What is the essence of footballing success? Arguably one of the most influential figures in the world game was Johan Cruyff for his philosophy on the game moulding an entire nation, and club empire at Barcelona. His singular arrogance in his own way of thinking were backed up by a complete confidence and ability to deliver on the pitch. The marketing success of Manchester United in the last three decades is a testament to greed on one level, but also a forward-thinking attitude to the ever-changing game. For Romario, success meant one thing: personal recognition.
Perhaps this is a little unfair. His obsession with scoring goals drove not only him individually to endless accolades, but also the teams he was a part of to numerous titles. By the time he celebrated the incredible milestone of 1,000 career goals for club and country, he had helped his various clubs to 16 major trophies on three continents. For Brazil, he had been a part of six major tournament-winning sides at different age group levels.
International beginning cut short
The first of those set the tone for a turbulent international career. In truth, he wasn’t part of the official final squad, but he should have been. The Soviet Union was hosting the 1985 FIFA World Youth Championships with Brazil’s crop arriving as South American champions. Romario himself had arrived with his teammates, but was sent home in disgrace after urinating off the balcony of the team hotel in Moscow.
The world they had entered could barely have been any more different. Quite aside from the rudeness and lack of respect it showed, regardless of location, the Soviet Union was a country that was in the process of breaking up under the perestroika movement headed by Mikhail Gorbachev. Its people were accustomed to flamboyance and disregard for rules. Romario’s immaturity was simply unpalatable, and the Brazilian team bosses were left with little choice but to send him home having not played a minute.
Those lost minutes on the pitch could have ended meaning as much damage to his personal pride as anything. As it was, his never-ending rabid hunger for milestones and records left his self-aggrandizing pursuit of 1,000 career goals – which Pele had famously accomplished with far less controversy – within reach.
Romario and Brazil: the affair begins in earnest
Once the seal had been broken, however messily, the world was his oyster. The summer of the two international youth tournament triumphs, he also made his bow as a senior professional at Vasco da Gama. The club had famously rejected him as a teenager for being too short: his nickname Baixinho was simply a factual accuracy, but it took no account of his drive and talent.
As it turned out, many of his major club career moves were marked by international recognition. After the 1988 summer Olympic Games in Seoul, at which he won silver with Brazil having top-scored with seven goals in six matches, he made his first move to Europe by joining PSV Eindhoven. After a season of utter unstoppable individual brilliance from Romario, he became a World Champion in the USA.
That World Cup will be remembered with differing degrees of fondness by even Brazilians. Another star above the CBF crest is priceless regardless of its context of course, but in the stifling American heat the flamboyance usually associated with Brazil didn’t flourish in quite the same manner as previous great sides.
Controversy and friends in high places
Romario didn’t care. He was marginally fortunate to be there at all in some respects; he had missed Italia ‘90 through injury, and in typically egocentric fashion had criticised his national team manager Carlos Alberto Parreira publically in the qualifying campaign. He had subsequently been ostracised from the squad by Parreira, but due to the stumbling form of the then-three-time World Champions – who at that point hadn’t won the World Cup for 24 years – the clamour for Romario’s call-up became too deafening to ignore.
Brazilian football fans are a powerful collective. The sheer fervour and volume of their devotion to their idols makes currying favour with them a very alluring proposition for those in power. Parreira himself conceded defeat and called up Baixinho, who promptly scored twice in the final qualifier against Uruguay to secure a place in the United States.
Pressure to deliver
Even once at the tournament itself, Parreira was inundated with criticism for his practical style. A seemingly simple 4-4-2 system which relied heavily on the explosive instinct of Romario and Bebeto up front for inspiration was marshalled by the destructive powers of Dunga and Mauro Silva. If teams found a way to blunt the effects of Brazil’s forwards, there was precious little room for creativity elsewhere.
The New York Times wrote about the discontent brewing after a particularly uninspiring 1-1 draw with Sweden left many apoplectic with the supposed abandonment of Brazilian values. “Brazil cannot play any worse,” Pele moaned in a newspaper column at the time. When O Rei speaks, his subjects listen.
“It is said that there are 150 million coaches in Brazil,” wrote NY Times columnist Jere Longman, “each certain of what is best for the national soccer team. All 150 million are giving Parreira advice, whether he wants it or not. President Itamar Franco has offered suggested lineup changes. Even Parreiera’s own mother said she would like to see Ronaldo, the 17-year-old sensation.”
Ronaldo follows in Romario’s footsteps
The young buck-toothed wonderkid sat quietly on the bench watching as the Barcelona star tore his way through the scorching temperatures to drive his country to the final. Five goals and a player of the tournament later, and Romario had justified the reluctant faith Parreira had placed in his errant star.
Ronaldo would follow a similar path to Romario, ending up at PSV himself that summer before also continuing to Barcelona. For the national team, however, they would combine to devastating effect. Three years later, they would spearhead Brazil’s attack to Copa America and Confederations Cup glory, with both scoring a hattrick in the latter’s final. That year was faintly ridiculous for their partnership: in the calendar year 1997 alone, the pair scored an astonishing 34 international goals combined.
A devastating muscle injury denied Romario the chance to appear at a second World Cup in France the following summer. Ronaldo was the world’s biggest star following his big-money move to Internazionale, and in the absence of his firebrand partner in crime felt the pressures of expectation, injury and alleged coercion too much. France were crowned champions, and Romario himself was left once again with a point to prove on the world stage.
The final bow
The problem was, he was still the same boy who had grown up with a love of partying and dancing to his own tune. Luis Filipe Scolari had called Romario up to the 2001 Copa America squad, but was rebuffed due to an apparent eye operation. When the player turned out for Vasco da Gama and went on holiday instead, Scolari was furious, and the ensuing exclusion of the then 36-year-old from the 2002 World Cup squad appeared entirely justified.
Hundreds of millions of selectors raised their voices. Even the nation’s president Fernando Henrique Cardoso demanded that Romario be reinstated after stunning form, but Big Phil held firm. Even a tearful appeal on television from the striker himself couldn’t dissuade the manager, and once again the grandest stage of all eluded Romario.
That was his international career over in all but name. He had played 69 times for his country, a miniscule total given his prodigious talent, but perhaps a generous total given his character. In that relatively short international career, he had become Brazil’s second highest scorer behind Pele himself (he would later be overtaken by Ronaldo and Neymar) despite only appearing at one World Cup and various fractious relationships.
In 2005, at the age of 39, he was granted a one-off celebratory match to say goodbye to the Canarinha once and for all. His brief appearance gave him time to notch one last penalty before leaving the pitch to a frenzied reception from the stands. It was the best part of quarter of an hour until play finally resumed after his tearful exit from the stage. The fans could look past all the arrogance, controversy, bitterness and egocentricity, even if the administrators and managers who dealt with him couldn’t.
“It’s a very special moment,” he said. “I’ve been very proud to be able to wear the Brazilian jersey all these years. I’ve always played with a lot of heart, always trying to make the Brazilian people happy.”
He may have only stood 5”5’ tall, but there is little question that Romario was a giant in the yellow shirt of Brazil.