On the occasion of his 50th birthday, we look back at Romario's glittering career...
“Genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.” Those were the words of Thomas Edison, coining a phrase that has since become a pillar of popular wisdom. The prolific American inventor had a point, too - or at least he did 99 per cent of the time: in all but a few rare cases, success comes only through complete devotion to a task and a huge amount of work. In other words, genius cannot be improvised.
But what of the exceptions to the rule, the one percenters? Romario de Souza Faria was always convinced he belonged to a different category to his fellow mortals. “When I was born, the man in the sky pointed to me and said, ‘That's the guy’,” the legendary former striker used to enjoy saying, and the chances are that he was only half-joking. Driven by an unswerving belief in his abilities throughout his career, the Brazilian produced feats of genius on the pitch whether he put in the hard work or not.
The ease with which Romario pulled off everything he put his mind to was truly staggering and gave him genuine bargaining power with his coaches. Never comfortable spending too much time away from his homeland, he would regularly suggest deals with the men in the dugout, asking permission for short trips to Brazil if, for example, he scored two goals in the team’s next game. Even Johan Cruyff, his gaffer at Barcelona, could not fail to be swayed by such incredible self-confidence. Accepting O Baixinho’s terms, the Dutchman had to keep his side of the bargain when his star striker promptly weighed in with a pair of strikes. “He had that rare ability to be able to do great things without working hard at them,” marvelled Cruyff, himself no stranger to the spectacular in his own playing days.
‘Take it easy, coach, I’m going to score’
Things were not always quite so simple for the man from the impoverished Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood of Vila da Penha, however. His introduction to the game came at Estrelinha, the futsal club founded by his father, Edevair, and it was there that his talents were first spotted. After joining Olaria at the age of 13, he was soon moving up the ladder again as his seemingly boundless potential registered on the radar of Brazilian powerhouse Vasco da Gama.
Romario broke into the Vasco first team aged 19 in 1985, and over the next three years he became the darling of the club’s supporters. International recognition swiftly followed and the youngster made a searing impression at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Seoul 1988, finishing top scorer with seven goals in six matches as Brazil took silver. For recently crowned European champions PSV Eindhoven, that sealed the deal, and Romario crossed the Atlantic for his first taste of football on the Old Continent.
Under Guus Hiddink, he helped the Dutch giants clinch three Eredivisie titles and picked up a whole new set of admirers, not least his own coach. “He’s the most interesting player I’ve worked with so far,” said Hiddink. “If he saw that I was a bit more nervous than usual ahead of a big game, he’d come to me and say: ‘Take it easy, coach, I’m going to score and we’re going to win'. What’s incredible is that eight out of the ten times he told me that, he really did score and we really did win.”
Not all the tacticians Romario served under found such overwhelming confidence easy to stomach, however. That proved particularly true at international level, where the day-to-day contact of club life was absent, which goes some way to explaining why his Seleção career played out as a series of highs punctuated by run-ins with the various men in charge.
I’ve never been an athlete. If I’d trained properly, I would have scored even more goals, but perhaps I wouldn’t have been as happy as I am today.
The highs were memorable, though, and Romario attained the status of national hero at the Copa America 1989 as he fired the only goal in the final against Uruguay to end Brazil’s long trophy drought in front of their own fans at the Maracana. Those performances made him one of the players football fans everywhere were most hoping to see at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™, but Romario picked up a serious injury three months before the big kick-off. Despite doing everything he could to recover in time and being rewarded with a spot in Sebastiao Lazaroni’s 22-man squad, his lack of fitness meant he was restricted to a handful of minutes against Scotland.
In the club arena, Romario began a glittering new chapter when he signed for Barcelona in summer 1993, clearly unconcerned about how much action he would see at Camp Nou. Teams were limited to three foreigners in their line-up at the time and, with Bulgarian ace Hristo Stoichkov, Dutch stalwart Ronald Koeman and Danish wizard Michael Laudrup on Barça’s books, competition was always going to be fierce. Nevertheless, Romario arrived in Catalonia without a hint of apprehension. “It’s a pleasure to be here,” he announced at his unveiling, before helping himself to 30 goals in 33 outings in his debut season, adding the title of Pichichi (top scorer) to his La Liga winner’s medal.
For all his achievements in Spain, it was a different matter on the international stage, where Romario was enduring a spell in the wilderness after being cast aside by coach Carlos Alberto Parreira towards the end of 1992. His exclusion provoked a wave of outrage among Brazil supporters, and by extension the entire country, especially when A Seleção made a sluggish start to their USA 1994 qualifying campaign. The clamour for Romario’s return reached a crescendo as Brazil went into their final game against Uruguay needing victory to secure their place, and, when first-choice forward Muller was ruled out with injury, the fans were granted their wish.
Invited back into the fold, Romario responded with both goals at the Maracana – including a truly breathtaking effort – to seal a 2-0 triumph for the hosts. With Brazil’s participation secured, Romario simply went on from there in the tournament proper, earning himself the adidas Golden Ball as best player in the victorious campaign. “Without him, Brazil would never have won that World Cup,” said Cruyff a few years later. “Romario was one of the two or three best players on the planet in the 1990s.”
After that crowning glory, O Baixinho made a string of choices that caught everybody by surprise and, with hindsight, seemed to herald the beginning of the end. Just as everyone expected him to reach even greater heights on European soil, for example, he chose to return to Brazil and sign for Flamengo, sworn enemies of his former side Vasco.
Ill fortune played its hand in the latter part of his career, too, as Romario collected an injury during Brazil’s preparations for France 1998. This time he would not even be granted a few minutes at the main event, and four years later he missed out again as Luiz Felipe Scolari excluded him from his 23-man travelling party. On both occasions, Romario’s tears made the front page of newspapers across the country.
With his form fluctuating, the forward continued his club odyssey with spells at Vasco, Flamengo and Fluminense, not to mention his overseas adventures in the USA and Australia. Every passing season was beginning to look like his last, but striker had other ideas and topped the Brazilian scoring charts one last time in 2005. He was 39 at the time, and two years later he celebrated notching the 1,000th goal of his career by his personal count. Not bad for a player relying on inspiration rather than hard graft.
“I’ve never been an athlete,” he explained later. “If I’d trained properly, I would have scored even more goals, but perhaps I wouldn’t have been as happy as I am today.” Romario’s incredible scoring feats make that a philosophy tough to take issue with, but it would be hard to recommend it to his fellow footballers – or 99 per cent of them at least.
Did You Know?
Romario’s last spell with Vasco da Gama included a period as player/coach. In his first game in charge after replacing Celso Roth, he led his charges to a 1-0 win over Mexico’s America, even using himself as a second-half substitute.
According to his own calculations, Romario scored his 1,000th goal on 20 May 2007, courtesy of a penalty netted for Vasco de Gama against Sport do Recife on Matchday 2 of that year’s Brasileirao.
In August 2009, a year and a half after hanging up his boots, Romario announced he was coming out of retirement to honour a promise made to his late father Edevair that he would one day play for Rio de Janeiro side America, the club closest to the latter’s heart.
In 2010 Romario was elected to Brazil’s lower house of Congress with a four-year mandate after winning the sixth-highest share of the vote in the state of Rio de Janeiro.