This feature is part of Duology
One was an unfathomably gifted prodigee, a PSV Eindhoven graduate turned timeless Barcelona hero; a Brazilian wonder and undisputed icon to a generation of admirers of indelible attacking prowess; a World Cup winner, Golden Boot collector, World Player of the Year awardee, menace to defences, and undoubtedly one of the finest forwards ever to grace the beautiful game. And the other? Well, he was too, actually.
The most remarkable details to be found in the partnership of Ronaldo and Romário were the similarities between the two. Not in all regards; certainly, they were far from carbon copies of one another. Their styles, for example, couldn’t have been more different. Ronaldo was, to quote The Guardian’s Nick Miller, “a force of nature, a blast of hellfire with a velcro touch and jealous refusal to give up the ball”, while Romário “relied on a heady combination of guile, short sharp bursts of acceleration and the unfairly-maligned but often devastatingly effective toe-poke.”
But in examining the trajectory of their careers, the winding roads confidently travelled on their journeys to the very summit of the sport, the duo proved markedly similar.
In another life, perhaps in another time, both would have been truly unique, set apart from the pretenders, unmatched in the make-up of their stories and the mounting successes that littered their distinctive careers. Yet, to the elation of all those fortunate enough to have watched them, they found themselves together, placed side-by-side in the yellow, blue and green of their illustrious footballing nation, fated with the opportunity to forge one of the most outrageous offensive pairings the game has ever seen.
Though their time together would prove frustratingly fleeting, as their respective moves to and from various clubs saw them pass agonisingly by one another like ships in the night, unintentionally ensuring they’d never combine at club level, the chance to collaborate briefly for Brazil was an opportunity the duo tore from the hands of circumstance rapaciously. Their partnership was brief but it was inexplicably brilliant.
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Throughout their nascent years, Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima and Romário de Souza Faria seemed to inadvertently align their careers with the idiom ‘when one door closes, another one opens.’ Or, rather, to trade euphoniousness for accuracy, ‘when one door closes, having allowed one Brazilian striker to depart, the same one often opens in order to let another younger Brazilian striker replace him.’ At least, this was the case at their first two clubs in Europe.
At the age of 22, having twice conquered all opponents on home shores, and earned a subsequent Olympic bow during his breakthrough seasons at Vasco da Gama, Romário departed his homeland in search of success in Europe and made his way to PSV Eindhoven, where he played from 1988 to 1993. Following this domestic departure, Ronaldo acted in kind, bolting from the relative comfort of his boyhood club Cruzeiro to swiftly follow in the footsteps of his countryman and join PSV, welcomed by a justifiable fanfare in 1994.
After two superb seasons in the Netherlands, Ronaldo soon won the affections of Barcelona and without a moment’s hesitation joined the Spanish giants, commanding a then-world record fee, by which time Romário had already swapped PSV for Barça, spent two stellar seasons in the red and blue stripes of the Blaugrana, and upped and left in order to return to Brazil once more.
At successive clubs, in the Netherlands and in Spain, Ronaldo walked in only to find Romário had just walked out. These events proved to be nothing more than coincidence – Romário’s departures never hinged upon the impending arrival of Ronaldo and, though he personally requested and followed Romário’s advice in choosing PSV, Ronaldo never sought to intentionally slipstream or emulate his compatriot – yet still the misfortune gnaws, a dull, indeterminate ache; an enduring reminder of what could have been. One can only daydream about the highlight reels dedicated solely to the pair should they have formed a lasting duet at club level.
Thankfully, while European football may have failed to unite the couple, their shared nationality would do just that and, though their time together spearheading their nation’s attack was tragically transient, the overwhelming ability of the pair conspired to craft a great many unforgettable moments.
In 1994, Ronaldo’s insoluble introduction to the watching world had been rewarded with a call-up to the Brazil squad travelling to the World Cup in the United States. Though he wouldn’t feature, cast merely as an extra beside an ensemble cast of Samba stars, Ronaldo would be afforded a front row seat to the Romário show as his later teammate prepared to set America alight on the way to collecting football’s most coveted trophy.
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Romário opened his country’s scoring account in their first fixture, a 2-0 victory over Russia, before doing likewise against Cameroon in a following 3-0 win. Against Sweden, in their final group game fixture, Brazil were held to a 1-1 draw and it was Romário again on the scoresheet, finding the all-important group-topping equaliser. After defeating the hosts in the round of 16, courtesy of a Bebeto goal, it was Romário once more who lit the blue touch paper, scoring first in a dramatic 3-2 victory over the Netherlands in the quarter-finals. Come the semi-finals, where Brazil were faced with a rematch against the Swedish, who other than Romário should net the game’s only goal and carry his nation into the final.
Before 94,000 fans, crammed into the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Brazil’s hunt for a fourth World Cup trophy proved a goalless encounter, held to a stalemate by Italy, though to their delight they would triumph in the resulting penalty shootout, scoring three while their European adversaries would manage only two. To no surprise, Romário dispatched his spot-kick and for his sharpshooting heroics, in that match and all those that preceded it, he was awarded the Golden Ball, the accolade reserved for the tournament’s best player.
His coach throughout the tournament, Carlos Alberto Parreira would openly profess to the brilliance of El Baixinho – ‘Shorty’, as Romário was often known – calling him a “skilful, outstanding player” and likening him to “a matador … a killer inside the penalty area.”
Having watched from the sidelines as Romário scored his way into the history books at the 1994 World Cup, Ronaldo later said of Romário: “I played with some amazing players and he is one of them. I did not have the chance to play with Zico but I think that Romário, at least for me, was the most decisive Brazilian player. He was a great goalscorer, finisher, skilful, opportunist. I think I learnt all of that from him.”
It was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at the 1997 Confederations Cup, that Ronaldo and Romário stamped their official seal on the “Ro-Ro” partnership that would wreak havoc throughout the latter stages of the tournament and inevitably leave those of a Brazilian persuasion begging for more.
Drawn into a seemingly straightforward group with the previous year’s OFC Nations Cup, Gold Cup, and Asian Cup holders, Australia, Mexico and Saudi Arabia, world champions Brazil made light work of qualifying for the concluding knock-outs with victories over Saudi Arabia and Mexico bookending a forgettable draw with Australia. In the last four, Brazil put away the Czech Republic with a goal each from Ronaldo and Romário, contributions that would swiftly prove to be only a warm-up to a most delectable main event.
In the tournament final, Brazil turned it on, which serves to say that Ro-Ro, Ronaldo and Romário, turned it on. A night of exquisite offensive artistry began 15 minutes into the game when Denílson galloped into Australia’s box before cutting the ball back into the centre of the area, finding Ronaldo, patiently waiting between enemy lines to sweep the cross home and open the scoring. Twelve minutes later, Ronaldo’s tally was doubled.
Juninho lofted an awkward scoop forward, high into the opposition area, perhaps in the hope of initiating a moment of miscalculation in the Australian defence. That he did. The two defenders hesitated, Ronaldo pounced, ate up the ground in front of him, squeezed between the dormant pair, and impudently prodded the ball beyond the ‘keeper and into the far corner of the goal.
Then came the turn of Romário to help himself to a brace. Before the half was up, Brazil fashioned yet more golden chances and the next to be taken came in the form of an inswinging cross, curled in by Cafu, neatly chested down and half-volleyed beyond the helpless Mark Bosnich in the Australian goal. Just eight minutes into the second half, Romário grabbed his second. Cafu again sent a dinked cross into the area, where it found the head of Ronaldo who instinctively flicked it backwards in the direction of his fellow attacker. Looping measuredly over the attempted clearance of a desperate Aussie defender, the ball found a cushion on Romário’s chest before being thumped beneath the ailing dive of the goalkeeper. Four-nil, Ro-Ro poised on two apiece, the race for a hat-trick was on.
It was Ronaldo who bagged his first, receiving a raking up-field pass on his chest, allowing a single kiss between ball and turf, before sending the laces of his right boot clean through the ball and the ball clean through the attempted block of Bosnich. From defence to attack in the blink of an eye, Ronaldo’s acute positioning, alert awareness, deftness of touch, and irresistible potency put a most sublime end to his day’s scoring. But before the formality of the game was complete, before the Brazilians could get their hands on the Confederations Cup, there was one last act required: the consummation of Romário’s hat-trick.
The least exciting goal of them all, Romário’s third and final strike came from the penalty spot. A step, a skip, and the most considered of finessed right-footed finishes tucked low beside the goalkeeper’s left-hand post; this goal was business more than it was pleasure. But what it lacked in imagination it gained in what grandeur, what splendour, it represented.
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Ronaldo and Romário both had their hat-tricks and, if ever it were in doubt, there was no longer any denying the duo’s devastating competence. Australia weren’t the toughest of opponents, boasted far from the meanest of defences against which the world’s best could truly flex their muscles and conduct their Samba symphonies, but they were put to the sword with an excellence and an outright ease that spoke of Ro-Ro’s genius, and brought to life the spirit of O Jogo Bonito, in a way words never could.
To add to the enduring legend of the pairing, furnishing what tangible proof we have of their extraordinary powers with an added layer of mythology, the world will never know how different the final of the 1998 World Cup could have been should Brazil have been able to call upon their choice striking duo for that game. With Ronaldo present but veritably shackled by illness, and Romário ruled out of the competition altogether through injury, Brazilians know well the fantasies, the what ifs and the what could have beens.
At the following tournament, in 2002, it was the virtuosity of Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, not Romário, with whom a wounded and vehemently determined Ronaldo collaborated to bring the World Cup back to Brazil once more. Top-scoring at the tournament, and bagging the sumptuous brace that decided the final against Germany, in Romário’s absence, O Fenômeno emulated his teammate and mentor to deliver just as he’d shown him how to eight years before. The influence of the two was tangible and, whether together or apart, they changed the very game itself.
One of the all-time great strikers himself, French World Cup winner Thierry Henry believed the duo were in part responsible for an outright revolution of their attacking roles. “Ronaldo, together with Romário 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 accelerations, their dribbling.”
On and off the pitch, the partnership of Ronaldo and Romário had everything. Between the two of them, encapsulating every single quality deemed desirable in an attacker, they had pace, power and precision, and an energy, elegance and an eminence that would never be equalled.
Furthermore, when compared to their rivals, the striking partnerships that have outlasted the tests of time, the brevity of their combined brilliance ensured their collaboration would forever retain an air of mystery that only heightened their acclaim, concentrated their collective powers, making their noble contributions to the game seem almost ethereal in memory. They were here and then they weren’t. Ronaldo and Romário. Two of the greatest ever to do it.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp