People watch and enjoy football for a multitude of reasons. There is the sense of identity and connection to a town, city, or even a family member. There is the primitive sense of tribalism that can come with belonging to a band, and indeed it is an emotion on which some of the most fraught derbies across the planet are built on.
But there is also the joy of what you might describe as footballing perfection. From watching the game played in a way that is so aesthetically pleasing as to render spectators speechless. It is, for want of a better phrase, football as an art form; an expression, a release.
Teams, like Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winners and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, come close to defining the ideal style of the time. But on occasion there is a player who alone can bring entertainment, awe and inspiration through the magic in their feet.
Romário was one such player. Now a politician trying to bring change to the Brazilian people, he has already brought moments of insurmountable joy within the four white lines. Garrincha is the best example of a Brazilian playing simply for the joy football is capable of bringing. Romário comes a convincing second, and it is where his charm lies.
For a country that has produced a seemingly never-ending factory line of talent over the last seven decades, there remains a real celebration of what Brazilians define as the craque.
There are good players and then there are craques. Game changers, capable of instant moments of magic that define the player and his superior status to his teammates. Every successful Brazilian side has had one. In 1958 it was Didi; 1962, Garrincha; 1970, Pelé and in 1994 it was the turn of Romário.
There is a theory in this corner of the world that the team’s star player is not only a greater attraction than the team, but at times can be considered even more important than the collective. Former Globo journalist Hugo Naidin explains the concept:
“In Brazil we love the idea of a saviour, an individual who can be looked up to and almost revered. We value this notion above the collective or team effort.”
It goes some way to explaining why Romário belongs in a pantheon of the great Brazilian forwards. But what about his talent? How much was there and how far did it get him?
There are some standout highlights when taking a brief look at his career: that 1994 World Cup winner’s medal, a hat-trick against Manchester United in the Champions League, the remarkable feat of reaching the milestone of 1,000 goals, even if it does remain slightly dubious to this day.
But great players are about far more than records attained, just as football is about much more than simple statistics. Whether the footballer likes it or not, he is a modern-day icon, an idol for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, not just children.
He is more than just about the sport, and stories about him make the forward sound a very different beast to the kind of driven determination that spurs on Cristiano Ronaldo.
A carioca is someone who hails from the city of Rio de Janeiro. He is generally seen as a casual, fun-loving, easy- going kind of fella who doesn’t allow the everyday nuances of life get in the way of his agenda. Romário, according to legend, is carioca to the core.
Gilmar Ferreira is a Brazilian sports journalist for daily newspaper Extra. He has known Romário for over 20 years and admits, whilst his laissez-faire attitude can be infuriating to be around, there is no doubt the man behind the player can be captivating as well.
When playing for Dutch outfit PSV Eindhoven, Romário went to great lengths to keep his carioca spirit alive.
“In Holland, Romário made great changes to the house he lived in. In the garden, he had a futvolei court put in, as well as covering the apace in sand to look like the beaches in Rio.
“The house was constantly full of Brazilians and he pretty much kept himself apart from the rest of the squad.
“At his place, if you just stayed in the garden, you might think you were back in Rio and not in the middle of Holland.”
His time in Europe was admittedly brief compared to another great Brazilian striker of the last 20 years. Ronaldo lifted three FIFA World Player of the Year awards in a glittering career that saw him play for both Milan clubs and Spain’s big two, Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The prize was lifted just once by Romário, in 1994, but debate continues to rage on in Rio about which truly was the better striker. Ronaldo may have the plaudits, but can greatness be measured in goals alone? What else can be brought to the table?
Well, entertainment for one. An identity with the crowd, something that is so often used as a complaint against the modern day footballer, particularly in Brazil.
Romário typifies what Brazilians, or perhaps more specifically cariocas, are all about. And perhaps that is why his particular brand of genius – easily worn without the concern of living up to the tag – is still appreciated in his homeland.
With a comparatively poor domestic league compared to Europe’s superpowers, the Campeonato Brasileiro has traditionally found it hard to hang on to its finest players. Therefore, when the national team is reconvened, there tends to be a blend of experienced European, and younger, domestically-based squad members.
When things don’t go according to plan – and in this corner of the world, success is demanded constantly, despite Brazil’s recent failures at World Cups – you can guess who takes the majority of the blame.
However irrational it might sound, the players who have jumped ship for better clubs, better infrastructure and more testing competition are instantly branded mercenaries and are turned upon by the baying crowd. Players either making their way up the football ladder, or still plodding away in the Campeonato Brasileiro, are often given a fairer crack of the whip in the 21st century gladiatorial arena.
Perhaps that goes some way to explaining Romário’s popularity. He was always seen as “one of us”, having spent the best part of his career at Rio giants Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco da Gama.
His identity with the Brazilian people remained strong throughout his career and beyond, something you cannot say about every Brazilian legend, even the greatest of them all.
Think about the epithet given to Pelé, arguably the greatest player to have ever lived. He is known as O Rei, The King. Whilst that does not quite make him a deity, he is nevertheless seen as above the common man; he does not walk among them.
Romário is simply known as O Baixinho, or, loosely translated, Shorty. It is a nickname you might give to a little brother or a school friend, and belies his legendary status within the country.
His accomplishments on the pitch put him up amongst the very best; he was Brazil’s finest player at the 1994 World Cup and it went a long way to ensuring he won that World Player of the Year award.
But his genius lies as much in his head as his feet. That same sharpness and positional sense that made him as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel inside the white lines helped personify the character of a man who simply does not wish to take life seriously at all.
Football blogger Eder Ramos de Oliveira said: “He was almost like a ghost on the field. It was as if he moved around without attracting the attention of the opposition, which is unbelievable considering his record. Then, at the right moment, he would appear.”
A former Vasco player who does not wish to be identified speaks of the couple of months Romário was put in charge of managerial duties at the club. Training sessions would take place at night as the player snoozed during the daytime hours. It is said Rio de Janeiro comes to life at night; so does Romário.
It says a lot for his continued standing at the São Januário outfit that people still do not wish to speak out against him. Vasco is the club with which the striker is synonymous.
He won the Campeonato Brasileiro, the Copa Mercosur, and it was with Vasco that he netted his 1,000th goal. Goals in amateur football are damned. It was more a celebration of Romário himself rather than any statistical achievement. In a Eurocentric era, Romário remained true to Brazilian football.
Admittedly, that may well have more to do with his lack of discipline than any desire to increase the technical level of the Brasileirao, but winning the Golden Boot at the ripe old age of 39, with 22 goals, remains a feat worth admiring.
Great players stand apart, but Romário is a very different type of genius. One that can’t truly be measured or grasped in statistical slavery to numbers, or even top club honours, having turned his back on Europe’s elite early in his career.
His talents lie not only in his seemingly effortless ability to hit the back of the net, but in his entire attitude to life and what it throws not only at himself but the people. As a politician he fought successfully for cheaper World Cup tickets for low-income families; further evidence of his affiliation with the masses.
Pele might be the king but to his people, Romário will always be Shorty.
By Robbie Blakeley. Follow @rio_robby