How Roberto Rivelino raised the bar for Saudi football

When Roberto Rivelino arrived in Riyadh it was like royalty had come to town. (File/AFP)
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Updated 20 October 2020

How Roberto Rivelino raised the bar for Saudi football

  • Roberto Rivelino was the highest calibre of footballer to be seen coming into the Kingdom
  • Rivelino raised standards on and off the Saudi pitch, opening the door for others to follow

LONDON: He arrived in Riyadh by Concorde from Rio to be greeted by thousands of Al-Hilal fans at the airport before being whisked to his hotel by Rolls-Royce. It was quite an entrance, but then in August 1978, Roberto Rivelino was quite a player, one of the best and most famous in the world. By the time the Brazilian left Saudi Arabia three seasons later, football in the country had changed and would never be the same again.

Fans of Al-Hilal and plenty of other clubs are accustomed to these days of watching exciting foreign talent in action in the league, but few have been as famous or as influential or - to put it in simple football terms -- as good as this Brazilian legend who made almost 100 appearances for the five-time world champions. He was the first big star in a season that was the first to feature foreign players.

Just weeks before, Saudi football leaders had watched Iran become the first team from Western Asia to compete at the World Cup, but there was already a determination to bring some serious talent to a professional league that had only just started in 1976. So in came the captain of Brazil, according to the influential World Soccer magazine, the 38th best player of the 20th century. 

Here was a star who stood out alongside Pele and Jairzinho in the 1970 World Cup winning team, hailed by many as the best ever. Fans in Saudi Arabia soon started to see just how good he was.

“It was almost amateur football at the time as football was really just starting there,” Rivelino said in an interview with Brazilian television in 2019, before Al-Hilal took on Rio club Flamengo at the FIFA Club World Cup.

“We trained at the same stadium in which we played the games. There were three teams in Riyadh and so we trained from 6 to 7 p.m., the next team from 7 to 8 and then the third from 8 to 9.”

The star had been part of the Brazil national team that played a friendly in Saudi Arabia ahead of the 1978 World Cup when conversations had started about a possible move.

“I talked to my family and then decided to go. It was my first time to play outside Brazil and though the culture and country was very different, it was a special time for me.”

Roberto Rivelino linked up with Tunisian striker Nejib Limam, and they were imperious as Al-Hilal marched to the league title. (Twitter)

Progress was already being made in a country that had at the time a population of just nine million. Rivelino enjoyed driving a Mercedes car in Saudi Arabia, owning one had been a lifelong dream, and also enjoyed the pristine condition of the artificial pitches in the country. He did, however, find the weather difficult to adapt to at first, playing with a wet cloth in his mouth to try and retain as much moisture as possible.

The Brazilian linked up with Tunisian striker Nejib Limam, and they were imperious as Al-Hilal marched to the league title. It was clinched by the Brazilian in fine fashion in the penultimate game against challengers and rivals Al-Nassr. Rivelino pounced on a loose ball well outside the area and lashed home an unstoppable half-volley to score the only goal of the match. The first and only defeat of that season came in the final game with the trophy safely in the cabinet. It was joined by The King’s Cup the following year. 

“He made it look so easy but he worked hard to make it look easy,” said Limam. “At first defenders were in awe of him and that gave me opportunities but he was consistently good and gave local players a taste of what you need to be a world-class player, it is not just about talent but mentality.”

Despite often playing deep in midfield, Rivelino scored 23 goals in fewer than 60 appearances for Al-Hilal. His set-piece skill has yet to be surpassed and he even thrilled fans by scoring directly from a corner against Al-Ittihad, but there was more to it than that. For foreign players, especially in growing leagues, impact can’t be measured by statistics.

Rivelino raised standards on and off the pitch. Being the first Brazilian to play professionally in the region, he opened the door for players from the South American nation to follow and Zico, another midfield legend from the country, almost arrived. Many did come, coaches too, and they have played their part over the years.



(YouTube video)

Few though could have the impact of Rivelino.  “It was a good place to play football and I played well. I trained hard and I worked hard and it was a good time,” he reflected.

He felt that by the time he retired in 1981, he still could have done a job for a hugely-talented Brazil at the 1982 World Cup even though he was in his mid-thirties.

“They should have come to see me play but today you can play in Saudi Arabia and the national team still remember you but it was different then. 

“But I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone. I gave everything to the club and the club, the players and the fans treated me with respect and Al-Hilal will always have a special place in my heart.”

The same should be the case for anyone with an interest in Saudi Arabian football. Rivelino was one of the first foreign players in the country and remains one of the best.

Al-Hilal beat Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr to clinch King’s Cup and unique treble

Updated 10 min 20 sec ago

Al-Hilal beat Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr to clinch King’s Cup and unique treble

  • Răzvan Lucescu’s team are now in possession of AFC Champions League, Saudi Professional League and the King’s Cup

DUBAI: Al-Hilal added the 2019-20 King’s Cup to their growing list of trophies after overcoming Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr 2-1 in the delayed final at King Fahd International Stadium in the Saudi capital on Saturday. 

The triumph was Al-Hilal’s ninth in the competition and means that the club is now in possession of the AFC Champions League, Saudi Professional League and the King’s Cup. 

Due to the disruptions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, last season’s final had been held over from May, and the rescheduled match happened to fall only a week after Al-Hilal had beaten the same opposition 2-0 in their 2020-21 SPL clash at King Saud University Stadium.

Al-Nassr looked to be clearly fired up from the first whistle, no doubt in an attempt to banish the dismal form that has seen them suffer their worst ever start to a Saudi Professional League campaign.

Sultan Al-Ghanam, one of their standout players in the 2-0 loss last week was booked after only three minutes, which would have consequences for him later on in the match.

But it was Răzvan Lucescu’s team who took the lead from their first real chance on 10 minutes, Sebastian Giovinco’s corner headed in by Jang Huyn-soo past Al-Nassr goalkeeper Brad Jones.

Buoyed by the early goal, Al-Hilal were briefly on the front foot and Yasser Al Shahrani could have doubled their lead five minutes later but, after a fine run down the right channel, had his shot blocked and Jones was able to collect comfortably.

At the other end Nordin Amrabat and Pity Martinez were getting some joy down the right wing but their final pass was often lacking, and Nassr danger man Abderrazak Hamdallah remained isolated for long periods.

On 29 minutes, Martinez should have squared the match after another fine run from the left flank but his close-range shot struck Habib Al-Wotayan’s near post and went out for a goal kick.

Al Nassr continued to be the better team and Amrabat’s trickery after 33 minutes drew Gustavo Cuellar into a rash challenge which earned the Colombian midfielder a yellow card. But an equalizer remained elusive and they would soon regret not taking advantage of their period of dominance.

With five minutes of the first half left, Carillo’s wonderful pass found Salem Al-Dawsari inside Al-Nassr’s penalty area but Sultan Al-Ghanam’s tackle looked to have averted the danger. However, after consulting VAR the referee awarded a penalty.

Bafetimbi Gomis sent Jones the wrong way to give Al-Hilal a comfortable 2-0 lead at half-time. 

Al-Nassr coach Rui Vitoria attempted to shake things up at the break by introducing Ali Lajami and Ayman Yahya for Al-Ghanam and Abdulmajeed Al-Sulayhem, but the substitutions did little to turn the tide after the restart.

In fact it was Al-Hilal who looked to be the more energised of the teams and 10 minutes into the second half Al-Dawsari’s brilliant run almost led to a third goal but his cross was cleared by the desperate Al-Nassr defense.

With 20 minutes left, the substitute Yahya breathed life into the final with an excellent left-footed finish to half the deficit. Mohamed Kanno immediately replaced Andrea Carillo to bolster Al-Hilal’s defence as Al-Nassr threw everything they had at their tiring opponents.

The late onslaught almost paid off, but with 13 minutes left Al-Wotayan pulled off a spectacular save from Hamdallah’s superbly-struck volley to preserve Al-Hilal’s lead.

Al-Hilal themselves could have ended the contest on 90 minutes but Al-Dawsari’s scuffed shot was saved by Jones and they had to endure six more tense minutes of stoppage time. But despite penning their opponents back, Al-Nassr couldn’t find a late equalizer. 

After receiving the trophy, Al-Hilal captain Salman Al-Faraj responded to recent concerns over the team’s performances by saying that winning three trophies in less than a year speaks for itself, and that despite inevitable drops in standards in certain matches, there was not much more players can do.

“I repeat that this is an exceptional season for Al-Hilal, we dedicate this to all our fans who we continue to miss inside the stadiums,” he said. “We promised them that we’ll win the Asian Champions League, the league and the King’s Cup. We always said the same thing among ourselves and we kept our promise. Today we were not great but in matches like this you just need to win the cup, you don’t need a performance. Al-Nassr were better in the second half, but we were better in the details, and we took advantage of that.”

He added that the coach had instructed them to stay calm and not be influenced by the recent win over their opponents.

“Al-Nassr have not had a good start to the season, and we beat them a few days ago in the league,” Al-Faraj said. “We knew they would come back strongly so we had to be the team that keeps their cool and keep control of our rhythm.”

Al-Hilal’s Italian playmaker Giovinco celebrated the win and insisted that the unconvincing performance in the final was of little consequence.

“It was a difficult game actually but in a final you don’t need to play well, you just need to win,” he said. “Especially this one, it was important because we closed a year in which we made a treble. It was difficult but at the end we deserve it.”

Meanwhile Carrillo promised the fans that there will be more to come from him and the team.

“I’m happy with the third trophy, the most important thing is that the whole group is performing very well,” said the Peruvian. “This is my third year at the club and things have gone very smoothly, the football here is of a high standard. I have a lot more to give in the future.”