Football: It takes two to samba

Brazil's golden boy is forging a striking partnership with his predecessor as a prodigy.
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The Independent Online
The rest stood individually, stretching lithe, supple limbs. Ronaldo and Romario each placed an arm around the other's shoulders, sharing the weight, as they went through the rigorous routine of exercises at the Brazilian training camp in leafy Villefranche-sur-Saone, north of Lyon.

No visible trace here of envy that Ronaldo has replaced him as the prodigy of world football, nor hint of the intra-squad resentment which burned in Romario when he thought he might be saddled with a striking partner he disliked at the World Cup finals of 1994. Then, he refused to sit on an aeroplane next to Muller. Ultimately, successfully, he got his wish and Bebeto was the favoured foil.

The canny little Romario, 31 now, knows the importance of halving the attacking burden with someone simpatico. This bonding with the still raw but thrillingly talented tall boy, 11 years his junior, could extend his rehabilitation, the partnership's blend of wisdom and youth, expertise and explosion, promising much.

England have their SAS in Shearer and Sheringham and the comparisons with Brazil's Ro-Ro will be fascinating come Paris on Tuesday should Romario have shaken off the thigh strain that is likely to keep him out of today's match against Italy. "I don't know yet if Ronaldo and Romario are the best partnership," says Leonardo, the midfield player, "but we have one who is considered the best striker in the world and one who was. So it can only be good for us."

All the talk for the last year or so has been of Ronaldo, Barcelona's boy wonder shortly to become the Italian stallion with Internazionale of Milan after his pounds 20m signing that eclipses Shearer's to Newcastle. Perhaps Romario's pride was stung but whatever the reason, it seems that at a coinciding time he has reassessed his career.

Having himself been Barcelona's blue-eyed boy, he returned home in January 1995 to Flamengo. A sense of anti-climax seemed to consume him after the World Cup triumph of the previous summer. His marriage broke up. He was not a success. One Brazilian commentator compared him to the owner of a sauna: "He makes money from the sweat of others." Romario was sold back to Spain, with Valencia, last summer, but again flopped and returned once more to Flamengo, where he is still on loan. As Ronaldo's career was moving to a new level after a move from PSV Eindhoven to the Nou Camp, it seemed his own might be petering out.

Then, in January of this year, now in a new marriage, he resolved to train more seriously and made an immediate impact on the Rio-Sao Paulo tournament. In February, the Brazilian coach Mario Zagallo recalled him to the national team for the first time since the 1994 final against Italy. Ronaldo scored two, the attacking midfield player Giovanni another two, and Poland were defeated 4-2. The revelation, though, was Romario. This was not the predator who stood on the shoulder of the last defender waiting to pounce, but a withdrawn father-figure striker content to provide for the rest of the family. Zagallo enthused over "his participation in the team's movement" and the way "he opened up spaces and gave passes to his team-mates".

Stade Gerland, in Lyon, saw it last Tuesday when a clipped ball from deep between two defenders into Ronaldo's path cleared a shooting chance. It was in the style Terry Venables identified when looking for a partner for Shearer, when he saw the full range of virtues in Sheringham before the rest of us.

"I have no doubt that Romario could play another World Cup in this new position," says his former coach at Flamengo, Junior, he of the almost- great 1982 Brazilian team. "He's at the stage where he knows all the secrets of the game, the trajectory of the ball and the positioning of his opponents. He's at the peak of his maturity. The best could be yet to come." Middlesbrough were thought to agree, ready to make a bid had they stayed up. Now Inter are pondering pairing him with Ronaldo at club level.

It says much for Romario's less demanding nature these days that Zagallo was willing to court once-likely trouble to include the best talent. It says much, too, for the potential of the partnership with Ronaldo that the coach has overlooked for this tournament and the Copa America in Bolivia later this month a remarkable list of goalscorers. From Europe there is Jardel of Porto, Sonny Anderson of Monaco and Elber, who has recently moved from Stuttgart to Bayern Munich. Back home there is Savio, Tulio and Viola.

Then there is Juninho, whom Giovanni of Barcelona, in that role supporting Ronaldo and Romario, is keeping out. For all the impressive evidence of others in last Tuesday's match against France, there does seem to be a role for him as a dribbling passer-and-mover to bring a different dimension. Mario Zagallo's words last week would seem to confirm it. "Players these days are mostly trapped in tactical systems which prevent them from expressing their individuality," he said. "I understand now that we have to struggle against that. The player is the most important thing. If he performs well, it will benefit the team."

Zagallo's main doubt, it seems, concerns how Juninho might disturb rhythm but the coach is now clearly aware that having finally landed another World Cup using a more solid European style, traditional Brazilian values are increasingly being called for, even if the folks back home accept that some of the fantasy is lost forever because of the tempo and toughness of the modern game.

"We hear this," says Leonardo of Paris St Germain, in '94 a tough left- back who was sent off for his elbow on Tab Ramos of the United States. "But I don't think we will change the system. The best way to play three years ago was like this. We still have seven or eight of that team and, with Ronaldo now also, we have many attacking players. I think with good preparation we can be better." A happy team? "Yes. We can be happier but it's a happy team."

Zagallo saw the match against France as the first step in preparations for next year's finals, which begin a year to the day from the Brazilians' match against England this week. Though most neutral observers thought the draw against the French delightful, the feeling within the camp was that the attention given to Roberto Carlos's sensational free-kick masked deficiencies.

There he was two mornings later at the training ground practising again, with Leonardo, Djalminha, Giovanni and Celio Silva, a bewildering range of dead-ball kicks. England had best beware conceding free-kicks within a 35-yard semi- circle from goal.

"The press and the spectators enjoy goals that shine like gold," noted Rene Simoes, former coach of the Brazilian Under-18 and 20 teams, now in charge of the Jamaican national team and who is travelling with the party. "But football is not just gold but silver and bronze as well. That's why 1970 was as it was, because the links between the components of the team were there.

"In 1982 everyone in the world warmed to Brazil but they shone too much and the links were not too good. This team shines because of Giovanni, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos but what Zagallo has stressed is that all the links must develop. When they do, it will be a better team than '94. They have more quality not just because of Ronaldo but because of the mixture of young and experienced players. They can be the next best thing to 1970. Not as good because that team had Pele, who was God's gift to football."

Simoes was impressed by England's performance against Italy, even if the Brazilians were disappointed at the Italians' lack of professionalism. Pre-match, Zagallo was talking of England's aerial game and devising a game plan for Shearer and Sheringham. After it, Leonardo spoke of a change. "I think England still use the long ball but they know how to play also," he said. "They tried to play combinations. They have strong defence too."

How that defence copes with Ro-Ro, a forewarning of '98 and a reminder of '94, and how the now more organised Brazilian defence copes with the SAS will be a central element on Tuesday. Mini-tournament it may be but maximum intrigue should be guaranteed.