How Romário and Bebeto set aside a personal rivalry to forge a legendary international partnership

How Romário and Bebeto set aside a personal rivalry to forge a legendary international partnership

It’s the afternoon of 9 July 1994 and the 64,000 fans in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl Stadium have just witnessed one of the World Cup’s most iconic scenes. In a moment of vintage samba finesse, Brazil forward Bebeto has outsmarted and outrun a bamboozled Dutch defence in one move, reacting first to a loose ball and leaving his markers for dust, before rounding goalkeeper Ed de Goey and slotting the ball into an empty net.

Seconds later, the newly fathered striker runs towards the electric Texan crowd, spontaneously swaying his arms in a baby rocking motion as teammates Mazinho and Romário catch up and imitate the now ubiquitous celebration.

The first person Bebeto embraces afterwards is Romário, his strike partner and the man he will forever be mentioned alongside by the time of the tournament’s dramatic conclusion. The priceless expressions etched across the faces of both players convey a myriad of emotions; the expected raw euphoria is offset by a playful camaraderie, suggesting their telepathic performances on the pitch are a mere manifestation of a genuine off-field bond.

While the on-pitch chemistry between Romário and Bebeto was as natural as rain in the Amazon, their personal relationship wasn’t always as smooth as the celebrations in Dallas would have you believe. In fact, the pair possessed such differences in personality, outlook and lifestyle that it makes their on-pitch achievements all the more astonishing.

Bebeto was the clean living, religious, family man, a fitting bastion of the wholesome hero role undertaken by Zico before him and Kaká since. Romário, on the other hand, was extroverted, hedonistic and often volatile, the swaggering Carioca whose blend of on-pitch genius and outspoken off-field extravagance placed him in lineal succession to fellow Brazilian mavericks Garrincha and Sócrates. Romário himself underlined the contrast best when he said: “We are different people, Bebeto is a family type, stay at home. I’m a street cat.”

While the events at USA 94 render it impossible to imagine Romário and Bebeto as anything other than perfect foils, their early careers hinted at two strikers destined to have a relationship built on rivalry. Their paths crossed regularly with rival sides at club level while they simultaneously fought it out for the position of top marksmen with the Seleção.

Born in February 1964 in the city of Salvador, Bahia, Bebeto was the fifth of eight children and had a comparably middle-class upbringing to the one often associated with footballing exports from the Land of the Palms. His first break in the professional game occurred when he signed for the youth team of local club Bahia aged 16. The relationship between the young striker and his new club would be short-lived as he left to join local rivals Vitoria – the club he supported as a child – one month later.

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After impressing at youth level, Bebeto was coveted by the giants of the Brasileirão and he signed by Flamengo in 1984. It was during his time with the Rubro-Negra that Bebeto was first able to demonstrate the breadth of his immense talent to the nation. Standing at five foot ten and weighing little over ten stone, it was clear that the Brazilian wasn’t the type of striker built for physical exchanges with battle-hardened defenders.

Despite his slight frame, Bebeto’s searing pace and cunning positional sense provided enough ammo to give even the most accomplished defenders nightmares, while his exquisite free-kicks and trademark volleys added a sprinkle of individual panache for good measure. Although he was often employed as a number nine, Bebeto’s vision and creativity meant he was equally as effective going deep and providing assists for more single-minded teammates, something that would pay dividends later in his career.

While Bebeto’s club form would see him earn first international cap in 1985, a run of six games without scoring for his country raised doubts over the young prospect’s credentials to succeed Careca as Brazil’s premier centre-forward. With the Flamengo prospect temporarily marginalised on the international scene, the baton would be passed to another young striker by the name of Romário de Souza Faria.

Nicknamed Baixinho (Shorty), Romário would go on to redefine the expectations of a number nine, his explosive acceleration and majestic close control capped off by the peerless predatory finishing that would result in Johan Cruyff dubbing him “a genius of the penalty box.” Despite being diminutive in height at five foot six, Romário’s stocky frame and low centre of gravity provided the striker with excellent balance and agility to go alongside his otherworldly technique.

Unlike his future strike partner, the story of Romário’s rise sits squarely in the rags to riches genre. Born in Jacarezinho in 1966 – one of Rio’s largest favelas – the future World Player of the Year’s early years were defined by poverty and uncertainty: “We were very poor., Romario said in an interview around the time of USA 94. “My parents worked, but we could just manage to get something to eat. And if we didn’t even manage that, we had to rely on relatives … it was definitely a childhood full of hardships and poverty.”

Even as Romário’s career progressed to unprecedented levels of wealth and success, the street-wise, free-spirited kid from the favelas was never too far from the surface, his expressive on-pitch style and unpolished charisma were clear by-products of the endless hours spent playing in the anarchic, 25-a-side street matches in his neighbourhood. Despite wholeheartedly embracing the rock-star lifestyle his elevated status afforded him, Romário, like Diego Maradona, never lost his pre-fame edge and managed to convey an image that was both swashbuckling and anti-establishment in equal measure.

To further amplify the two strikers’ chalk and cheese nature, Romário began his professional career with Vasco da Gama, Flamengo’s bitter rivals. Making his debut in 1985, he arrived on the scene with more fanfare than Bebeto had previously, his performances at youth level – first with local club Olaria then with Vasco – causing many to wax lyrical about the flamboyant striker’s limitless potential.

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As the two youngsters competed annually for domestic honours, as well fighting it out in the Campeonato Carioca – Rio’s state league – the Brazilian media gleefully began to hype up a competitive rivalry while spreading rumours of a personality clash between the prospects. With both scoring prolifically, particularly in the regional league, it would ultimately be Romário and Vasco who took the local bragging rights, beating Flamengo to the state title in 1987 and 1988.

Bebeto would gain revenge at a national level, however, scoring in a 2-1 win over Vasco as Flamengo claimed the Copa União – a one-off league competition set up by Brazil’s largest teams due to the CBF’s inability to fund that year’s Brasileirão.

Having hit the ground running with Vasco, Romário was granted his first cap for Brazil in 1987 in a friendly against the Republic of Ireland. Unlike his future strike partner, Romário would adapt immediately to international football, scoring four goals in his first six appearances. Thankfully, Bebeto’s club form would see him earn a recall to the national team in time for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, meaning the two prospects would have the opportunity to play alongside each other for the first time. Both would leave their mark on the competition, albeit to varying degrees. 

Romário was nothing short of a revelation, the Vasco marksmen announcing himself on the world stage with seven goals in as many games as Brazil reached the final. Although his goal in the final couldn’t prevent the Soviet Union from claiming gold, his individual performances ensured he was universally regarded as one of the world’s most exciting prospects. 

While Bebeto’s two strikes from the bench placed him in the shadow of his younger strike partner, his goals and all-round contribution were enough to reignite an international career that looked to have stalled the previous year. 

Romário’s Olympic performances proved beyond doubt that he’d outgrown the Brazilian league, and the flamboyant forward signed for PSV in a £2m deal before the beginning of the 1988/89 season. It was in Eindhoven that the enigmatic attacker would establish himself as one the finest players on the planet, his ridiculous goal record of 128 goals in 144 games catapulting PSV to three league titles and two KNVB Cup victories during his five seasons in Holland. Such was the impact of the Brazilian’s time in the Netherlands, he is considered by many to be the greatest foreign player in Eredivisie history.

With Vasco still smarting from the loss of their star striker, the Rio giants launched an ambitious move to sign the prized asset of their greatest rivals. In a move that shook the whole of Rio, Bebeto swapped the famous red and white of Flamengo to don the black and white colours of Vasco in 1989. All it took was the simple act of putting a pen to paper for Bebeto, a player renowned for his aversion to off-pitch hysteria, to cause the sort controversy Romário could only dream of.

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Any questions as to how the mild-mannered striker would cope in the face of such hostility were emphatically shot down as the season progressed. In his most impressive campaign to date, Bebeto’s exceptional individual performances spearheaded Vasco to their first Brazilian Championship in 15 years, with the Salvador-born striker finishing the season as top scorer in the Campeonato Carioca as well as being named South American Footballer of the Year. 

With both strikers on fire for their respective clubs, it would be the 1989 Copa América in Brazil where the soon-to-be-christened ‘Diabolical Duo’ would announce themselves as international football’s most potent pairing. As host nation, there was immense pressure on O Canarinho to end their 40-year drought at the South American Championships and win their first major trophy since the 1970 World Cup. 

While the history of Seleção-hosted tournaments is littered with images of crestfallen players crumbling under the weight of a feverish nation’s insurmountable expectations, Romário and Bebeto made a mockery of such pressure, guiding their country to glory with a slew of performances that were spontaneous, swaggering and anything but stifled. 

It was all so effortless: the movement, the link-up play and the individual skill of both men operating in a telepathic tandem that left opposing defences in a permanent state of hopeless befuddlement. Although the partnership is traditionally characterised by Bebeto as the deeper playmaker and Romário the predator, the all-round ability of both players meant the roles were fluid and interchangeable, a trait demonstrated by the fact that it was Bebeto, not Romário, who finished as the competition’s top scorer with six goals.

With a round-robin format between the final four teams used to decide the victor, it was at this point in the competition that the duo truly began to unleash hell on their hapless opponents, with the pick of their performances coming against world champions Argentina. In a breathtaking display, the Brazilian marksmen outshone Maradona and co in the Maracanã, scoring a goal apiece en-route to a dominant 2-0 victory.

The first goal was a prime example of their synergistic genius, with Romário’s delicate, elevated layoff acrobatically volleyed home by Bebeto in trademark fashion. The deciding game against Uruguay would also be decided by the partners; Romário title-clinching header coming from Bebeto’s exquisite cross.

While their exploits at the Copa América left many fans salivating over the prospect of seeing the pair light up the following year’s World Cup, Italia 90 would ultimately prove a tournament too soon for Romário and Bebeto to shine on football’s grandest stage. Still behind Careca in the pecking order, Romário’s pre-tournament injury meant he was limited to a solitary substitute appearance as Brazil crashed out in the last-16 against old foes Argentina. Bebeto, too, was limited to a solitary outing from the bench.

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After three more stellar years with Vasco, Bebeto would finally make his long-awaited move to Europe, signing for Deportivo in 1992. At the time, the Galicians weren’t considered one of the big clubs in LaLiga, but the signing of Bebeto, along with countryman Maura Silva and the emergence of local hero Fran, heralded the beginning of the much-revered Super Depor era. Bebeto’s first season in LaLiga proved to be his finest in club football, the Brazilian’s one-man crusade resulting in Depor rising from also-rans to title contenders seemingly overnight, as his 29 goals earned him the Pichichi.

With Romário and Bebeto plying their trades in separate leagues, it seemed plausible that the two strikers could finally put aside their early career rivalry and continue to operate as a harmonious partnership for their country at the next World Cup. Unfortunately for Brazil, the following season would place an almighty spanner in the works.

When Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff decided to strengthen his already imperious attack, the Totaalvoetbal icon turned to Romário, signing the 27-year-old for £10.8m during the summer of 1993. With Bebeto turning Depor into title contenders and Romário leading the line for the Dream Team, Brazil’s star strikers would go to battle in a domestic season that almost rendered their differences irreconcilable.

As the season progressed, it became clear that Barça and Depor were in a two-horse race for the title, and the friction between the two Brazilians started to rear its head in a more blatant fashion than it had previously. With the title race on a knife-edge, Romário started publicly referring to Bebeto as Charao – Portuguese for crybaby – due to the Depor striker’s perceived habit of whining to referees.

In a pulsating conclusion to the season, Deportivo entered the final day with a two-point lead over their Catalan rivals. With Barcelona winning against Seville, Depor would also need all three points to avoid losing the title on the head-to-head rule. Drawing with Valencia, Depor were given an injury-time penalty to clinch the title. With Bebeto expected to take it, the clinical Brazilian shirked the responsibility, leaving Miroslav Đukić to take and miss the spot-kick, handing the title to Barça in the process.

With the tension and volatility of the domestic season jeopardising the future of the partnership, Romário had created further complications by falling out with Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. Furious at being omitted from the starting line-up for a friendly against Germany, Romário publicly called out Parreira, who suspended the striker from the national team indefinitely, resulting in his absence for the majority of the World Cup qualification campaign.

Brazil faltered without their star man and were at genuine risk of failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time ever. With Parreira under increased pressure to reinstate Romário, and Brazil needing to win their final qualification game against Uruguay, the coach turned to Bebeto for advice. 

Setting aside personal differences, the ever-professional striker emphasised the pair’s telepathic on-pitch understanding to his coach, and a convinced Parreira recalled Baixinho for the all-or-nothing showdown in the Maracanã. To label Parreira’s decision as inspired would be an understatement of immense proportions, with Romário single-handedly terrorising a stubborn Uruguay guard before putting them to the sword with two second-half goals, ensuring football’s only 100 percent World Cup qualification record remained intact.

Order  |  Brazil

With Brazil qualified and the World Cup preparations firmly in place, any hopes for an off-field truce between their two top strikers were once again left on the scrap heap, as Romário, amping up the petulance levels to 11, called a press conference to announce that he would not be sitting next to Bebeto on the team’s flight to the US. With most Brazilians resigned to the laughable reality of their nation’s dreams resting on the footballing chemistry of two men who struggle to share a Boeing 747, a series of off-field events brought an end to the animosity.

In an unfortunate coincidence, both players’ families fell victim to similar crimes in the build-up to the tournament. Firstly, Bebeto’s pregnant wife, Denise De Oliveira, was robbed of her car and Rolex at gunpoint in an apparent attempt to kidnap his brother Wilson. This would soon be followed by a separate incident in which Romário’s father was kidnapped with abductors demanding a £7m ransom. Thankfully, Bebeto’s wife was unharmed and Romário’s father was brought to safety six days later.

These traumatic events, combined with a mutual obsession to secure the Seleção’s first World Cup in 24 years, saw the players develop an unprecedented personal bond as the tournament approached. Soon their contrasting off-field demeanours were beginning to look as complimentary as their yin-yang dynamic on the pitch, with Bebeto’s diplomacy and Romário’s charisma making their combined strength greater than the sum of their individual parts.

With both players clearly at ease with one another, Romário underlined the bond shared between the pair and indeed the rest of the squad when he said:  “A lot of people have said the yellow jersey is a pretty jersey, but it didn’t have a heart beating inside. Following this World Cup, it might be possible to say it’s still a pretty jersey, but now with 11 hearts beating inside.”

Sporting an uncharacteristically garish rendition of the famous yellow and green kit, Parreira’s pragmatic side were, aesthetically at least, a far cry from the mythical, free-flowing teams of 1970 and 1982. Void of a midfield playmaker in the mould of a Zico or a Rivellino, Parreira favoured the industrious steel offered by midfielders Dunga and Mauro Silva, with Romário and Bebeto heavily relied upon as the main sources of attacking inspiration. It would take all of 27 minutes for the pair to demonstrate the full effects of their clinical partnership.

In their opening fixture against Russia, Bebeto’s perfect in-swinging corner found Romário’s right boot, and the Barcelona hitman nonchalantly guided the ball past Dmitri Kharine in the Russian goal. By the end of the group, Romário and Bebeto had four goals between them, with each player having provided an assist for the other.

In a nervy last-16 tie against hosts USA, Brazil, significantly disadvantaged by the dismissal of Leonardo, again turned to their two forwards to get them out of the woods. In the 72nd minute, the pair demonstrated once more the fluidity of their roles, with Romário finishing off a purposeful run with a delicate through ball to Bebeto, whose side-footed strike found the bottom corner and started a carnival in California. Any suggestions that their off-pitch relationship was still frosty were put to bed emphatically when a jubilant Bebeto embraced Romário and mouthed the words “I love you” to his long-time strike partner.

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By the end of Brazil’s 3-2 quarter-final victory over the Netherlands, the whole world would be talking about international football’s deadliest duo. In a partnership-defining performance, Romário and Bebeto outshone the Dutch attacking might of Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and Ronald de Boer with their instinctive link-up play and telepathic movement.

Romário opened the scoring with a predatory finish following Bebeto’s classy ball from out wide. Two minutes later, it would be Romário who cunningly left the ball to roll through to Bebeto to score the ‘baby-celebration goal’ and put Brazil two ahead. Again, in the semis, the tie would be decided by Romário, whose close-range header was enough to see off Sweden.

With Brazil facing Italy in the final, the stage was set for a mouth-watering battle between three of the world’s premier attackers, with the combined power of Romário and Bebeto pitted against the individual majesty of Roberto Baggio. In a drab final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, it would be Baggio who stole the headlines – his slouched, crestfallen stance providing the tournament’s defining image as he missed the deciding penalty.

Romário and Bebeto took glory, with Brazil’s shootout victory granting their partnership the immortality it deserved. After years of rivalry and occasionally antipathy, they had combined to deliver football’s ultimate prize to their adoring nation.

Although the pair’s advancing years and the emergence of Ronaldo would spell the end of their partnership soon after, the names Romário and Bebeto seem forever destined to cross paths no matter what directions their lives take. As if their footballing relationship wasn’t enough, the legendary strikers are now partners in the political arena, with the Diabolical Duo working together for centrist party Podemos.

In a fitting nod to their sporting past, the political careers of Romário and Bebeto have also included periods of animosity, with the former a fierce opponent of Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and Bebeto a tournament ambassador. Thankfully, these differences appear to be squarely in past as the pair strive to produce the same brilliant results in office as they did on the pitch.

While Brazil have produced an endless array of era-defining attacking partnerships – from Pelé and Garrincha’s otherworldly individual exploits in 1958 to Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho’s majestic trident in 2002 – Romário and Bebeto had a chemistry that few can rival. In the 23 official games the pair shared a pitch for their country, Brazil went undefeated, winning 17 and drawing six. Of the 48 goals scored by the Seleção in that time, they were responsible for 33, with the former scoring 18 and the latter 15.

While these numbers are breathtaking in their own right, Romário’s divine partnership with Bebeto must be seen to believed, as stats alone could never do justice to the beautiful art they created on the pitch.

By James Sweeney @JamesSweeney92

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