A very happy 50th birthday to Mr Romário de Souza Faria.
The Brazilian was part of perhaps the last generation of players to retain an air of mystique by virtue of their relative absence from our TV screens. Unlike contemporary stars, opportunities to watch Romario in action were few and far between. We had to subsist on the odd Champions League tie against English opposition or patiently await the next World Cup. Having never signed for an Italian club we didn’t even get the privilege of an occasional glimpse on Channel 4 of a Sunday afternoon, as we did with so many other marquee names of the period. This scarcity only added to his lustre.
Romario didn’t have the best of luck with World Cups. Injuries denied him in 90 and 98 and a personality clash with big Phil resulted in his exclusion from the victorious 02 squad. This meant that to a generation of British football fans, Romario’s legend is founded mostly on seven performances at USA 94 and a pair of games in the same year against Manchester United. He’s probably the last South American superstar to fit into that category: universally & rightfully revered despite none us having seen much of him play.
This speaks to the impact he made during that tournament. In a transitional period shortly before the world game became ubiquitous, USA 94 marked arguably the last World Cup Brazil arrived at with an otherworldly aura. With a squad half drawn from Brazilian clubs and containing only a handful of players that anybody knew much about, it wouldn’t be a stretch to label them an unknown quantity, as ridiculous as that sounds from this vantage point. All we knew was that we were in for a hell of a ride, right? Eleven mavericks. You score three, we’ll score four. Then the tournament began…and they had Rai and Mauro Silva in central midfield.
In reality, Brazil’s approach to the game had been evolving towards a more European style for some time; since the glorious failure of 82 in fact. However, nobody had informed me of this. Having been weaned on VHS tapes of the teams of Pele, Zico et al this was all a little underwhelming.
Whilst stocked with some very good players, the 94 vintage were a largely functional, uninspiring side with one major exception; the short, squat lad up front with the great big arse. He moved differently to the others, swaggering about the pitch, with incredible acceleration over five yards, holding onto the ball for longer and committing defenders. He was the only recognisably Brazilian player as far as I could tell.
If Maradona was the stardust for Argentina in 86, Romario fulfilled the same role for Brazil eight years later. Finishing with 5 goals and (controversially) the player of the tournament award, three moments stand out. First, the trademark run and toe poke finish against Sweden, second, the run and assist for Bebeto’s winner against the USA (some excellent special effects following the goal here) and finally the balletic half volley against the Netherlands.
Although World Cup victory was the undoubted high point of Romario’s international career, he had already guaranteed himself immortality with this match winning header against Uruguay (at 2:15) in the Copa America of 1989 – incredibly, Brazil’s first continental title in 40 years.
Finishing up as the Seleção’s third highest scorer (55 goals in 70 games), behind only Pele and Ronaldo, Romario’s goalscoring at club level was no less impressive. The second highest ever scorer in Brazilian domestic football history, his record in European football is comparable to anyone before or since. In five seasons at PSV he netted 96 goals in 107 games. Better remembered for a briefer spell at Camp Nou, he scored 34 times in 46 outings including this hat trick against Real Madrid, featuring a turn and toe poke almost as good as his effort against Sweden, and a goal home and away against Man Utd (away clip is worth watching if only for Kevin Keegan’s hapless attempts at pronouncing Stoichkov at 1:12) Steve Bruce later referred to him as “arguably the best player I ever faced.”
Never short on confidence – “The day I was born, God laid eyes on me and said: ‘He’s the man.'” – the Brazilian belongs to a proud tradition of brilliant but volatile loose cannons largely absent from the modern game. Witness this blind side cheap shot on Diego Simeone to get an idea. Fallings out first with Cruyff and then Luis Aragones at Valencia cut short his stay in Europe and precipitated a return to Brazil.
The latter stages of his career in his homeland weren’t without some notable moments. Chief amongst them was a ridiculous turn in the 2000 Mercosur Cup final (a short lived trans-continental tournament featuring South America’s top clubs) for Vasco De Gama against Palmeiras. Trailing 3-0 at half-time, Romario led a second half comeback, culminating in a hat-trick completing, injury-time winning goal. Remarkably, five years later, at the age of 39 he finished the Brazilian championship as its top scorer.
Ever quotable, following his omission from the 2002 World Cup squad, Romario answered a question on whether he’d be watching on TV thus: “The games start at six o’clock in the morning. At that time, I’m usually getting home.” Imagine an English player coming out with that. On another occasion, when pressed on rumours surrounding his private life, he responded “Only televisions should worry about projecting a good image.”