“When I was born, the man in the sky pointed to me and said, ‘That’s the guy’.”
Romario is not a man shy of his talents. When asked after his retirement which Brazilian player he saw as his most natural heir, the answer was forthcoming: “I don’t see there being a successor. There was only one Pele, only one Maradona, and there’ll only ever be one Romario. However, in the penalty area I consider myself the best there’s been.”
Yet it would be inaccurate to describe Romario as arrogant, for there is no exaggeration of self-importance in that quote. When you’re the most revered Brazilian striker in the history of the game, it is impossible to overstate your worth. When you’ve scored 1,000 goals, you can big up your penalty-box prowess all you like.
That landmark, achieved with a penalty kick for Vasco da Gama against Sport Recife on May 20, 2007, is understandably viewed with some suspicion. Romario himself concedes that it includes goals in junior matches, testimonials and friendly games. The competitive number may sit nearer 800, although there is footage of at least 900 goals.
Those quibbling about the number may be missing the point. The key is not that Romario scored 1,000 times, but that the Brazilian public believed and celebrated the feat as if he has – they deeply wanted it to be true. The countdown to that final goal became the cause celebre of Brazilian football, effectively a countdown to his retirement. When the penalty was scored, play was stopped for over half an hour to allow for celebrations from supporters.
The skeleton of Romario’s career is one shared by many successful South American footballers before and since. Born in the Jacarezinho favela, the second largest in Rio de Janeiro, Romario’s childhood was afflicted by severe poverty. Football was his escapism and his escape. Spotted playing for a local team (Olaria), he was scouted and signed by one of the biggest clubs on the continent (Vasco da Gama). From there he went to a mid-range European club (PSV Eindhoven) and eventually a behemoth of the world game (Barcelona).
It is the substantial flesh – often literal – around that skeleton that makes Romario so iconic. Johan Cruyff described him as “a genius of the goal area”, while Ronaldo was just as effusive: “Romário was the most decisive player who I played with, he was a great goal scorer, finisher, skilful, opportunist. I think I learnt all of that from him.” When asked who the best player he saw play was, Diego Maradona could not decide. “It is between Romário and Van Basten,” he said.
At PSV Eindhoven, Romario was supreme. An unknown quantity upon his arrival, the striker scored 165 goals in 167 games over five seasons, before Cruyff and Barcelona came calling. Thirty goals in 33 league games helped the Dream Team win La Liga, Romario’s partnership with Hristo Stoichkov the finest in world football. In the summer of 1994, Romario’s performances dragged Brazil to World Cup victory, scoring five of their 11 goals in the tournament. He was promptly named Player of the Tournament, and later World Player of the Year.
Romario ended with 55 goals in 70 Selecao matches, his last coming at the age of 39. That same season, he was the top scorer in the Brazilian league. The muscles were sore and the fitness was fading, but the old magic was still left in the feet. Romario made sure not to cause fatigue between matches. As he said upon retiring at the age of 42, “I’m happy because it means I’ll never have to train again.”
Given his prodigious goal record, it would be easy to assume that Romario was merely a poacher, but his majesty lay not just in his finishing, but creativity. He was the ultimate multi-tasker, able to dribble past a defender, knock the ball past them and sprint through, or ghost undetected into a position from which he would invariably score. As Thierry Henry once said: “Romario [together with Ronaldo and George Weah], reinvented the centre forward position. They were the first to drop from the penalty box to pick up the ball in midfield, switch to the flanks, attract and disorientate the central defenders with their runs, their acceleration, their dribbling.”
Add immense technical skill to that long list of abilities, and you have a striker almost unsurpassed. Salah Assad, Sergio Echigo and Rivelino are all credited with inventing the flip flap, but Romario took it to the masses. He had the ability – and more importantly the desire – to make his opponent look utterly foolish, nutmegs second only to goals. So dangerous was Romario that defenders were as scared of his feints as his movements. Thwarting him became a guessing game.
Romario’s iconic goal came in El Clasico on January 8, 1994, his first of three in a 5-0 victory, and included one of his signature tricks. Receiving the ball at feet and facing away from goal, he dragged the ball with his right foot as he spun on the spot, ball and boot never out of contact. In one move he was through on goal before the defender could even turn around to run. Romario’s preferred method of destruction was the delicate toe poke, skewed either wide of the goalkeeper or dinked over him. When you score 1,000 times, practice really does make perfect.
There is a word in Brazilian’s football lexicon to describe players like Romario: Craque. The craque is a team’s star player, one whose status is elevated almost above the team as a whole in the eyes of the public. Garrincha, Pele, Neymar, Romario; all were the Craque of their Brazil team. Only Garrincha defines the term more exactly than Romario, the man they nicknamed ‘Shorty’.
Crucially, craque does not simply refer to talent, but joy imparted. It is not enough for a Brazilian football icon to be proficient. To reach divine status, personality is important. Romario embodies Brazilian culture more than any other living player.
Romario was not just laidback, he was semi-permanently horizontal. Guus Hiddink, his manager at PSV, recalls his young striker’s attitude to important matches: “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.”
Yet Romario’s disposition can only truly be summed up by his answers when asked to give some life tips to magazine readers, as relayed by the Guardian in 2007. “Find a prick to slag you off and motivate yourself with this challenge,” was one, “Shag every day, but three times at the most” another. It is tip No. 6 that best combines poetry and expletives. “Dream like fuck,” Romario said. It is a simple mantra.
There is no doubting Romario’s indiscipline and impropriety. He left Barcelona after a rift with Cruyff, was caught urinating from a Moscow hotel balcony during the Youth World Cup finals in 1985 and was pictured with drug traffickers holding weapons later in his career. Yet that streak of the devil is an extension of the personification of Brazil as a whole. It only helped to increase Romario’s aura and popularity.
There is another magnificent anecdote that really cannot be excluded. In January 1994, Romario asked Barcelona coach Cruyff whether he could have two days off training to go to the Rio carnival.
“I replied: ‘If you score two goals tomorrow, I’ll give you two extra days rest compared to the other players.’” Cruyff recalled. “The next day, Romario scored his second goal 20 minutes into the game and immediately gestured to me asking to leave. He told me: ‘Coach, my plane leaves in an hour’. I had no choice but to let him go.”
“I’m like any Brazilian: I like women and I like to go out and enjoy myself, which is why people can identify with me,” Romario said of his lifestyle. “The night has always been my friend. When I go out I feel good, then I always score goals.” Brazilians adored Romario precisely because they could associate with him. He lived their dreams.
Lived their dreams, but never forgot them. Turning his hand to politics after retiring, Romario urged the public to protest against the 2014 World Cup and subsequent de-prioritisation of Brazil’s public health and education systems. He repeatedly spoke out against accused corruption in FIFA, referring to the World Cup as a “cup of lies”. He’s the Michel Platini it’s okay to love.
“I never thought the World Cup would solve all of our problems, but now my fear is that this mega event will only deepen the problems we already have,” Romario said in 2013. The following year, he was elected to the Brazilian senate with the most votes received ever by a candidate representing the state of Rio de Janeiro.
Most of all, Romario was Brazilian to the core, an entire country in footballer form yet still a man of the people. This is someone who covered the garden of his house in Netherlands with sand to make it feel like home, and threw wild parties just to perfect the ambience. Romario might be a giant of the game, but to a population of 200 million people he will always be Shorty.