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It’s often said he looks like the average Brazilian. Romario is coffee-coloured, only 5’6” tall – to be known as O Baixinho, Shorty, in Brazil is a pretty extreme condition – and not obviously an athlete. At 41 he is segueing into middle age. His legs are bowed, his calves skinny. Only the vast thighs and torso give a clue to his trade. Romario is the most remarkable goalscorer still playing football. He claims to have scored 992 goals. When he gets his thousandth he will retire, and a certain type of footballer will have
Of course he will finish in Rio de Janeiro, at Vasco da Gama, the club where he began in 1985. Born in a Rio slum and raised in a slightly nicer slum, Romario is the supreme Carioca, who expresses his patriotism partly by buying Rio’s real estate. Outside Rio, his oddities are less appreciated. “In Saõ Paulo,” growls a Paulista, “he is regarded practically as an Argentinian.” Romario is that characteristic Rio type, the malandro: a chancer, a fun-lover, a rule-breaker.
At 22 he left Rio to join PSV Eindhoven. A malandro and the Dutch workplace were not an ideal combination. Here was a man whose hobby was sleeping (14 hours a day); who said his teammates could not play soccer; who flew home to Rio at will, fixtures or not; who liked nightlife so much he was going “to keep going out until I am 90 years old”. A PSV physio was responsible for getting him out of bed each morning. On the pitch Romario rarely moved, yet averaged nearly a goal a game.
He treated his European years as an exile, a strictly money-making exercise: “In Holland I work; I live in Rio.” He failed to comprehend Dutch weather, or the natives’ habit of turning up for appointments, or the way they expected great footballers to obey rules. The one Dutch phenomenon he appreciated was the girls.
Yet he always scored, and eventually Barcelona signed him. Even at a giant club he remained blasé. Guus Hiddink, once his manager at PSV, remembers visiting Barcelona as coach of Valencia. Romario was about to kick off the match in front of 100,000 spectators when he suddenly told the referee to hang on, jogged to Valencia’s bench and kissed his old boss on both cheeks. Hiddink mimes the kisses. To Romario the match was just decor, with him the only character. In an increasingly corporate sport, his selfishness was almost heroic.
Brazilian greats are judged at world cups. Partly due to his weird personality, Romario played only an hour at the cup of 1990. He announced that the next tournament, 1994, would be “Romario’s cup”. Brazil’s coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who had previously banned him from the team, was persuaded to relent. “Romario came in a good mood,” Parreira told me years later. “He wanted to be what every football player wants: world champion. Romario is very good in the team. He plays the drums, he tells jokes, he’s not . . . ” – and Parreira tilted his nose in the air to show what Romario was not. “He’s a happy man.”
Having said that, Romario objected to sitting next to his striking partner Bebeto on the plane to the tournament, where his main sponsor was a beer brand.
“I can place the world cup before the Brazilian as if it were a plate of food,” said the boy from the favela. He did. The most functional of players, Romario used his genius only to score. “If it had been a European player he would have put it in the far corner,” observed Russia’s goalkeeper, Dmitri Kharin, for that world cup. “But Romario is a Brazilian and he put it in the near corner.” His goal against Holland in the quarter-final was finer still. A cross landed too far ahead of him, so he flicked himself three yards through the air and, while still dropping, virtually on top of the ball, hit a half-volley with the outside of his right boot into the inside corner of the net.
That pretty much concluded his career in top-class football. He has spent the last 13 years mostly in the decayed Brazilian league, with brief forays to places like Qatar, Adelaide and Miami. One night I saw him playing for Flamengo in Rio’s almost empty Maracana stadium, built for 200,000. Most of the fans who had shown up spent the match running up and down the athletics track, following the ball. In this sort of ambience, Romario sometimes paid his teammates’ wages or forewent millions of dollars in unpaid salary. That match he did nothing, except score.
By then, to his distress, he had missed the world cup of 1998. He had been injured, and Brazil’s coaches thought he was trouble. The decision possibly cost them the trophy.
Every now and then Romario announced his retirement, but did nothing about it. Then he decided he was approaching Pele’s mark of 1,000 goals (Pele’s thousandth remains an epic moment of Brazilian history). Local journalists in Eindhoven got calls from Romario, still speaking his inimitable brand of Dutch, and wanting to know how many goals he had scored in forgotten pre-season warm-ups against village teams.
His quest offends football’s collective ethos, and almost everyone disputes his count of 992. The Brazilian football magazine Placar gives him 891. Many Brazilians mock his pursuit of Pele (whom Romario once described as “mentally retarded”). But Romario deserves his moment. Goals are rarer now than in Pele’s day: 12 fell in Pele’s two world cup finals, none in Romario’s one. A great striker nowadays might score 40 goals in a season twice in his career. Even Placar’s count implies that Romario has been averaging that for 22 years. That he got his goals mostly in Rio instead of for big money in Europe was his choice. “I’m difficult because I’m authentic,” he said. If you hear a footballer say that today, it’s probably a Nike slogan.