, international NGO Human Rights Watch noted that “Uzbekistan’s record of cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms is arguably among the worst in the world”.
Arbitrary arrests and torture were, and still are, some of its worst offences.
Not only did Rivaldo help to sanitise the global perception of Uzbekistan, he actually had ties — in the form of Karimova/GooGoosha — with those in power.
Bunyodkor was essentially “part of an effort by the president to earn popularity for his daughter,” according to Craig Murray, a former British ambassador in Uzbekistan, who told The Guardian in 2009 that it was “part of a drive by the president to garner popularity for his daughter.”
What explains the club’s surprising rise to the top of the sport? Maybe not so strange after all.
After leaving Uzbekistan, Rivaldo continued to play for another five years or so, eventually becoming president of Brazilian club Mogi Mirim in 2008 and later playing with his son, Rivaldinho. The father and son combo scored in the same match in July 2015.
Rivaldo’s experience in Uzbekistan, while positive, could serve as a warning lesson for players who receive a large payment from an unknown source. Whatever your income, karma has a way of catching up with you.