Romario keeps everyone guessing
He is the second highest goalscorer the Brazilian national side has ever produced after O Rei Pele himself, and he currently faces perhaps the most difficult decision of his long career. He is, of course, Romario and, with his 39th birthday approaching on 29 January, the decision ahead of him is whether to retire or continue playing the game he loves just a little bit longer.
Less than a month after scoring twice in an exhibition game between former stars from Brazil and Mexico in Los Angeles that was billed as his farewell (2-1 to Brazil), and having already announced his "official" retirement, Romario bamboozled the football world on 23 January by embarking on yet another adventure when he signed for three months with Vasco de Gama.
In truth, Romario's gifts have been in a slow, but steady decline since he left Barcelona in 1995, and pleas from a string of managers desperate to get this naturally blessed talent to train more often have merely led to acrimonious fall-outs. "I've never enjoyed doing laps of the pitch. I don't see the point of it," he says. "People say I don't train enough, but I didn't do it when I was 19, so why on earth would I start at 39?"
Short for a striker at just 5'6", Romario nonetheless boasts a record of 70 strikes in 87 official matches with Brazil (compared to Pele's 95 in 114) and between 724 and 822 professional goals in total, depending on which source you believe. With figures like those, perhaps it is not surprising that Romario de Souza Farias does not appreciate being told what to do. And he has often shown himself to be as sharp with his tongue as he was with a football. The list of bad-tempered exchanges is long and nobody seems to get spared.
Passion behind the taunts
Zico, for example, found himself labelled a "born loser", Edmundo and Mario Zagallo had their photos stuck to a toilet door and Barcelona boss Johann Cruyff was rebuked for questioning his young prodigy's late-night antics. "Who does he think he is to dare speak to me like that?" asked Romario without a trace of irony. Even Pele was given a taste after suggesting it might be time for the 38-year-old to hang up his boots. "I'm the only person who'll decide the best day to retire," was Romario's categorical response.
A truly iconic figure in his native Brazil, "Baixinho" has always had a high opinion of himself. "After Pele, there was Maradona. And after Maradona… me," he said when asked to sort through the greatest players of all time.
But there is much more to Romario than his taunts and outlandish opinions. He is first and foremost obsessed with football, which is precisely why he is so eager to carry on. "I love playing football more than anything else. And when I play I think about the people close to me - my family, my friends and everyone I can make happy by scoring a goal. That's why I want to carry on. Plus it keeps me busy. There really is nothing else I feel the same way about."
Football also brings out the joker in him. The explanation he gives for his success as a goalscorer, for instance, will probably not be appearing in any coaching manuals: "I've always hated goalkeepers!"
Romario has called time on his career more than once in the last few years, but always withdraws his statement soon afterwards. The most recent declaration came while holidaying in Florianopolis on 28 December, when he told Brazilian newspaper O'Globo that following a "difference of opinion" with his coach at Fluminese, the curtains were coming down at last: "I'm through, I've had enough. I just don't have the desire anymore." The very next day, Romario claimed to have been misrepresented. "All I said was that I don't really have the same desire, but I'm still looking at my options," he insisted.
It was typical Romario, yet whatever was actually said, he is clearly excited about his upcoming testimonial, an emotional event that will bring together Vasco de Gama and Flamengo at the Maracana. Both teams are very close to Romario's heart and he will play one half for either side.
If one thing is certain, it is that the former FIFA World Cup™ winner will not be trying his hand at coaching when he does finally quit for good. Instead, he plans to devote his energies to the foundation for underprivileged children he set up in 1995, and he also refuses to rule out pursuing a career in politics, a path previously taken by George Weah. But do not be surprised if there are one or two twists left. As unpredictable off the pitch as he is on it, things can change very quickly where Romario is concerned.