Brazil's Romario scores because he wants to

June 21, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- In the sixth minute of yesterday's World Cup match between Brazil and Russia, the temperamental Brazilian star known around the world as Romario found himself alone with the ball and bearing down on the Russian goal. The horn-blowing, yellow-shirted Brazilian fans filling Stanford Stadium leapt to their feet.

When Romario's tame shot flew right to the goalkeeper, the fans groaned and sat down, and the Brazilian samba drummers went silent. Romario stopped and stared at his offending right foot, then at the goal, slowly shaking his head in disbelief. How could God have failed him?

Romario de Souza Farias lives for such moments. He thrives on such scoring chances. Squat and pecan-skinned, with thick legs and a fine-boned face, he is the ultimate specialist in a game of general skills. He isn't a clever passer. He doesn't even attempt to play defense. He doesn't create scoring chances. He just finishes them. He scores goals.

It is a high-paying, headline-making specialty in which Romario, 28, currently has no peer in the world, enabling him to get away with being arrogant, spoiled, egocentric and all of the other wonderful things that he is.

Practice? Romario doesn't care to, thank you. His teammates on Spanish League champion Barcelona have grown accustomed to hearing that he had to go home to Brazil between games for "rest." He was the only player excused from Brazil's pre-Cup training sessions back home.

Stay out late before a big game? Romario says it makes him play well. Team unity? Let's just say that Romario has other priorities. Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira angrily refused to play him during Cup qualifying after he complained that he was better than Careca and Bebeto, two other scorers who were getting playing time.

When the national team players were assigned seats for their flight from Brazil to the United States two weeks ago, Romario refused to sit next to Bebeto, who plays for a rival team in Spain.

"I want a window seat," Romario said. "And I will sit next to whomever I want."

His teammates don't care for him. His coaches can't stand him. When the legendary Pele scolded him publicly after he criticized Parreira's coaching during qualifying, he called Pele "mentally retarded." ("If someone criticizes, I strike back," he said later.)

But his transgressions always are excused for one simple reason: He delivers. Stalking back and forth across the penalty box, he darts into openings, takes passes and scores with quick touches and deflections. Brazil's midfielders run complex plays that feed the ball to him. Every play points toward him.

"He is the king around the penalty box," Parreira said.

He scored 125 goals in five years playing in the Netherlands, then led the Spanish League with 30 last season. When Brazil needed to beat Uruguay to qualify for the Cup, Parreira decided he wasn't angry anymore and put Romario in the lineup. Romario scored both goals in Brazil's 2-0 win.

"I have scored against every team, every country and every defender in the world," he said recently.

Sorry, modesty is just not his thing. "[Scorers] have to be egotists, selfish," he said.

He was hit with a dose of reality last month when his father, Edevair,

was kidnapped and held for a $7 million ransom, and ultimately found unharmed. "The longest six days of my life," said Romario, who was raised in poverty in Rio de Janeiro. "I wouldn't be here now if they hadn't found him."

Once the ordeal was over, Romario seemed to get serious about helping Brazil win the World Cup, which it hasn't done in 24

years. Since arriving in the United States, he has been a model citizen, practicing hard, signing autographs and joking with teammates. "The discipline problems are finished," Parreira recently said.

"I'm going to give my life to win the World Cup," Romario said. (He also said, with typical modesty, "This was going to be Romario's World Cup.")

His blown chance in the sixth minute yesterday was an ominous beginning. But as the first half unfolded on a bright, 70-degree afternoon, it became clear that the Russians were overmatched against the skillful Brazilians. Romario would have more chances.

The samba drums beat on. The horns continued to blow. The Brazilians controlled the ball, but Romario was quiet. Then, in the 26th minute, Bebeto fed a corner kick into the penalty box. Using the outside of his right foot, Romario one-touched it past the wrong-footed goalkeeper into the net. No disbelieving stares this time. He had delivered. Again.

Twenty-seven minutes later, he broke free in the penalty box and was taken down from behind. The referee awarded Brazil a penalty kick, which Rai, the team captain, converted.

The two goals were the only ones in the game -- both courtesy of Romario. After the game, he smiled, winked and refused to talk to reporters.

He's right. He can sit anywhere he wants on the team plane.

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