Carlos Alberto Parreira snarled, teeth crunched, and flashed a venomous glare back at his inquisitor. “No, I won’t recall Romario,” he snapped.
It was a response to a question he’d been asked relentlessly since he banished O Baixinho (Shortie) from A Seleção in 1992 for disciplinary reasons. It was one he’d always kept his cool answering. Now, though, Parreira’s patience had worn thin as the clamour for Romario’s return had blown from a storm to a tsunami.
It was a consequence of Brazil’s disastrous start to their quest to reach USA 1994. The sport’s most successful nation had opened up with a goalless draw against regional whipping boys Ecuador, before they lost a FIFA World Cup™ qualifier for the first time in history, at the 32nd attempt, 2-0 to another minnow, Bolivia.
The boys in the canary-yellow required a result from their final preliminary, 20 years ago to this Thursday, to book a trip Stateside. Anything less and their opponents would seize Group 2’s solitary ticket and rip up Brazil’s unique, record of appearing in every FIFA World Cup.
Dauntingly, those opponents at the Maracana were Uruguay – the team that had devastated Brazil in that same stadium in the 1950 decider. Furthermore, La Celeste were unbeaten in four games against A Seleção, and had emerged victorious from their last visit to South America’s most populous nation in 1992, when Luis Cubilla’s side had inflicted a 2-1 defeat upon Parreira and students including Roberto Carlos, Rai and Edmundo.
Yet despite Brazil’s precarious situation, and Romario’s imperious form for Barcelona, Parreira stayed true to his word and overlooked the national darling. There was public outcry, but it died down by the time Brazil assembled for their preparations at Granja Comary. There, Sao Paulo forward Muller sustained an injury that forced him to withdraw from the squad – and the Romario racket erupted like never before. This time Parreira relented. And when, a few days later, the 50-year-old unveiled his starting XI for the clash, the fun-loving Carioca was back in his beloved No11 jersey.
Romario’s words had been the cause of his international exile, but he was no less self-aggrandizing upon his reappearance. “I already know what’s going to happen: I’m going to finish Uruguay,” he declared.
Parreira, verbally at least, seemed in accordance when asked if he was anxious: “No, I’m calm. Romario will score and Brazil will qualify.”
Romario swiftly showed he was in the mood to fulfil the script that had been written for him. The former Vasco da Gama and PSV player plunged a bewildered Uruguayan into his crowded dungeon of chapéu victims, was unfortunate not to earn a penalty following some trademark trickery, and following an exhilarating turn, dribble and one-two, saw his exquisitely toe-poked volley come back off the crossbar before half-time.
Romario continued to torment Uruguay after the restart but for all his brilliance, the game was goalless heading into the last 20 minutes. The fans were overwhelmingly nervous as nightmares of Alcides Ghiggia’s killer blow 43 years earlier haunted them – at least until the 72nd minute.
That’s when right-back Jorginho sent Bebeto racing down the right and the Deportivo forward looped a cross to the back post. There, a leaping Romario, who had craftily snuck into space, powered a downward header into the Uruguay net to spark indescribable jubilations in the stands.
Nine minutes later Romario made absolutely sure of Brazil’s presence at USA 1994. Mauro Silva masterfully won the ball in his own half, burst through the midfield and slid Romario clean through on goal. The 27-year-old knocked it around Robert Siboldi, whizzed past him and passed the ball into the net from an acute angle to seal a 2-0 victory.
The American dream had begun for Brazil… and we all know how that ended. It wouldn’t have, however, had Muller not been ruled out of that decisive qualifier, according to Romario.
“If I hadn’t been called up to play against Uruguay, even if Brazil had won, I’m certain I wouldn’t have gone to the World Cup,” he said. “I may never have played for A Seleção again. But they needed me. There wasn’t another option. I was their last hope.”
Left-back Branco recalled. “Romario was magnificent that day, he couldn’t have played any better. It was destiny.”
Destiny born in heaven, according to Parreira: “God sent Romario to the Maracana.”