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 Saturday, July 20, 2002 17:44 EST

Rivaldo to return to Barcelona


BARCELONA -- Brazilian World Cup winner Rivaldo will arrive back in Barcelona on Sunday to huge speculation about his future, with newspapers claiming he could even end up at archrival Real Madrid.

Rivaldo, who scored five goals in the World Cup, is out of contract in June 2003 -- when he could leave on a free transfer -- and the Catalan club is considering its options.

Rivaldo had a row with coach Louis van Gaal during the Dutchman's first spell in charge, and Barcelona newspapers claimed on Saturday that the club is ready to let him walk away now, saving estimated salary costs of 7.5 million euros.

That would also solve a problem over the number of non-European Union players in its squad. Clubs in Spain are allowed to register four "foreigners" and with Rivaldo, Barcelona has five.

Real Madrid's sporting director Jorge Valdano laughed off reports that his club are about to bid for the player, just as they signed Luis Figo from their archrival two years ago.

"There is no Rivaldo situation as far as we're concerned," Valdano said. "Rivaldo is a Barcelona player and this is all just newspaper speculation.

"If Rivaldo were to become free that could interest us, though. We're always interested in the world's best players."

Rivaldo's team mates at Barcelona are keen for him to stay, although there seems to be a growing feeling that he could be about to leave.

"He's one of the best players in the world," Argentine forward Javier Saviola said on Saturday. "If he leaves we'll just have to try and see that someone takes his place."

The presentation of the Barcelona squad for the 2002-03 season is scheduled for Monday evening, by which time Spanish international midfielder Gaizka Mendieta may have joined on a loan deal from Lazio.

Rivaldo will almost certainly be part of that presentation, too, but how long he remains a Barcelona player appears open to question.

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