The evolution of footballers usually centers around their bodies. Praised for their aerial and ground abilities and judged for their on-field performances, some players soar and reach new heights whereas others diminish and disappear from the game all together.
Brazilian legend Romário de Souza Fari was strictly known for his footballing skills until two years ago when he entered the realm of politics. A sublime goal scorer, he was known for gaining points both on and off the pitch (he was a ladies’ man). But he’s come a long way since his hedonistic days. He’s no longer judged on his dating record or goal tally. Instead, he’s scrutinized for the bills he supports and passes at the highest level of Brazilian government.
With a transition into politics Romário has likely reached an awakening or at least a maturity level unknown to most players. He’s not concerned with building a brand or a commercial empire like his Brazilian counterpart Pele. Romário would rather dedicate the rest of his life drawing attention to more salient issues.
But while some things change, others remain the same. He still embodies an old continuity. The 46-year old is as fearless and outspoken dressed in a suit as he was wearing soccer cleats. Instead of racing for titles, he now protects the less privileged and is committed to ridding Brazilian futebol of corruption.
Six days ago, he welcomed the sacking of Brazil’s national coach Mano Menezes on social media.
“Today is a historic day, Brazil needs to celebrate…Finally the federation did something good for Brazilian football. It took a while to happen, but it did.”
But Romário was never really fond of Menezes. He openly criticized the coach for his men’s 2012 Olympic team selection and only a few weeks ago, Romário told Bild what he really thought of him.
“This coach belongs to the mafia. All around him is the Mafia, whose interest is only money.”
Strong words and accusations from a man who was once himself suspected of drug use and driving under the influence of alcohol. Allegations he vehemently denies and continues to blame on a hair loss creme and mouthwash.
Romário’s journey into politics began in 2010. The man with the bad-boy image, was elected to Brazil’s congress representing the Brazilian Socialist Party. His left-leaning political views may have been shaped by his upbringing.
Like many other superb footballers, Romário grew up in poverty. He was raised in a Rio de Janeiro favela. He earned the nickname ‘O Baixinho’ meaning shorty. He was a mere five foot six tall, a height scouts and coaches alike disdained in an era where all emphasis was on a player’s physical attributes. Romário on the other hand was short and stocky.
At 22 he went abroad joining PSV Eindhoven. He had trouble adjusting to the cold weather and clashed with the team’s work ethic. Romário was also notorious for his partying and occasionally arrived late for training. Despite his addiction to the Dutch nightlife, he still managed to become the league’s top scorer several times. He also registered the most goals in the European Cup/UEFA Champions League in 1989-1990 and 1992-1993.
Undeniably, he was one of the world’s most prolific strikers (despite a well-known dispute over his 1000 career goal tally), winning the La Liga top scorer title in his first season with Barcelona and FIFA World Player of the Year in 1994. His contribution to Brazil’s 1994 WC victory was considerable as was the Ro-Ro (Ronaldo and Romário) duo that shattered defences and were two of the most feared forwards in the world. As for his club career, what followed was a series of chaotic switches. After Barcelona, Romário would change teams another 14 times, but always with the unceasing urge to one day return home to Brazil permanently.
It wasn’t until his sixth child was born with Down Syndrome that Romário experienced a profound change. His daughter’s condition struck a deep chord inside of him and ultimately shifted his entire outlook on life. He credits her with giving him a cause, something greater than himself. Although he initially viewed the genetic condition as a form of punishment, he soon came to realize his purpose was to do more than just play the beautiful game.
Today, he has helped to increase government funding for children with disabilities and he regularly organizes charity matches to raise money for kids with special needs.
But that’s the politician’s softer side. Romário is ruthless towards his adversaries in Brazil’s government and the many different world football governing bodies.
This, for example, is what he had to say about Sepp Blatter in an interview with Bild this month.
“Unfortunately, Blatter is the head/leader of all this shit. He was good for FIFA, but not anymore…FIFA needs serious people and not ones that use and abuse the CBF.” (In the interview, he also says that Franz Beckenbauer would make an ideal FIFA president)
For Romário, the CBF is fraught with overly ambitious and self-serving individuals.
“There it’s only about thieves, rats and bandits…everyone is involved in some kind of financial scandal, but no one does anything about it.”
But Romário wants to change all of that. He’s adamant in his quest to rid Brazilian football of corruption and, regardless of status or position, no one is immune from his criticism. He had cautious but insulting words for the new CBF president Jose Maria Marin, who replaced another controversial figure Ricardo Teixeira earlier this year.
“I hope that the new president Jose Maria Marin, who stole a medal from a Corinthians player during the Copa Sao Paulo de Juniores, does not make that a habit in the Confederation.”
He’s also wary of Brazil’s preparations ahead of the 2014 World Cup. There are still far too many uncompleted projects and construction delays, he said. But what’s intriguing is his understanding of the motives. In an interview with the New York Times, he said the delays are tactics to exploit the situation.
“We Brazilians, happily or unhappily, leave a lot to the last minute. This means a great deal of money will be robbed from our pockets.”
This has also led the politician to pressure the Swiss government to release files concerning Teixeira’s acceptance of ISL bribes. He’s also set up his own website, where he details the scandals that plague the game and his country. He even interviewed investigative reporter Andrew Jennings on the topic.
But that’s not where he derives his legitimacy from. Romário values democratic representation above all.
“I was elected by thousands of votes to occupy this chair,” he said. “I have (sic) nothing against FIFA or against the Brazilian federation, but as a congressman I have the responsibility to defend the sovereignty of my country. I will fight until I can’t to keep FIFA from establishing a state within this state.”
This is the same player that was generous enough to pay his teammates’ salaries at Vasco da Gama when the club couldn’t afford to do so. Only now, unlike his earlier feuds, that involved players (according to Simon Kuper he once called Pele a mental retard), he has made it a habit to confront the most powerful men governing the most popular game on the planet.