Brian Viner: Politicians hitch lift on Romario's bandwagon

President Cardoso owed much to Roberto Baggio's penalty miss and Brazil's subsequent World Cup victory
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My thnaks, first of all, to my colleague Rupert Metcalf, from whose excellent digest of football news from around the world I learnt that the Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, seized the opportunity during an official visit to Poland last week to tell the assembled media: "I'm for Romario. He's the best." This is akin to Tony Blair emerging from a meeting with Jacques Chirac, strolling over to a nest of microphones, and announcing portentously that "Sheringham is clearly the man to play in the hole just behind Owen".

Indeed, one wonders whether the Poles were a tad offended that Cardoso chose not to elaborate on the new trade agreement, preferring instead to talk football, and not even Polish football.

He was referring to the furious debate back in Brazil concerning Romario, who has been the subject of countless opinion polls, most of them overwhelmingly in favour of him playing in the World Cup finals. But the 36-year-old Vasco da Gama striker has not been picked for the national side since last July, despite having previously scored seven goals in just two games, in the World Cup qualifiers against the admittedly feeble Bolivians and Venezuelans.

Romario is evidently out of favour with the coach, Luis Felipe Scolari, who has either bravely or stupidly resisted not only Cardoso's urging, but even that of Ricardo Teixeira, the powerful president of the Brazilian Football Federation (and son-in-law of the former Fifa demagogue João Havelange).

Last Wednesday, Teixeira was reported to have had a cosy lunch with Romario. Moreover, none other than Pele has declared on his website that, like every Brazilian, he dreams of Romario and Ronaldo playing together in the World Cup. But when the squad was announced for this Thursday's friendly against Iceland, Romario's name was not on the list.

Scolari responded to the inevitable barrage of criticism by saying that he already knows what Romario can do, that the Iceland match offers an opportunity to look at less familiar players. But still suggestions persist that he is punishing the former Barcelona star for an alleged affair with an air stewardess during Brazil's trip to Uruguay last year.

Romario denies the affair, but, in any case, quite why hanky-panky with a pretty woman would count against a hot-blooded Brazilian male, I am not altogether sure. Perhaps the coach fancied her himself. Whatever, the flight to Uruguay resulted in more turbulence than any of them anticipated.

I am fascinated by all of this because I have just finished Garry Jenkins' engrossing book: The Beautiful Team: In search of Pele and the 1970 Brazilians. Jenkins explains that the military dictatorship in Brazil three decades ago extracted huge political capital from the World Cup victory, to the enduring consternation of the beautiful team's most thoughtful member, Tostão.

Indeed, Tostão thought long and hard about whether to boycott the official welcome home from Mexico hosted by the tyrannical President Medici. In the end he went, but he has regretted it ever since. And he was aghast when, as Jenkins relates, the triumphant song Marcha do Tostão – which began with a TV commentator yelling "Goaaaaaaaaaal" – was commandeered by the Medici government to build public confidence in its odious regime.

Happily, Brazil's rulers are now a less unpleasant lot. But still politics and football are symbiotically entwined. To an extent, of course, that is true in all countries where football looms large in popular culture – Harold Wilson was delighted to ride on the coat tails of the 1966 world champions, just as the generals in Buenos Aires carefully exploited Argentina's success in 1978, just as French leftists made much of the heavily ethnic make-up of the magnificent side which won the 1998 World Cup.

But in Brazil the politics-football relationship is uniquely intimate. The charismatic Cardoso himself owed much to Roberto Baggio's penalty miss and Brazil's subsequent World Cup victory for the long honeymoon period which followed his election in 1994. And it was a political masterstroke to appoint one Edson Arantes do Nascimento to be his Minister for Sport.

Pele has since bowed out of politics, perhaps unnerved by his own iconic stature. For I am assured by Asdrubal Figueiro of the BBC World Service (Brazilian section) that a veritable tsunami of popular support would sweep Pele into almost any political job he fancied.

Figueiro reckons the process might stop just short of the presidency itself, but there are others who are not so sure.

As with Tostão, only more so, the worship of Pele was put to overt political use in 1970, a picture of him in mid-leap adorning huge ubiquitous posters captioned: Ninguem segura mais este pais (Nothing can stop this country now). There aren't many Brazilians, even now, who would bet against that phenomenon reaching its logical conclusion with Pele becoming his country's first black president.

And to think that all Geoff Hurst wound up with was one lousy knighthood.