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When the Olympics rolled into view in the summer of 1988, the Soviet Union were perceived as being perfectly poised to take the tournament by storm. The USSR were listed among the competition’s favourites for a reason; there wasn’t a starting line-up notably stronger, a squad that boasted greater depth, nor a nation as determined to leave their mark on the tournament as they.
The Soviets had been denied Olympic gold on home turf eight years earlier, made to settle for bronze behind Czechoslovakia and East Germany, and they certainly hadn’t forgotten. As such, it surprised almost nobody when they triumphed. Anatoly Byshovets’ team topped their group ahead of hosts South Korea, the United States and Argentina, before dismantling Australia in the quarter-finals and twice making expert use of extra-time in order to squeeze past Italy in the semi-finals and Brazil in the final.
Though en route to their Olympic crown the Soviets had sparkled – the likes of Igor Dobrovolski, Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko and Arminas Narbekovas, especially, dazzling crowds in Busan, Daegu and Seoul – it wasn’t a Soviet player who’d be lauded as the tournament’s most enigmatic emerging performer.
That compliment belonged to the standout talent lining up among the beaten finalists, a 22-year-old Brazilian by the name of Romário, who just so happened to end the Olympic tournament as its top scorer, having afforded the watching world a mere glimpse of the sublime predacious brilliance he was about to unleash upon a nation of soon-to-be petrified defenders throughout the Netherlands.
Romário was by no means an unknown quantity at the 1988 Olympics. The goals he had bagged across seven years at his boyhood club Vasco da Gama – and, good lord, were there some goals – had long since made the burgeoning Brazilian one of the hottest properties on his side of the Atlantic.
Such intense allure almost made it seem as though it were a lifetime ago that Vasco had turned him away on account of his height – or lack thereof. But when Romário took their “no” to heart and used it to fuel his emphatic retort while on the books of his local club, the provincial Olaria Atlético Clube, the “Giants of the Hill” had no choice but to willfully admit to their initial error in judgement and swiftly sign the teenager to their academy.
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Of course, Vasco weren’t necessarily mistaken in their initial assessment of the forward when they noted his obvious diminutive stature. A mere five feet six inches at his tallest – so to speak – Baixinho (Shorty) was often the smallest player on the field in any game he played. But where his boyhood club were wrong was in believing his height would prevent him from making a name for himself in the game. Though the shortest, he was also often the most electric, implacable, technically gifted player on the field, capable of things others could only dream of.
Romário flipped on its head what may have been perceived by some as a weakness and gleefully wielded it as one of his multifarious defining strengths. His lack of stature or obvious physical presence was never proffered as an invitation for defenders to bully or overwhelm him. Should any defender have attempted to do so, they were made aware of just how wildly mistaken they had been in trying to return their RSVP for a pummelling the moment Romário shimmied and left them grasping at thin air or shook them off with a rapid spin and scampered away with possession, forcing them to watch on helplessly as he toe-poked home yet again.
And so it was after having watched him set the stage ablaze in South Korea that PSV Eindhoven made their move for the prodigious poacher. As Nick Miller wrote for The Guardian, “Emboldened by their European Cup win in 1988 and the ambition of their primary sponsor and backers Philips, [PSV] took a chance.”
What the Rood-witten hoped they’d stumbled upon was a natural goalscorer with the ability to effectively transfer his talents from the leagues of Brazil to those in mainland Europe and beyond. What they got was one of the most naturally talented forwards of his generation – of all generations – who also happened to possess a level of self-confidence and bold braggadocio unlike anything they’d seen before.
In every walk of life, there are practised masters who make their craft look impossibly simple; those who compel onlookers to declare the object of their affections appear born to perform their speciality. In reality, to suppose that any person could have been born with their abilities disposes of every sacrifice made on their path to success; every ounce of blood, sweat and tears eked out of them in their pursuit of perfection.
Yet, for Romário, such a platitude seemed curiously apt. A studious glance at his contemporaries reveals not one fellow player who possessed such abundant ability contrasted with such disdain for the necessity of training or total disregard for the off-field customs of the game. He was totally unique at the very top.
Romário’s sole weakness was his penchant for the wilder side of life. As he once conceded, “The night was always my friend. When I go out, I am happy and when I am happy I score goals.” And, given this unyielding addiction to the bars, dancefloors and women within the grasp of a man of his significant fame and wealth, nothing less than world-class performances on the field would have sufficed. Anything less than game-changing and he’d have been moved on by one of any number of managers unwilling to put up with his haphazard approach to a life as an elite athlete.
Thankfully for Romário, and for PSV, that’s precisely what he delivered, week in week out. As he proved over and over again, with or without a hangover, there was nobody who could finish like he could. He was the maverick’s maverick. The free-spirited firecracker. The otherworldly wildcard. And he was PSV’s.
Throughout his debut campaign in red and white, the 1988/89 Eredivisie season, Romário wasted no time in settling into life at the Philips Stadion. Some pondered whether it would take time for the Brazilian to acclimatise himself not only to a new home – a new league, a new country, a new continent, even – but also to a team as accustomed to winning as PSV, given that, at the time of his signing, Romário’s new teammates were fresh off a treble-winning campaign: the season’s Eredivisie, KNVB Cup and European Cup stood gleaming in their trophy cabinet.
Romário’s response was to force his way into Guus Hiddink’s starting line-up and end the season as his club’s top scorer, completing his work with a more than tidy 26 goals in 34 games across all competitions. Some also supposed he’d leave his partying days behind him, what with the sudden need to impress and ingratiate himself to a whole new crop of clubmates. Romário’s response was to party harder than before. After all, as he saw it, he’d earned it. And, besides, there was just so much of downtown Eindhoven to take in.
His outstanding introduction to Dutch football was quickly proven to be no fluke. Far from it, the following campaign saw Romário notch 31 goals in 27 games, before hitting 30 in 30 the season after. Absurd numbers for any forward, let alone a young man playing outside of his home nation for the very first time, and who consistently exhibited the kind of off-field commitment you’d expect from somebody who only turns up for a kick about with the lads every Sunday as a way of securing a couple of hours away from the missus and the little’uns.
He could hardly have looked or acted less bothered, until the referee’s first whistle sounded and, like a giddy volunteer transformed by the snapping fingers of a stage hypnotist, he switched personas; Romário the nightclub playboy became Romário the goalscoring predator, the spell lasting precisely 90 minutes a pop.
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Though we can talk of switching personas, it isn’t accurate to attempt to portray Romário as some kind of human-as-human metaphor; one person neatly encapsulating the duality of man, so wanting to achieve but perilously powerless to reject his vices, because he never once even considered changing his ways. He played precisely as he lived and lived as he played: wildly, unapologetically, hedonistically. It was his knowledge of his immense aptitude, and his adoration of the spotlight, that made him who he was on and off of the field.
He was, as Johan Cruyff would remark, “a genius of the goal area” and a player who Roberto Baggio would call “a master of art in the penalty area”. With a low centre of gravity, agile frame, lightning-quick feet and that nascent ability, unique to the very best of players, to pause and breathe and gauge space and time and angles and technique, all in the blink of an eye, and dispatch the ball by any means necessary from any position he found himself in; Romário was quite simply a goal-scoring machine. That is to say, he played as though he had been purpose-built to score goals, as though it were his one and only indispensable directive.
There were few players on the planet who could finish a ball first-time with the quality Romário possessed. He could dart towards the near post and flick the ball home at the expense of an unsuspecting goalkeeper. He could pull back, eluding his defender, and smash in a low drive, or curl an early shot in from the edge of the area. He could thread the needle and squeeze it through a packed box filled with bodies or spot a goalkeeper flirting with danger, stranded yards from their line, and plonk it behind them with the deftest of clips. He could prod, poke, flick, nod, slide, dink, lob, finesse, stroke or thunder his way onto the scoresheet, making him a nuisance anywhere in and around the area.
Yet he could just as effectively dribble his way to goal, picking up the ball deep or on the flank and twisting and turning defenders inside out as he ate up the ground at a frightening speed, feinting one way before dashing off another, throwing in a stepover or a flip-flap or some other intricate little sprinkle of magic to deceive his opponent, before adding another exquisite solo goal to his collection. His powers were nigh on limitless, his goalscoring abilities boundless, and his unrelenting desire to adequately toast these virtuosic displays on the town was similarly grand.
The late, great Sir Bobby Robson coached Romário for two years between succeeding Hiddink at PSV and moving on to Sporting in Portugal, and perhaps nobody better captured the essence of the sublime headache Romário was for any man brave enough to attempt to coach him: “There were days when he was pathetically lazy,” Robson recalled to The Observer in 1994, “but you had to pick him because, if you left him out, you might miss a hat-trick! He could get the ball past a goalkeeper from angles which would make you say: ‘how did he do that?'”
Robson also devoted many pages of his autobiography to recounting his legendary duels with the Brazilian. “In a large pool of good players, we had one tropical fish … the Romários of this world don’t realise how much they can undermine the fabric of a team,” Robson wrote. “Some mornings he would be phenomenal in training. Other days, you’d take one look at him and know he’d left his energy and his legs at home, or in a nightclub … there was no controlling his private life.
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“To Romário, Friday night was party night, even if we had a game the next day. He’d stay out until four in the morning and sleep all day before a 7:30pm kick-off. We would take calls from people saying ‘Romário’s been out all night. He left here at four.’ He would dance, chat, meet a local lady, carouse with her and then sleep all day to be ‘fresh’ for the game.”
You can rest assured, on more occasions than not, it’d be Romário who’d decide the fate of that very game the following day, as fellow manager Hiddink, head coach of PSV for Romário’s first three years at the club, attests: “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’,” Hiddink recalled in 2011. “What’s incredible is that eight out of the ten times he told me that, he really did score and we really did win.”
To his coaches, indulging Romário was to like giving in to a drug. After a comedown, they’d all gladly bend the ear of anybody willing to listen to the dangers of taking Romário. It was frustrating, unpredictable, expensive, prone to outbursts, and it was known to cause rifts between previously tight-knit groups of players and staff. But, when the very next fixture loomed, they daren’t attempt facing the music without taking another hit because there was simply no replicating that winning feeling without it. It – he, Romário – made people feel invincible. He was euphoric.
In 1990, a broken leg briefly stopped him in his tracks, in every sense of the phrase, when a routine slide from Den Haag’s Marco Gentile proved to be anything but gentle; his studs inadvertently making contact above the Brazilian’s right ankle as opposed to simply blocking his shot’s path to goal.
But Romário recovered swiftly and picked up precisely where he’d left off. His role at the 1990 World Cup in Italy was tragically limited as a result of the injury and the subsequent period of recuperation that followed. But, back in PSV colours, he chased his 19-goal stop-start season with an exceptional 32 goals in 39 games the campaign after.
Eventually, after five seasons, Romário’s legend outgrew Eindhoven as Cruyff and his very own place at the centre of a set of blueprints for a so-called “Dream Team” – consisting of Hristo Stoichkov, José Mari Bakero, Pep Guardiola, Michael Laudrup and Ronald Koeman – awaited him in Barcelona. PSV accepted a then-hefty €3m bid and thus the Brazilian was on his way to Catalonia, with 165 goals in 167 games to his name and the winners’ medals from three Eredivisie campaigns and three domestic cups swinging from his back pocket.
With a gaping Romário-shaped hole in their attacking arsenal, PSV were subsequently left with the seemingly insurmountable task of somehow replacing the irreplaceable – perhaps their greatest striker. Once again, the club from Eindhoven and their ambitious backers from Philips turned their attention to South America. Word had it there was another young, goal-hungry Brazilian who their scouts believed may just fit the bill.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp
Art by Ronny Heimann @ronny.heimann