Jair Bolsonaro is a name that the whole will remember forever. As an extreme right-wing proponent of many misogynistic, racist and downright disturbing views, he has been elected as president of Brazil on a wave of nationalistic fervour. In 2018, there are many movements in progress around the world designed to disseminate hatred and division. Few are as explicitly graphic and direct as Bolsonaro’s: time will tell how the Samba nation will fare under his maniacal grip.
One area he ran his campaign on is little short of introducing martial law in many of Rio de Janeiro’s impoverished favelas to eradicate crime and dissent. As a congressman, he proposed enforced birth control for the poor as a way to control the favelas. One man he will find in his path may be small in physical in stature, but is a force of nature in more ways than one: Senator Romario de Souza Faira.
Romario’s transformation from player to politician
A member of the centrist political party Podemos, Romario has shed his misconception of a self-centred egomaniac in spectacular fashion since finally retiring as a professional footballer. Ahead of the World Cup in 2014, he violently battled against the corruption he saw going on around his native Rio, especially the disregard for the favelas from where he came. He has championed the rights of disabled people and their access to sport, while offering a very public face in the struggle against discrimination.
How did the man who openly slandered his teammates and managers, ignored many contractual obligations and made it his life mission to pursue a spurious personal target get to this stage? The pitbull determination that drove him to vanquish terrified defenders has given way to a mellow, caring socially-aware life cause. As always, there is more than meets the eye to Romario.
Of course the on-pitch image of the great striker is one of that remains in the conscience of most. Image is not, ironically, something that every really mattered to Romario in the broadest sense. His party lifestyle was not exactly unique, and consideration of other opinions was not major concern of his. His obsession with goalscoring was purely individualistic.
Arrogance, Aragones and Valencia
After inducing the grandest stage European football had to offer, it was almost as if his life span in the Old Continent was spent. He was approaching his 30th birthday, and it was unlikely another top club would take a punt on him. After finally exhausting the patience of the legendary Johan Cruyff – an individualist who admired his raw talent – at Barcelona, he returned to Brazil with the most popular club in his homeland, Flamengo.
“It has to be Romário,” replied Cruyff when asked about the best player he had ever coached. “You never knew what to expect with him. His technique was outstanding, and he scored goals from every possible position, most of them with his toe, funnily enough.”
His technique would be enjoyed on two further fleeting spells back in Spain – both with Valencia – but as far as his focus was, Europe was behind him. Luis Aragones, Spain’s 2008 World Cup-winning manager, was at the helm when Baixinho returned to Iberia in the summer of 1996, but it was a relationship doomed to fail from the start.
Romario was said to be unmotivated and with a relaxed attitude to training. He had been so used to his quixotic genius being accommodated, or at least suffered in relative silence, that to be faced with a rigid disciplinarian as Aragones was to plunge his fiery mood into icy water. He would later brand the silver-haired Spaniard “an imbecile”.
The training ground provided the turning point. The two could barely stand to look each other in the eye, and when Romario turned away Aragones bellowed at his player. “Look me in the eyes!” However right he may have been to demand some respect from his player, it was a certain way to bring a swift end to the attempted comeback, and before the year was out, it was once again the red and black of Flamengo that he wore.
A shift in focus
In the spell with the Rubro-Negro prior to his move to the Costa Brava, Romario had been involved in a violent defence of a teammate in a Copa Libertadores tie. Incensed at the perceived unfair treatment doled out to his fellow forward, he launched into the chest of the offending opposition player feet first. This fighting spirit in defence of the ones he loved, or at least shared a pitch with, was a common theme throughout his career.
Despite being married three times and fathering six children, his dedication to them has been as strong as any parent. In 2005, his daughter Ivy was born with Down Syndrome. At the time, there were scant facilities widely available to those with disabilities, and it sparked a sense in Romario that his sense of purpose was shifting.
In the run up to the 2014 World Cup, only a few years after finally hanging up his boots for the last time, Romario campaigned against the corruption surrounding public funds intended for World Cup upgrades to his home city of Rio de Janeiro. His personal tale with Ivy drove him to champion the cause of those with limited mobility.
Although his loan back to Flamengo in 1996 ended and Romario returned to Valencia, once again it wasn’t long before he was back in his homeland. He cited wanting to put himself in the best possible position to make the France ‘98 World Cup squad to defend the title he had earned four years earlier. For all the cynicism suggesting that he merely wanted to part more comfortably, he was proven spectacularly right.
The year before the World Cup was his most explosive by some distance in the famous yellow shirt of his country. Ronaldo partnered him to victorious Copa America and Confederations Cup campaigns, while scoring an astonishing 34 combined international goals for Brazil. For Flamengo he was on fire too, racking up well over 100 goals in three seasons before moving on to Vasco da Gama in 2000.
There he was reunited with the teammate he had defended so passionately on the pitch five years earlier: Edmundo. By now the relationship had deteriorated spectacularly, but if anything it spurred him on even more. Anything Edmundo could do, he could do better. Romario had ironically been replaced in the Brazil squad by the latter when an injury forced him agonisingly out of Mario Zagallo’s squad. The goals were flying in at club level though, and the hunt for 1,000 goals came into sharp focus.
Daughter Ivy inspires a new career
As he moved into his mid-30s, he moved on to Fluminense before flitting around the globe in short-lived stints in Australia, Qatar and the second-tier USL with Miami FC. His last hurrah on the pitch came at the sprightly age of 41, when he was even coerced into a player-manager role for the final months. Nobody saw him being suited to a role of greater responsibility, but under the surface even greater plans were gestating, even if Romario himself didn’t realise.
The pain he had felt at seeing his daughter Ivy be born two years earlier with a serious condition had initially lead him to sink into an acute state of guilt. After meeting other people whose children were also born with serious conditions, he realised that there needed to be a greater representation for those who needed a voice. Who better than one of the most recognisable faces in the country.
In 2010 he was voted into the Chamber of Deputies, during which time he had to acclimatise rapidly to the tedious, arduous and draconian processes upon which Brazilian politics ran. He was not a man accustomed to waiting for a lengthy solution to his problems, and at first the elder statesman sneered at the footballer trying to play the big boys’ game. They reckoned without Romario’s insatiable hunger and desire, however.
Campaigning for those less fortunate, and against corruption
His campaigning against the morality of the 2014 World Cup struck a chord with many. In the Confederations Cup a year before the biggest show on earth rolled into town, there were riots involving over a million people protesting the lavish spending that casually ignored the real issues that everyday residents demanded resolving. It came as little surprise therefore when Romario was voted into the Brazilian senate a few months after the tournament had passed.
The old political guard weren’t laughing anymore. Romario to date has one of the best attendance records in the senate, and has chaired numerous hearings in an attempt to hold those responsible for largesse and lack of responsibility to account.
His relentless work ethic and principled direction has lead him further up the greasy ladder of politics. Earlier this year, he stood for Governor of Rio de Janeiro, and finished fourth in the overall vote. The fact that the winner, Luiz Fernando Pezao, was recently arrested on corruption charges – continuing a run of 20 years during which every Rio Governor has been arrested – makes the future chances of Romario ascending to one of the most influential positions in Brazil even greater. At his current rate, it would take a bold man to bet against Baixinho eventually rising to the highest seat of them all.
Not bad for the little boy from the favelas.