Joining a global institution that had been crowned European champions just one year earlier might daunt some people. Walking out in front of over 100,000 fans with the weight of expectation firmly on one’s shoulders would make most mortals wilt. Playing underneath arguably the most iconic, era-defining character who shaped an entire philosophy could overshadow the privilege of pulling on the famous shirt. For Romario, however, it was mere child’s play.
Romario’s Barcelona debut in context
As debut hat-tricks go, the Brazilian’s Barcelona bow pretty much had it all. Dropping deep into midfield for large parts of the game, he was insatiable from the start. It took him all of 15 minutes to dart past two Real Sociedad defenders with exquisite timing and drill a perfectly placed finish into the bottom left corner. From then on, it was all about him. When you share a pitch with Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and a young Josep Guardiola and still steal the entire limelight, you must be something special talent.
Koeman’s free kick had handed Barcelona their first ever European Cup a year earlier at Wembley, prompting club vice-president Joan Gaspart to leap into the River Thames in celebration. Nowadays another piece of silverware may not seem so significant, so accustomed has the footballing world become to seeing Blaugrana ribbons tied to trophy after trophy. Back then, however, it was a truly watershed moment, a long-awaited awakening of a giant.
Geniuses had been and gone through the years. Cruyff himself as a player, of course, had fallen in love with Catalunya as much as it had with their dancing conductor, weaving his way into the fabric of the club as well as through hapless defences. Diego Maradona had a tempestuous season after leaving his spiritual home in Napoli. Laszlo Kubala and Sandor Kocsis had defected from communist Hungary in the 1950s to dazzle their adopted home. None had managed to bring home the grandest prize of all.
Barcelona’s summer of expectation
When the European Cup was brought home, the celebrations continued in Barcelona as the world saw the city host the Olympics. There was a truly momentous feel to the place that summer; South Africa sent their first team since 1960 in the wake of apartheid having been repealed a year earlier after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison alongside Germany’s first unified presence since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The professional basketball players were allowed to compete for the first time, bringing the USA mythical Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to a global audience. Barcelona was the centre of the world.
The next season, however, CSKA Moscow – fresh from the dramatic break-up of the Soviet Union – stunned the European champions in the second round to knock Barcelona out of Europe. The continental frustration was offset somewhat by another La Liga title, but not eradicated completely. The air was filled not with the dreaded resignation of another lost opportunity, but a hunger to hammer home a dominant culture on football. This was the environment into which Romario was thrust in September 1993.
A taste for goals
Guardiola had lashed a dipping, swerving volley hurtling towards the Real Sociedad goal only to see it tipped away at full stretch by Alberto Lopez. His contribution didn’t end there, though. In the second half, his patient vision to loft a pass over the defence to Romario was sublime in its simplicity. The forward played a firm touch to Guardiola while instantly turning past his marker. At full pace, he didn’t need to break stride to stroke a gentle controlling touch onto the floating through ball before caressing it with a delicate second past Lopez.
The Brazilian was playing in his first match alongside Guardiola, and yet his faith in the Catalan to find him with a first-time return ball told of a partnership years in the making. In fact, the manner in which he slotted straight into the side promised a long and fruitful career at the Camp Nou. Once he had completed his hattrick, the day was his and an idol was born.
If three goals on debut was the perfect way to explode into the Barcelona conscience, another three in El Clasico was even more significant. Real arrived at the Camp Nou in January 1994 to meet another Romario masterclass. There was no stopping Romario.
That same month, the gremlins began to creep out from underneath the successful veneer of goals and acclaim. Perhaps sensing his exponential rise and adoration from Los Cules, Romario asked Cruyff for permission to take a few days off to attend the Rio Carnival. As his manager, the Dutchman was reluctant to allow too much slack to a renegade star; if anyone understood the independent mind of a genius, it was him.
Allegedly, Cruyff compromised by promising his talisman a couple of days to let his hair down if he scored twice in the following game. After scoring twice within 20 minutes, Romario signalled to the bench that he wanted to be substituted. Although he had fulfilled his side of the bargain, Cruyff was perplexed. “My flight leaves in an hour,” Romario is said to have explained with an impish grin on his stubble-ridden face. There was little Cruyff could do but comply.
The alternative life view the Brazilian lead was not of the same strand as Cruyff’s, but he knew a single-minded determination when he saw one. Stoichkov was an equally turbulent character, and both began to push the boundaries. When Romario returned from USA ‘94 as not only a Brazilian world champion but as the player of the tournament, the tension between player and manager ratcheted up a notch. Stoichkov was joint top goalscorer to boot, having been voted European Player of the Year a few weeks earlier, leading Cruyff to brand him “saturated by praise and prizes”.
Neither had needed any encouragement to enlarge their sense of self-worth. On the back of a stupendously entertaining season the individual accolades, however, and insurmountable glory of hoisting the World Cup trophy in Romario’s case, two headstrong characters became a headache for their boss. In May, they had been torn apart by AC Milan in the Champions League final, but it wasn’t the result itself that had most angered Cruyff. “We can lose as we did in Athens in the European Cup against Milan last year,” he said sometime later, “but the worst thing is the attitude of the players on the pitch.”
Despite the engorged self-confidence that seemed to be eroding his standing at Barcelona, Romario began negotiating terms on an improved contract in December 1994. He had only scored four league goals all season having bagged 30 the previous campaign, but at least it appeared he wanted to make a name for himself in Barcelona, even it was largely spurred on by egotistical reasons.
Return to Brazil
At the turn of the year, reports began surfacing that Romario wanted out. Given the vast expense invested in their stocky striker, though, it was hard to see how the board would be happy to let him leave without a fight. Flamengo chairman Kleber Leite was a persuasive – and wealthy – man though, and he flew to Spain to discuss a ₤4 million deal to help his countryman return home. Cruyff was fed up, and had no such intention of fighting to restore Romario to the form he had shown before.
“I want the best from my players. If Romario is not happy here and wants to go home, he no longer interests me.”
Romario had met Leite while back in Brazil on holiday over the new year and had stayed longer than agreed. Whether it was this impudent disregard for club rules that had tipped the management over the edge or the smooth talking of Flamengo’s president, it hardly mattered; the result was the same, and the goal-hungry Romario was heading back.
While trouble may have been brewing, it wasn’t immediately apparent to all in the club how deep the feeling ran. Charly Rexach was taken aback by the Brazilian’s sudden extraction from Catalunya.
“We were all taken by surprise when he came back from Brazil and started talking about the possibility of leaving,” he said. “When a player tells you clearly he wants to go, you can’t tie him down. You have to understand him and look for a solution.”
The European sojourn was over – for now.