Some dates just pass us by, disappearing into the ether before we realise their significance. April 27th, 2005 was one of those. Romario de Souza Faria – simply Romario to us – took to the pitch for the last time in the Brazilian national team colours.
Almost exactly a month before the “Miracle of Istanbul”, the world of international football was bidding farewell to a forward whose finishing ability could only be likened to the powers of some kind of deity. Romario would continue to play club level football for another four years. The twilight years of his career took him to Miami, Qatar, Australia (with Adelaide United) and back to Brazil. Nonetheless, Baixinho’s (Shorty) days on the world stage were over.
Unfortunately, his career stats seem to have been sprinkled with a little “Pele dust”. The figures vary from source to source, including from the man himself. Romario likes to include his youth career goals and strikes in club friendlies in his final tally of well over 1,000 goals.
However, we’re not here to debate figures, we’re here to applaud a legend’s undoubted quality and cherish the memories this once most lethal of predators presented us with. Known for his love of the ladies and his late-night lifestyle, Romario was one of the finest natural finishers to ever grace the football pitch.
Get on your feet
Whereas Romario now aims to help his country’s working class get back on track through his influence in politics, football fans the world over couldn’t help but stand up when the ball arrived at his feet. When you consider the amount of football that we have available to watch now, that’s a relatively rare trait in players. Besides the obvious – Messi, Neymar, Suarez, Ronaldo – there is not a huge amount of footballers who literally get the crowd on their feet. There is no feeling like it as a football fan and Romario delivered it to us by the truckload.
Romario had the intelligence, ball control and acceleration to terrify defences in his home country as well as the Eredivisie and La Liga. When looking back over old footage, it’s impossible not to gape in awe at the speed of his feet. This was a player who deserved to be fawned over. Whether it was his favourite “wrap-around turn” with his right foot or the way he would flick the ball well ahead of him and simply dare the defender to beat him over the next five yards, Romario was a once in a generation talent. He could finish powerfully with his right or left and if you were a ‘keeper you couldn’t even consider straying off your line. Why? Well, he would lob you and make it look easy. Oh yeah, he was fond of a toe-poked finish, too.
Early days and beyond
Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1966, Romario was offered his first contract at just 13 years of age. He signed for Olaria in his hometown. Here, he continued to develop his game before Vasco da Gama signed him two years later. This was the dream move that many young Brazilian footballers hoped for. Vasco has always been one of the bigger clubs in the Brazilian game. Now, the young Romario would get the chance to cut his teeth amongst a far higher standard of player. The Holy Grail of a career in European football was getting closer and closer.
In 1988, Romario was a part of the Brazilian team that won a silver medal at the Olympics in Seoul. Bebeto and Claudio Taffarel were also a part of this squad but it was Romario who would garner all of the immediate attention upon their return from South Korea.
He had finished as top scorer with seven goals in the tournament including the opening goal in the 2-1 final defeat against the Soviet Union. Some other goalscorers of note from the 1988 Olympics were Jurgen Klinsmann, Dragan Stojkovic, Andrea Carnevale and Rashidi Yekini (RIP).
Romario’s performances at the Olympics earned him an immediate move to PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands. It was here, in the Eredivisie, where his name began to gain some well-deserved recognition. Quickly, Romario became known for his close control and ability to create something out of nothing in a crowded penalty area.
He scored 19 goals in 24 league appearances in his first season and helped PSV to claim the Eredivisie title – a feat they would achieve twice more during Romario’s five-year stint at the club. In total, he scored 129 goals in 142 appearances for PSV Eindhoven. No doubt, the experience of playing under Guus Hiddink and Bobby Robson consecutively in Eindhoven allowed Romario to develop his undoubted natural talents to an even higher level.
Romario’s international career spanned from 1987 to 2005. He scored 55 goals in 70 games for Brazil. It didn’t take him long to become a national treasure – his near post headed goal in the 1989 Copa America final against Uruguay earned him that privilege. It was the only goal of the game and Romario’s third of the tournament. More importantly, it had earned his country its first Copa America title since 1949.
Brazil qualified for Italia ‘90 but Romario suffered a serious ankle injury towards the end of the season at PSV. He was given a place on the squad but due to the fact he was only returning from injury, he only managed one appearance at the finals. Brazil’s journey ended with a 1-0 defeat to arch-rivals, Argentina, in the last sixteen.
Romario did not make the Brazilian group for the 1991 Copa America finals. Falcao, in his brief tenure as head coach, decided to leave him out. Carlos Alberto Parreira took over after Brazil’s 2nd-place finish in those finals. Romario was recalled to the national team, however, he had a run-in with Parreira in late 1992 after he was not picked to start in a friendly international after travelling from PSV.
That dispute lasted right through the 1993 Copa America. It was only Brazil’s struggles in their attempts to qualify for USA ‘94 that led to Parreira relenting and bringing Romario back into the fold. He was recalled for the final qualifier against Uruguay at the Maracana Stadium. Romario scored both goals in a 2-0 win that paved their way north for the World Cup finals.
In 1993, at the age of 27, Romario was recruited to be a vital member of Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team” at Barcelona. With a spine of Zubizarreta, Koeman, Guardiola, and Stoichkov, the club was seen to be realising the vision set out by Cruyff when he took over in 1988. Indeed, Romario and Stoichkov would form one of the most potent attacking partnerships ever seen in world football. Sadly, the Catalan club would only get to bask in its glory for one full season as personal differences caused continuous rifts between the fiery pair.
After five successful seasons at PSV, it was time for the next step in Baixinho’s career. Romario scored 30 goals in just 33 La Liga games in that first season, including a hat-trick in a 5-0 El Clasico win. He was on the scoresheet the following season as Manchester United were taken apart, 4-0 at Camp Nou in the Champions League. Unfortunately, Romario would be leaving Barcelona two months after the game that prompted Alex Ferguson to comment that his team had been “well and truly slaughtered.” Romario left after falling out with Johan Cruyff and as a result, only played the opening months of that final season.
Stoichkov had been the top scorer at USA ‘94 the previous summer, leading his Bulgarian team to the semi-finals. He was awarded the European Player of the Year trophy just a month after the United demolition. Romario was awarded the 1994 FIFA World Player of the Year title after helping the Brazilians to the World Cup. Both men battled it out to be the alpha-male at Camp Nou. It was a case of too many egos battling for attention and something had to give.
There was never a dull moment during this period of Romario’s career – his father, Edevair, was kidnapped and held for six days in May 1994 (with a demand for a $7m ransom exchange). Thankfully, he was released after six days. Romario landed a left-hook on Diego Simeone when playing Sevilla and received a five-game suspension. He left Barcelona in January 1995. Cruyff’s Dream Team slowly began to crumble with Stoichkov, Laudrup and Zubizarreta all departing at the end of the 1994/95 season. As for Romario, he made his way home to Brazil. He will always be remembered at Barcelona for his part in one of their most exciting, attacking teams.
Victory in the USA
It took Romario just 26 minutes to score his country’s first goal at USA ‘94. Russia was beaten 2-0 that day. He opened the scoring again in their next game, a 3-0 victory over Cameroon. Romario made it three from three with the equaliser against Sweden in their final group game.
His strike partner for the World Cup was Bebeto, who managed to score three goals in the tournament himself. It was Bebeto who scored the only goal to knock out the hosts in the last sixteen. Both men got on the scoresheet in the quarter-finals as the Netherlands were beaten 3-2, Branco with the late winner in that game.
Brazil met Sweden again in the semi-finals. Romario scored the game’s solitary goal in the 80th minute, putting Brazil into the final against Italy.
The final was a dour affair which Brazil won on penalties after a scoreless draw. For the record, Romario scored his penalty in the shootout. Brazil were champions and Romario was awarded the World Cup Golden Ball as the most valuable player of the tournament. He had scored five goals at the finals, one behind the shared Golden Boot winners of Hristo Stoichkov and Oleg Salenko, of Bulgaria and Russia respectively.
As he left American soil that July, little did Romario know that he would never play again at a World Cup finals.
Romario was just turning 29 when he signed for Flamengo in early ‘95. He hit the ground running and gave them five fantastic seasons, scoring 144 goals in 160 games in all competitions. The period at Flamengo was broken up by two terse spells back in La Liga where he plied his short-term trade at Valencia. The first time ended after a bust-up with Luis Aragones, leading to Romario being loaned back to Flamengo during the 1996/97 season. Claudio Ranieri replaced Aragones at Valencia in the summer of 1997 and Romario went back to Spain. However, he again returned to Flamengo in the early months of 1997/98 with the hope of playing regular football and earning a place in the national team for the France ‘98 World Cup.
Romario remained with Flamengo until he was sacked in 2000. The reason for his sacking? He decided to visit a nightclub just hours after his team had been knocked out of the national championship.
The Ro-Ro years and World Cup disappointment
Romario again missed out on the 1995 Copa America at the behest of Mario Zagallo, now in charge of the national team. Zagallo brought him back to partner an up-and-coming striker named Ronaldo after those finals. Romario and Ronaldo formed a devastating partnership labelled Ro-Ro. They scored eight goals between them (Ronaldo 5, Romario 3) at the 1997 Copa America finals while claiming Brazil’s first title win since Romario had won it for them in ‘89.
Brazil had automatically booked their place at the 1998 World Cup as holders. Zagallo was still in charge as they headed for France, however, Romario was left out due to his failure to recover from a muscle injury. Romario broke down in tears when confirming this to the gathered media at a press conference in Brazil. Zagallo’s men reached the final but lost 3-0 to France on a day that Zinedine Zidane became a household name.
Vanderlei Luxemburgo was in charge as Brazil claimed their sixth Copa America title in 1999. However, it was without Romario. Ronaldo was now the main man at the pinnacle of the attack and the excellent Rivaldo was creating chances aplenty for him from his number ten position.
Another combustible partnership
So, it was back to where it all began for Romario. Vasco da Gama was his next port of call. Despite the aforementioned trips to Miami, Qatar, and Australia in his later years, this was where he would spend the lion’s share of this final stretch.
His immediate strike partner at VdG was Edmundo, or O Animal, as he was known due to his ferocious temper. Romario and Edmundo could play together but it didn’t come easily to them. They had a strong personal dislike for each other. Both renowned for their bad-boy image and both with a reputation for a love of the drinking culture and clubbing, it’s a wonder they couldn’t make it “work” in some way. In fact, Edmundo had it in his contract at VdG that the club could not look to interfere in his private life, allowing him to continue to constantly grace the Rio nightclubs.
Their first game together was against Manchester United in the Club World Championships. Romario scored two and Edmundo got the other in a 3-1 win. Romario shared the top scorer title with Nicolas Anelka of Real Madrid for that tournament. Vasco lost the final to Corinthians when Edmundo missed the vital spot-kick in the shootout.
Romario and Edmundo continued to clash back in Brazil. There were understandable ructions when Edmundo was stripped of the club captaincy, Romario appointed as his successor. The role of penalty-taker was also a cause for in-fighting. When Edmundo left after falling out with the Club’s Board of Directors later that year, Romario was quoted as saying “They say his dream is to play alongside me in the national team. My dream is to never play with him again.”
Amazingly, they partnered up anew four years later at Fluminense. It was a desperate last-ditch attempt by the club to avoid relegation. It worked. During their short union at Fluminense, they helped them into the top ten in their division. As eventful as they were, their days as a strike partnership ended there in 2003.
International exile and the end
Luiz Felipe Scolari was in charge of Brazil in 2001. That year saw Romario damage his international career again. He withdrew from the Copa America squad, citing an upcoming eye operation as his reason. Yet, ridiculously, he turned out for his club, Vasco da Gama, in some friendly games shortly afterwards. Oh, and just to rub salt into Scolari’s wounds, Romario then went on holidays.
That incident led to Scolari leaving Romario out of his squad for the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan & South Korea. Romario was now 36 but still conducted himself in a lax manner off the pitch. Scolari did not want the indiscipline of Romario upsetting his camp and said he was excluded for “technical and tactical” reasons. It was clear the damage caused by Romario’s actions the previous year was still as raw as ever. Brazil, of course, went on to win their fifth World Cup in Asia in his absence. Also, the 2004 Copa America was claimed, with Carlos Alberto Parreira back in charge. Brazil’s wealth of homegrown talent again coming to the fore in the guise of another striker. Adriano scored seven goals in total as Brazil strode to victory.
So, it was onto that date in April 2005. Romario was called up for one final performance in the famous yellow and blue. It was a friendly against Guatemala which Brazil won 3-0. Romario scored a header to make it 2-0. He was substituted before half-time as was the plan between the striker and Parreira. The game was held up for five minutes as Romario raced around the field waving his jersey while the capacity crowd chanted his name.
Romario had made his international debut coming on as a substitute in Dublin in 1987, a game famous for an Irish 1-0 victory over the Brazilians thanks to a Liam Brady goal. 18 years later, he was waving goodbye to his national team.
Romario continued to turn out for various lower-level sides until 2007 when he retired at Vasco da Gama. Even in that final year at VdG in 2007, Romario notched 13 goals in 15 appearances. That was in the top-tier of Brazilian football when he was 41 years of age. He had also been appointed as player-manager in that year but he had to take more of a backseat role after receiving a 120-day doping ban. Romario always blamed that failed drug test on the contents of a hair-loss product he had been taking. He never played for VdG again.
He did make one final appearance for America-RJ (where he was then the Sporting Director) in the Brazilian league in 2009 in what he claimed was a desire to fulfil his late father’s wishes (America-RJ were another local Rio de Janeiro team).
The fallible man
We love the imperfections in our heroes, the reminders that those we look up to are human like the rest of us. Romario had plenty. He was not an ideal role model for young professionals. His spirited character led to countless clashes with teammates, most notably Stoichkov and Edmundo. He had numerous rifts with those in authority, namely Cruyff, Aragones and Scolari. Nonetheless, you could forget all that in an instant when watching him with the ball at his feet. This is the tale of the flawed champion. The man who brought joy to millions had more failings than most of us – yet he reached heights us mere mortals could only ever dream of.