Romario is number 21 in 90min’s Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series
The words ‘Brazil’ and ‘football’ go together like toast and butter.
Sure, they can exist without one another and serve a variety of purposes individually, but together they have a classic, ageless quality familiar to all of us. We’ve all had buttered toast; we’ve all seen Brazil do something memorable on the football pitch.
And yet, for all the samba culture is so deeply ingrained in football as we know it, for all there is a synonymy between the country and the sport, the national team have had no shortage of identity crises.
They’re having one just now. They will have gone 20 years without winning the World Cup by the time the Qatar tournament rolls around in 2022. Their one semi-final appearance since that glorious summer in 2002 ended in a 7-1 defeat to Germany; they have barely had a whiff of World Cup glory in two long decades.
Yet the state of affairs still pales in comparison to the awkward era wedged between Pele and Ronaldo, where they resorted to drastic measures under Carlos Alberto Parreira in order to restore themselves to former glories. The last time they embarked on such a barren run, they tossed their previous identity aside with reckless abandon, taking on a defensive approach to football that horrified the faithful back home, yet yielded the ultimate prize in 1994.
They won the World Cup in Pasadena, but while it isn’t exactly remembered fondly, there are one or two players in that squad you won’t hear a Brazilian speak a bad word of; one of which is the immutable Romario.
The period of 1990-94 saw Brazil undergo a monumental identity shift, but that regeneration arguably wouldn’t have been a successful one had it not run parallel to the peak of one of the greatest goalscorers the game has ever seen.
Though he perhaps lacked the enigmatic dynamism of those who would follow, his unrivalled ability as an opportunistic poacher is perhaps what separates him from the rest of his samba compatriots. Coming through the ranks at Vasco da Gama, his penalty-box prowess at the 1988 Olympics earned him a move to PSV Eindhoven, where he would continue to hammer in the goals at an absurd rate.
Backed by a swagger and an unshakeable confidence in his own abilities, he’d break 30 goals in three of his five seasons in the Netherlands – scoring more goals than he did play games in consecutive seasons in 1989-90 and 1990-91.
He set the Eredivisie alight with his 115 goals, attained in just 132 appearances, helping PSV to three league titles before departing for Barcelona, already renowned as one of the finest goalscorers around.
He didn’t slow down in Catalonia, warming up for the 1994 World Cup with a stunning 32 goal season that helped them retain the title. But it was with Brazil in the USA that he really made himself known.
Initially left out of the team for qualifying as Parreira opted to prioritise tactical rigidity over attacking flair, the national demand to see Romario pull on his number 11 shirt forced the manager to crumble for their final match with Uruguay. They had to win to win the group, and with Romario in favour once again, they emerged 2-0 victors – you know who netting both goals.
That was enough to keep him in the team for the finals, something that proved to be one of Parreira’s more inspired decisions. Brazil scored 11 goals on their relentless March to lifting the trophy for the first time in 24 years. Remarkably, Romario was on target five times; once in each group game, once in the quarter-finals, and once against Sweden to decide a tight semi-final clash.
His stunning individual tournament wasn’t quite capped off as he drew an unfamiliar blank in the final, but after their clash with Italy ended 0-0, Roberto Baggio’s penalty decided it for the Seleção in California; Romario, of course, converting his earlier spot-kick.
It was perhaps the finest and most consistent display from a single player over the course of a World Cup finals, and represented the peak of an exemplary career for the then 28-year-old striker.
They were heights he would never quite rediscover after leaving Barca in 1995, though he would amazingly go on to score goals prolifically for another 14 years; predominantly back in Brazil with Flamengo, Vasco and Fluminese.
He was a player who did it his own way right up until he eventually retired in 2009, and while others will accomplish more, we will likely never see a better pure goalscorer.
Brazil is synonymous with football, but for years, Brazilian football was synonymous with Romario. His generation never got the appreciation they deserve, but would certainly be a World Cup light if not for his contributions to the cause.
90min’s ‘Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time’ can be found here.
Number 50: Luka Modric
Number 49: John Charles
Number 48: Hugo Sanchez
Number 47: Jairzinho
Number 46: Omar Sivori
Number 45: Paolo Rossi
Number 44: Paul Breitner
Number 43: George Weah
Number 42: Kaka
Number 41: Lev Yashin
Number 40: Gunnar Nordahl
Number 39: Kevin Keegan
Number 38: Hristo Stoichkov
Number 37: Gianluigi Buffon
Number 36: Johan Neeskens
Number 35: Xavi Hernandez
Number 34: Luis Suarez
Number 33: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
Number 32: Andres Iniesta
Number 31: Rivelino
Number 30: Bobby Moore
Number 29: Socrates
Number 28: Sandor Kocsis
Number 27: Lothar Matthaus
Number 26: Ronaldinho
Number 25: Ruud Gullit
Number 24: Bobby Charlton
Number 23: Giuseppe Meazza
Number 22: Raymond Kopa