Illustration: Sammy Moody

One day at the Brazil base during the 1994 World Cup, in the US, a couple of players showed up for a training session that was optional. The day before, Brazil had beaten USA 1-0 in the round of 16, and the press who had turned up saw the players do some stretches and light training. Dunga was running laps on his own. At one point, someone asked a Brazilian journalist whether Romário ever came to these sessions. Romário was twenty-eight at the time and at the peak of his powers. But the journalist just laughed. 

“Romário says practice wastes calories, you know,” he said. 

“Optional, not optional, Romário does what Romário wants.”

Eighteen months earlier, Romário had been called up to a friendly against Germany in Porto Alegre. Having flown in from Eindhoven, he started on the bench. “I wouldn’t have come if I knew I wasn’t going to play,” Romário said—at which point Carlos Alberto Parreira banned him from the team. But Romário does what Romário wants. Soon people in Brazil began to criticise Parreira for leaving him out. When Brazil lost their second qualifying game, to Bolivia in La Paz, the pressure mounted on Parreira. Finally, for a clash with Uruguay that Brazil had to win or draw to qualify, Parreira relented. He called up Romário. 

“I already know what’s going to happen,” Romário said. “I’m going to finish Uruguay.” 

Brazil won 2-0 and Romário scored both goals. 

“They call me the saviour of the nation,” Romário said. “Well, I saved it.”

Now back in the squad, Romário began to use the power he had—and that which he hadn’t. As Parreira sketched out his World Cup squad, Romário demanded that he drop Müller for Edmundo. Parreira ignored him, but Romário got other wishes. On the plane to the US, Bebeto boarded first and took a window seat. Romário came in and said: “Hey, that’s my seat!” There were plenty of other seats available. But Bebeto gave Romário his seat. 

“Strikers are egotists, selfish,” Romário said. “We have to be.”

Now in the US, Romário was eyeing a place in the hearts of his people. Brazil had not won a World Cup in twenty-four years. A few weeks earlier, Ayrton Senna had died in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola. Brazil needed a new hero. “If I can lead Brazil to a fourth World Cup title, I will definitely be a possible replacement,” Romário said. 

“This will be Romário’s World Cup,” he added. 

World titles had eluded Romário in the past. A knee injury cut down his minutes in the 1990 edition, where Brazil lost to Argentina, and in 1986 Telê Santana overlooked him. A year earlier Romário had gone to the Youth World Cup finals in Russia, only to be sent home for urinating from the balcony of a Moscow hotel. Brazil won the title without him. 

That same year, however, Romário also made his debut for Vasco da Gama, a big deal for a kid born in a dense Rio de Janeiro favela. He and Vasco won the Carioca state championship in 1987 and 1988. That last year he also led Brazil to the final of the Olympics in Seoul, where the Soviet Union staged a shock comeback. Still, Romário had done enough for PSV Eindhoven to fork out $5million for him, at that time the highest fee paid by a European club for a Brazilian. 

A regular teenager new to Europe might have kept his head down in the dressing room of the European Cup holders. But this was Romário. “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,’” Guus Hiddink said. “What’s incredible is that eight out of ten times he told me that, he really did score and we really did win.”

Romário became the league top scorer in his first three seasons. He was about 1.67m—his nickname, Baixinho, means ‘Shorty’—but his thick thighs gave him an explosiveness few defenders could match. His build was sturdy, his centre of gravity low; Johnette Howard, of the Washington Post, once wrote that trying to knock him off the ball was like “trying to tip over a safe”. In front of goal, his confidence gave him an unusual composure. “He doesn’t move much left or right,” Parreira said. “But inside the penalty area he is the king.”

In five years at the club Romário struck one hundred and sixty-five goals in one hundred and sixty-seven games. Some were memorable. Facing AC Milan in the group stages of the 1992/93 European Cup, he got the ball inside the box while marked by Paolo Maldini, poked the ball up, chested it down, cushioned it on his right knee, turned on a sixpence and hammered it into the roof of the net. It was the only goal Milan shipped in the group stage. 

Romário also tormented Steaua Bucharest in the 1989/90 European Cup round of 16. PSV had lost the first leg 1-0 and gone 1-0 down in the second, but then Romário hit a hat-trick. For his last goal he fooled a defender, then faked a shot to leave another defender and the goalkeeper in a heap. Certain that Romário would shoot, even the camera behind the goal moved towards the net. The trick was the ultimate finish to the ultimate goal, which capped the ultimate comeback in a 5-1 win. Or, as The Guardian’s Rob Smyth called it: “The bit on top of the bit on top of the cherry on the icing on the cake.”

Such goals made it seem as if Romário enjoyed humiliating goalkeepers. Where other strikers would just shoot, he would dribble, lob, chip, dink. Sometimes the ball barely rolled over the line, too fast for the goalkeeper to catch it, too slow to take away the embarrassment. Perhaps these pleasures formed part of what made Romário so effective. When once asked for the secret to his success, he said: “I’ve always hated goalkeepers!” 

In 1993, Romário joined Barça. Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ had won three leagues in a row, but Cruyff still believed he had too many ‘nice guys’. In his debut, Romário struck a hat-trick. He twice ripped apart Real Sociedad’s defence, then scored his third by running clear on goal, chesting a high ball and, from twenty yards, lifting a volleyed lob into the net. As the goalkeeper dived in vain, Romário celebrated with a raised arm and a gentle jog.

Off the pitch, Romário was peculiar. “He basically never spoke to anyone in the squad: he did his own thing on his own terms all the time,” a team-mate told Sid Lowe in Fear and Loathing in La Liga. Romário’s own thing included partying and chasing women. He once told O Globo that he had made love to a girlfriend in the dressing room of the Maracanã. Now the Barcelona press was reporting that he’d stay out until 5am. 

But Romário once said that when he sleeps too much, he doesn’t score. That season he must hardly have slept at all. In the Clásico at the Camp Nou in January, he struck another hat-trick in a 5-0 win. As usual, he saved his best goal for last. Receiving a pass from Pep Guardiola, he spun past Rafael Alkorta by dragging the ball in a half-circle with the inside of his foot, then prodded it past Paco Buyo. Because of its swinging motion, the dribble passed into Spanish football lore as la cola de vaca—‘the cow’s tail’—and became forever associated with Romário.

If such artistry delighted Cruyff, other aspects of Romário’s character made him harder to handle. Two games later, at Sevilla, Romário punched Diego Simeone and was suspended for five games. There is also a story in which Romário asks Cruyff for extra time off because he wants to go to the Rio carnival. “Laughing, I replied: ‘If you score two goals tomorrow,’” Cruyff would recall. “The next day Romário scored his second goal twenty minutes into the game and immediately gestured to me asking to leave. He told me: ‘Coach, my plane leaves in an hour!’ I had no choice but to let him go.” 

The story was probably from a training game, because no record shows that Romário scored twice in the first twenty minutes of a game near that time. In any case, he apparently returned from Rio late. “The coach allowed me to go on holiday to Brazil,” Romário said, according to Diario AS. “But he never told me at what time I had to be back…”

Romário ended up scoring thirty league goals that season to win the Pichichi. On the last day, Barça won their fourth straight league on head-to-head against Deportivo La Coruña, who had missed a last-minute penalty against Valencia that could have handed them the title. Barça also had the chance to seal the double, but collapsed in a 4-0 defat to Fabio Capello’s Milan in the Champions League final. Yet Romário had no time to feel down. He had a World Cup to win. 

The preparations could not have been worse. In May, Romário’s father was kidnapped as he was leaving a bar he owned in Rio. The abductors demanded $7million. Only six days later did police find him sitting in a favela in front of a TV; he had been allowed to watch his son play. Now, with his father safe, Romário could shine. Having made up with Bebeto, he led the line in Parreira’s 4-4-2, scoring in all three group games as Brazil finished top. When the pressure rose in the round of 16, Bebeto sank the hosts in a 1-0 win.

“I had been feeling the pressure of my countrymen today,” said Bebeto. 

“I wasn’t worried,” said Romário. 

By now the two had formed a telepathic partnership. They struck another goal each when Brazil beat the Netherlands 3-2. The semi-final against Sweden long stood at 0-0, but ten minutes from time Romário struck. The final against Italy finished without goals. When Roberto Baggio skied the last penalty, Brazil had won the World Cup. Romário won the Golden Ball and later picked up the FIFA World Player of the Year. “I was always certain that Brazil would be champions,” he said. 

Romário returned to Brazil as the hero he had wanted to be. The celebrations were wild, the summer long. When he returned to Barcelona, he was late and distracted. One player recalled to FourFourTwo (FFT) training sessions where Romário “could hardly move” and was “practically falling asleep”. In one session Cruyff sent him home. “Romário never came back after the World Cup,” Stoichkov said, according to FFT. “His body was there, but his mind was still in Rio.” 

Romário missed Rio. He wanted more of the adulation he had worked so hard for. In January, he left Barça for Flamengo. Some said he had fallen out with Cruyff, but Romário denied it and called Cruyff the best coach he had had. Romário added that he had always been happy in Barcelona. But in Rio, he’d be happier. So much had he longed for Rio’s beaches that, upon his arrival, he demanded that Flamengo install sand pitches at the club and the training ground. The club obliged. 

At Flamengo, Romário also teamed up with Edmundo, whom he had known since his days at Vasco. They released a song—‘Rap dos Bad Boys’—in which they called for “peace for the nation; stop the violence and don’t cause trouble”. The single came out in 1995, the same year Edmundo had triggered a mass brawl against Vélez in the Copa Libertadores. But the duo did not stay put for long. Edmundo soon went back to Vasco, and Romário had two brief spells at Valencia. In the first he fell out with Luis Aragonés; in the second he scored once in six league games. His coach in the final spell was Jorge Valdano, who later said that Romário had had a clause in his contract allowing him to party until as late as he wanted. 

Around that time, Romário also fired Brazil to the 1997 Copa América title alongside Ronaldo. That same year the duo led Brazil to the inaugural Confederations Cup title, scoring a hat-trick each in a 6-0 final demolition of Australia. Everyone expected them to shine at the 1998 World Cup. But a muscular injury struck down Romário. He fought to make it. When Mário Zagallo dropped him at the last minute, he held a press conference in which he broke down in tears. 

Not that he was finished. In 2000, at thirty-four, Romário moved back to Vasco and dragged the team to the Brazilian league title. He became the player of the year in Brazil and in South America. He was also back in business with Edmundo. When the ‘bad boys’ took Vasco to a famous 3-1 win over Manchester United at the 2000 Club World Championship, they seemed unstoppable. 

But their relationship fell apart. Edmundo became jealous that Romário got special privileges from president Eurico Miranda. The two strikers criticised each other, even as they were playing together. “We never fought face to face,” Edmundo told Desimpedidos, according to Planet Football. “We fought through the press. A time came when we were disputing a place in the Seleção, disputing championship titles, fighting for top-scorer awards, and even women in the nightclub.”

If anyone won the feud, it was Romário. Edmundo was soon loaned out to Santos, then to Napoli, who were relegated from Serie A. Romário stayed and tried to get into the 2002 World Cup squad. The majority of the public wanted him to go, including the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), Fernando Henrique Cardoso. But a year earlier, Romário had angered Luiz Felipe Scolari when he pulled out of the Copa América citing an eye operation, only to postpone it and play friendlies for Vasco in Mexico instead. Without him, Brazil crashed out in the quarter-finals against Honduras and Scolari nearly got fired. 

Scolari had not forgotten that and, as Romário realised the coach wouldn’t go back on his word, he gave a tearful interview in which he apologised. Yet when the squad for South Korea and Japan came out, Romário was ditched. At least he had ways to forget the disappointment. When a reporter asked him if he planned to watch Brazil, Romário said: “The games start at six o’clock in the morning. At that time, I’m usually getting home.”

Romário now seemed to be on the slide. In 2002, at thirty-six, he left Vasco for Fluminense. His three-year stint there was interrupted only by a sojourn at Al-Sadd, in Qatar, where he played three games and scored zero goals. Back at Fluminense, the team got worse and worse, and Romário older and older. By 2004 they were battling relegation. Romário fell out with the coach. He was booed by the fans. He slapped a team-mate in a 6-0 defeat to São Paolo. The low came when a fan turned up to a training session and threw six live chickens at him. The gesture had a message: chicken in Portuguese is galinha, slang for ‘ladies’ man’; the fan accused Romário of chasing women more than goals. Romário responded by attacking the fan, who, presumably, did not emerge unscathed. “He can’t play football,” the fan said. “But he knows how to fight.”

When Romário began a third spell at Vasco, he seemed all but finished. But instead of limping into retirement, he rammed in twenty-two goals in thirty-one league games. At thirty-nine, he became the oldest player to win the Brazilian championship top scorer title. When he then went to Miami FC, he struck nineteen goals in a season. After a forgettable spell at Adelaide, in Australia, he returned to Vasco for a fourth time and announced his next target: to score a thousand goals. 

Vasco backed him, launching Projeto Romário 1000 Gols. But was he actually close?

Although the count was dubious, Romário was open about the numbers. While official counts said he was some way off, Romário included goals from youth football and unofficial games. Parts of the press said he was obsessed with beating Pelé, with whom he’d had a public feud. Romário responded by all but refusing to talk to the press. One exception he made, however, was with a magazine called Trip, in which he offered ten tips for how to succeeded in life. Tip number seven, as reported by The Guardian: “Have sex every day, three times at the most.” Number six: “Dream like fuck.” Number one: “Find a prick to slag you off and motivate yourself with this challenge.”

“I’m inspired by challenges,” Romário told Trip. “My life has always been like this. When things are really good, really easy, it’s not cool for me. There’s something lacking inside of me. I need some prick to turn up and be rude about me. This makes me give something extra.”

He had showed this before. The day after the Fluminense fan threw six chickens at him, Romário had sealed a 1-0 win against Corinthians. When he had made his debut in his latest spell at Vasco, he had come off the bench without managing to hit the target. Some mocked him as a pensioner. A week later, Romário came on as a sub again. This time he scored a hat-trick in fifteen minutes.

In May 2007, Romário scored his thousandth goal, against Sport Recife at the São Januário. He was forty-one. He had been waiting for the goal for months, yet even with so much at stake, he had the nerve to send the penalty down the middle. As he followed the ball into the net and grabbed it, fans and journalists flooded the pitch to salute him. The game stopped for twenty minutes. As Romário spoke, tears streamed down his face. “In individual terms, it’s the biggest achievement of my career,” he said. “I dedicate this to my family, my children. I’m so emotional, it’s all too much… For now, thank you. Thanks so much to all of you.”

Romário had little left to achieve now. Would he become a coach? “No way,” he said. “I’d never be able to put up with someone like me.” Shortly afterwards he was appointed player-coach at Vasco, but quit when Miranda interfered with his team selection. In April 2008, Romário retired at forty-two. “To be honest, I’m stopping because I don’t see myself in any shape to continue playing,” he said. “Everything has been a lot of fun,” he added. “I’m happy, because I won’t have to train again.”