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04th Oct 2023

Ardal O’Hanlon recalls airport encounter with Brazilian icon Rivaldo

Niall McIntyre

When Ardal O’Hanlon was commissioned to create ‘Leagues Apart,’ in 2006, an RTÉ documentary about football rivalries, it was fair to say that he realised a childhood dream.

A ‘labour of love’ is how Ardal describes the programme which, as a sporting travelogue of sorts, sees him visit countries all over Europe.

On his travels, O’Hanlon, who has always been a huge football fan, explores the culture of some of the continent’s most historical countries and cities through the prism of football rivalries.

He encountered some of the game’s biggest stars along his way, namely Cameroonian legend Samuel Eto’o and Brazilian icon Rivaldo.

Meeting Rivaldo was of course a great thrill for the Carrickmacross native in 2006, especially when you consider the history between the pair.

“In the Olympiacos one I met Rivaldo,” O’Hanlon recalls on SportsJOE’s House of Football.

“Now this was four years after his magnificent triumph in the 2002 World Cup, where he was probably the player of the tournament.

“There’s a pre-amble to this, however,” O’Hanlon explains.

“Back in 2002, I went away to see Ireland play Portugal in Lisbon.

“I flew from London to Lisbon. I arrive at the airport, join the taxi queue, and standing right beside me is Rivaldo. That’s no word of a lie.”

“I realised it was him immediately. He’s unmistakable.

“He was one of the most iconic people in the world, never mind footballers, he’s standing in the queue beside me, holding a baby in his arms,” continues O’Hanlon, who is renowned for playing a certain priest in Father Ted.

You can watch the encounter from 6.50 to 7.30 in the below clip.

“His baby girl drops her blanket on the ground.

“I pick it up. I pick up Rivaldo’s daughter’s blanket.

“So I say ‘there you go Rivaldo, she dropped that,’ and he kind of smiles at me and whatever else, and I’m going, Rivaldo, we’re mates for life. So I’m so thrilled, this exceeds your wildest dreams.”

Mates for life.

“So then four years later, we spend this great week in Athens, I’m finding out about the history about Olympiacos.

“But anyway, we’re in the training ground in Olympiacos and I see Rivaldo jogging around the pitch on his own so I run over to him, with the camera and everything, and I go ‘hey Rivaldo, remember me,’ I gave you your daughter’s blanket, and he’s just looking at me going ‘get him away, get him away!'”

There was another occasion, this time as he delved into the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry, where O’Hanlon caught a glimpse of their star striker Samuel Eto’o experiencing some car-park struggles.

“I remember we were at the training ground and Eto’o was in his hummer, a few days before it, going along.

“So he drove into training in a hummer. This really cool player, in this really cool car, but because it was a hummer, he couldn’t turn into the underground car-park, so it was a seven point turn, really embarrassing,” he laughs.

From Barcelona-Real Madrid, Roma-Lazio, Feyenoord-Amsterdam, Olympiacos-Panathinaikos, Galatasaray-Fernabache, the show took him to some great games and rivalries.

“The whole thing was a labour of love, a huge childhood ambition.

“When Billy McGrath came to me and asked me for an idea for a show, I told him this was a show I wanted to make since I was a child.

“Because I love travel, I love football and I love culture – the things that make up a culture, and I think football is a great window into the soul of a nation.”

You can watch the full House of Football show here.

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