May 2006: When a Superstar Hangs on too Long
21 May 2006 – Toronto Star
By Morgan Campbell
Just before dusk on Mother’s Day, Romario struts on to the pitch at Miami’s Tropical Park Stadium, confident and condescending.
When you’ve won a World Cup, you don’t sweat the Atlanta Silverbacks.
Back home, the Brazilian striker plays in a 150,000-seat stadium, but his new team, Miami FC, isn’t a big deal down here. Tonight he takes the field in front of, maybe, 1,500 fans and three sportswriters, two of whom are writing about him.
Twelve years have passed since Romario scored five goals in the World Cup, and FIFA named him the world’s top player. His waist is thicker now, his hair thinner and speckled with grey.
But he remains bow-legged, barrel-chested and strong. He’s slower than he once was, but still skilled enough to do damage in United Soccer Leagues, a minor pro circuit that includes the Toronto Lynx.
Midway through the game he passes to a teammate, who fires a wild shot. Romario, the league’s biggest name and the centrepiece of Miami FC’s marketing plans, had cut to the goal, expecting a return pass he could bury in the net.
Fans grumble in Spanish about the missed opportunity. Romario winces and looks skyward. He’s here to score goals and this isn’t helping.
A Dutch sportswriter shakes his head and asks what many people have wondered since the 40-year-old former World Cup MVP signed with Miami in late March.
“This is fourth-level football and Romario’s a first-level player,” he says. “So what is he doing here?”
He’s playing for a place in history.
By his own count, Romario has scored 959 goals in his 22-year pro career. He wants to join fellow Brazilian Pele as the only soccer players with 1,000 career goals, and his six-month stint in Miami is part of that plan.
But because he keeps track himself, it’s uncertain how many goals Romario really has scored. So in his quest he risks becoming less like Pele and more like Barry Bonds — a faded superstar striving to set a tainted record before he retires.
This Friday Miami FC will visit the Toronto Lynx, so local fans can see the legend up close as he closes in on his magic number.
If he shows up.
The Guinness Book of World Records credits Pele with 1,279 goals in “first class” matches. That total comprises goals scored with his three pro teams: Brazil’s national squad, Santos of the Brazilian league, and the New York Cosmos of the old NASL.
Romario, though, has scored in so many places that keeping an exact count is difficult. His total includes goals from international games, club matches (he has played for seven pro teams) and countless exhibitions.
By his own highly unofficial count, he has scored 959 goals so far. But Brazilian media have reported that he pads his stats with goals from amateur matches and training sessions, and estimate that his total is closer to 800. PSV Eindhoven, his former club in Holland, says he has 970. In February, Vasco de Gama, his current team in Brazil, changed their count from 955 to 960 when they discovered five “uncredited” Romario goals.
Romario’s solution is to keep playing.
“It’s not an obsession,” he said of his quest for 1,000 goals. “It’s something I want to do. If I can make it, fine. But if it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come.”
Vasco De Gama doesn’t see it that way. This winter in Brazil the team set up a program called “Romario 1,000,” a series of friendlies they played against lower-division teams so their star could score more goals. According to media reports, Romario scored nine goals versus that soft competition.
“I don’t care if it’s in a pickup game, a World Cup or against a third division club,” Romario told the Associated Press in February. “The goals are worth the same.”
He did, however, sit out one match when he learned several opposing players were more than 50 years old.
Vasco loaned him to Miami so he could continue to score at will, then return to Brazil in the fall to score number 1,000.
But in his USL debut on May 5, Romario looked overconfident and undertrained as he failed to score against Rochester. A week later, however, he scored twice in a 3-2 win over Portland.
“Skill-wise (the USL) is not like the leagues I’ve played in,” said Romario, who scored 22 goals with Vasco last year. “But it’s better than I expected.”
* * * *
Gerardo Villa, Miami FC’s public relations director, has some explaining to do.
The team promised its two Brazilian stars, Romario and Zinho, would appear at an upscale bookstore in Coral Gables to help a local sportscaster promote his book about the World Cup. Zinho, Romario’s teammate in the 1994 World Cup, arrived on time. But Romario still isn’t here and a reporter wants to know why.
“He wanted to rest for tomorrow’s game,” Villa says with a sheepish shrug. “He does this to us all the time. We learned on our way here he wasn’t coming. He’s complicated.”
For Miami FC general manager Luiz Muzzi, it’s simple. Romario follows the same rules as everyone else — when it suits him.
Like that afternoon’s practice, which he missed on short notice.
“It’s not that he doesn’t have to practice,” Muzzi said. “But we feel that he shouldn’t take the risk. His muscles. He’s 40.”
Zinho, 38, practised that day.
Romario also backed out of the team’s first road trip of the season. The day after the book signing the team learned he planned to fly to Holland in early June, but only found out when a Dutch journalist mentioned it.
But Muzzi doesn’t mind as long as Romario shows up on game day.
The team is keeping Romario’s salary a secret, but the first-year franchise isn’t shy about cashing in on his famous name. Every Miami FC replica jersey for sale at Sunday’s game bore Romario’s name and number. The game day program touted the team’s “Conexión Brasileña” — Romario and Zinho.
Not that their presence boosted attendance. The announced crowd of 2,125 appeared much smaller, and a few of those fans attended on tickets given away at the bookstore the previous day.
The Lynx haven’t planned any Romario-based promotions for their date with Miami FC. Team president Bruno Hartrell said last week he doesn’t even expect Romario to make the trip for the 11 a.m. game.
But when Romario does practise and play, younger teammates can’t help but star-gaze.
“It’s a dream,” says 23-year-old forward Oscar Gil.
“When you’re growing up you see these guys in the World Cup, and now you’re playing with them.”
Gil says playing with Romario and Zinho has taught him to slow down.
“When they get the ball they’re so calm and patient,” he says. “Even if it’s a bad ball they just keep playing. That’s why they’re professionals.”
If Romario’s not obsessed with scoring, he’s certainly preoccupied with it Sunday night.
He spends the game lurking near Atlanta’s goal, waiting to pounce on a pass or a stray ball. Spectators rise each time he makes a play, but after an hour and a few near misses, he still hasn’t scored.
In the 62nd minute, an Atlanta player floats a lazy outlet pass toward the right wing.
Romario intercepts it and the crowd cheers louder as he glides toward the goal. A defender accelerates to cut him off. Romario tries to burst past him but can’t coax the speed from his 40-year-old legs, so he tries a shot from 20 yards out. It sails harmlessly over the net.
Miami wins 1-0 but Romario finishes without a goal.
After the game he walks toward the locker room, pausing a few times to pose for photos and chat with reporters. He’s polite and personable, but he makes little time for interviews and autographs.
He heads to a group of fans lined up at a barricade and signs some jerseys. A young brown-haired girl standing near him calls out to him but he doesn’t hear. Romario doesn’t finish signing when everyone has an autograph. He finishes when he feels like it.
After a few autographs he wheels and walks to the locker room. The girl keeps calling his name, holding out a poster and a pen.
But Romario’s already gone, his mind on his next goal.
|Copyright ©2006 Toronto Star|