Football / World Cup USA '94: Bebeto steps out of the shadows: A 30-year-old striker has a lot to prove as Brazil begin their World Cup campaign tonight. Phil Davison reports

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AT THE ripe old age of 30, despite his choirboy looks, Jose Roberto Gama de Oliveira, Bebeto, has played all of eight minutes of football at the World Cup finals. That was when he came off the bench for Brazil against Costa Rica - the scourge of Scotland - in Italy in 1990.

The fragile striker is likely to start a match at the finals for the first time tonight, partnering Romario in attack against Russia in Group B in San Francisco, and could finally have the world at his size four feet. Then again, he also had the Spanish League title in his tiny, specially-made boots a couple of weeks ago and 'bottled out' at the moment of truth. He had to settle for a runners-up medal with the upstart side from the Atlantic coast, Deportivo La Coruna, and is unlikely to get the chance again.

The amiable Brazilian was the untarnished idol of La Coruna and much of Spain - outside Barcelona and Madrid, of course - until a minute from the end of Deportivo's final game of the season against Valencia in La Coruna's Riazor stadium. A last-minute penalty award looked like giving Deportivo both points for a one-point title victory over Barcelona.

That was where Bebeto came in. Or rather didn't. In a passable imitation of a Charlie Chaplin movie fade-out, the Brazilian, the usual penalty-taker, scurried away in the opposite direction from the penalty spot. Deportivo's Serb sweeper, Miroslav Djukic, was left with the responsibility, choked and Barca took the title on goal difference.

Deportivo's fans forgave Bebeto his lapse but it is one of two shadows from which he will be anxious to escape in the United States. The other shadow is none other than his Brazilian team-mate, Romario de Souza, who outshone Bebeto in Spain last season, taking from him the pichichi award for top scorer with 30 goals for Barcelona, not to mention the unexpected last-day gift of a League winners' medal.

Bebeto, top scorer the previous season - his first in Spain - notched up a disappointing 16 goals last season as Romario grabbed the limelight. They may be on the same team now, but Bebeto will be out to show that he is at least as valuable as Brazil's latest hero, able to lay goals on as well as knock them in.

It is widely reported that there is no love lost between Brazil's twin strikers, who have little in common but for their finishing touch. Romario, it is said, would rather play alongside someone else. He even refused to sit beside Bebeto on a plane trip. Bebeto, who does not smoke, drink, punch or insult opponents on or off the pitch, plays down such talk.

On the field, the stocky Romario appears to cast a black magic spell on defenders, holding them off like Maradona, turning them a-la-Gerd Muller, and outpacing them over the first 10 yards with the turbo-charged sprint of a Lineker.

Bebeto, weighing in at a little over 10 stone and known at Deportivo for constantly hauling up a pair of shorts that seem a couple of sizes too big, is more like a butterfly. He seems to flit past defenders on what one writer described as 'legs of crystal.' He is particularly dangerous for his curling free-kicks, honed by studying Zico, and inswinging right-foot corners from the left.

Off the pitch, he and Romario also have little in common. While the Barcelona striker had discipline problems during his years with PSV Eindhoven, and has been known to hit the nightspots in the Catalan capital, Bebeto is a home-loving father of two.

Both men share the fear that fame brings in a country of poverty-driven crime such as Brazil. Following the kidnapping of Romario's father, who was eventually freed, Bebeto's wife recently escaped what may have been an abduction attempt. Both players have had to employ bodyguards for their families.

Bebeto was born in Salvador de Bahia on 16 February, 1964. By the age of eight, he was in the local youth team, playing mostly alongside teenagers. He was signed up by local side Vitoria at the age of 12 and stayed with them until 1983, when he was 19 and caught the eye of senior coaches at the youth World Cup.

At that time, he was a midfielder. When taken on by Flamengo, he found himself playing alongside his childhood idol, Zico. Bebeto recalled 'crying like a baby' when manager Tele Santana left him out of the squad for the World Cup in Mexico in 1986. By the time Flamengo's arch-rivals Vasco da Gama bought him for about dollars 2.5m (pounds 1.7m) in 1989, he was recognised as a striker. Injury ruled him out of Brazil's World Cup tie with Scotland in Italy and those eight minutes against Costa Rica remain his only World Cup finals experience.

He looked all set to join Borussia Dortmund before an ambitious Galician called Augusto Lendoiro, Deportivo's chairman, talked him into coming to the port in Spain's remote north-western corner two years ago. 'I didn't even know La Coruna existed, never mind try to find it on a map,' Bebeto said. 'My countryman Mauro Silva, who had been here a year, helped swing my decision.'

The fact that the Galician language is closer to Portuguese than Spanish, coupled with his love for the region's unmatched lobster, shrimp and octopus, helped him settle in. 'La Coruna is a miniature Rio,' he said.

He hopes to return to Vasco da Gama next year after completing his three-year contract with Deportivo.

Like his hero, Diego Maradona, Bebeto attributes his skills to a higher power - 'God gave me the gift to score goals' - but, unlike in the case of the Argentinian, the divine intervention is usually transmitted through Bebeto's head or feet.

(Photograph omitted)