Romario is quick off the mark. At the age of 28, he is probably at the height of his physical powers. But he is only 5ft 6in tall and solidly built. His 11st frame and low centre of gravity give him a scuttling run that is effective rather than elegant. As the pass came in from the left, defeating the last Dutch defender by inches, the Brazilian's stride lengthened and his right foot flicked out at full extension, toe pointed down so that the instep could meet the ball on the half-volley. One touch, a perfect strike, a goal so swift and sudden and graceful and ferocious that it redefined the entire match.
The fourth of Romario's five goals in the tournament to date, it followed his early strikes against Russia, Cameroon and Sweden, and opened up a place in Wednesday's semi-final, where - pitted against the dour challenge of Sweden, again - his fifth took them into today's final. Now the world is looking on, hoping for more.
He has brought such expectation on himself, of course. 'This will be Romario's World Cup,' he proclaimed, almost before the ink had dried on the US immigration officer's stamp in his passport. Victory today would make this the most celebrated sporting prophecy since Alf Ramsey's promise that England would win in 1966. And it is perfectly congruent with the self-belief of a man who has risen solely by virtue of his talent from the poverty of Rio de Janeiro's northern suburbs to the opulent life of a millionaire in Barcelona.
His first club was the obscure Orlario, but at 14 he moved to Vasco da Gama, whom he had impressed when he scored four goals against them in a junior match. At Vasco he was to register 73 goals in 123 matches before his country's need for hard currency took him to Europe, and PSV Eindhoven. He made his international debut in 1986, and was a star of the Brazilian team that won a silver medal at the 1988 Olympic Games, losing to Russia. His first big setback came at the 1990 World Cup, when he failed to convince the then coach, Sebastiao Lazaroni, that he had made a full recovery from the effects of a broken leg, and complained bitterly about a conspiracy to replace him with his rival, Muller. A year later he refused to play in the Copa America, opting instead for a holiday on Ibiza, and his international career seemed to be over. Only a few months ago he was still indulging in long-distance spats with the present coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira.
Nevertheless, today's match will be his 61st in the colours of Brazil, and his tally of 31 goals in those appearances reflects the yield provided for his clubs. For Eindhoven and Barcelona he has averaged almost a goal a game in league football - a total of 30 in Barca's recent run to the Spanish championship, having kicked off with a hat-trick in his very first match for them.
What is Romario's special gift? Thomas Ravelli, the Swedish goalkeeper, who has faced him twice in this competition and conceded a goal on each occasion, says that it's his speed of action. When Romario wriggled through a thicket of defenders and shot past him in the Pontiac Silverdome, the gaunt, balding Ravelli turned round to stare at the ball with the haunted look of someone being given the bad news by Liv Ulmann in a particularly gloomy Bergman movie. 'I thought he was going to shoot earlier,' Ravelli said, 'but he didn't, and he kept coming towards me, so I started to come out. But then he shot suddenly, only with the end of his toe, very fast, and there was nothing I could do.'
The word Parreira used the other day to describe his team's style was ginga, a modern colloquialism which, like a lot of the best Brazilian words, is hard to get a handle on in English. Ginga - the first g soft, the second hard - is a certain quality of grace in movement. In a woman, it's a kind of sensuality. In a businessman, it can be a nifty way of negotiating a deal. It has to do with equilibrium, and also with originality, or flair. A capoeira dancer, performing a sort of stylised martial art with knives attached to his heels, needs bags of ginga: nimbleness, balance, fluidity, continuity. No one in Parreira's team embodies the definition of ginga to such a degree as Romario, who passes through defences like a twig that is carried twisting and turning between the rocks of a plunging stream. It takes ultra- slow motion to reveal the full range of his astonishing repertoire.
Only one other man, Roberto Baggio, goes into the Rose Bowl today with a similar hope of acclaim as the overall individual Victor Ludorum of the 1994 World Cup, and if we accept a parity of skill, we are talking here about a showdown between Baggio's desperation and Romario's confidence. The Brazilian, like his team, is the firm favourite.
But that's what he was, too, in the European Cup final only two months ago, when he and Hristo Stoichkov were expected to see off Milan. Stoichkov made a token effort, but Romario was invisible all night, one of the least creditable performers in a thoroughly whipped Barcelona side.
Before this World Cup, in fact, Romario was almost as famous for his sulks, his squabbles, his late nights and his penchant for missing training sessions as for his goals. To his managers and team- mates, his temperament could be a source of frustration. To his opponents, it offered a glint of hope.
'I played against him twice last year, and he got no goals,' Ravelli said after Sweden's first meeting with Brazil two weeks ago, referring to the times when, in goal for IFK Gothenburg, he met one of Romario's former clubs, PSV Eindhoven, in the European Cup. 'He's a very good player, very fast, and he's been impressive in this World Cup so far. But it's very much a mental thing with Romario. He has to think that he wants to play. Then he's good. If he doesn't want to play, he can be a very ordinary footballer.'
So it's a tribute to the man- management of Parreira and his veteran assistant Mario Zagalo that, following Romario's reluctance to turn up for various warm- up matches during the spring, and after the insults directed at Muller, and the business of his father's kidnapping back home in Rio, and that pathetic little tantrum over seat allocations on the flight from Brazil to the US, the forward's concentration and motivation throughout the tournament have been impeccable, thoroughly attuned to the collective mood of a squad that is showing every sign of a belief that its hour has come.
'Our coach wants to win this World Cup,' Romario said the other day, 'and he's organised our team according to tactics that may be a little less spectacular but are more practical. And I understand his point of view. I also understand that of the fans, who would like to see a more attacking Brazil. It's not that I disagree with the coach, but I feel I could do even better if, just once in a while, Bebeto and I didn't find ourselves so isolated at the front. But we players are solidly behind the coach. This time, the result is more important than the spectacle - and anyway Brazil has been giving the public more of a spectacle than any of the other teams. No one has developed a better attacking game.'
Their commitment, moral and physical, has been unwavering. Against the United States on Independence Day, in the only game in which Romario has not scored, the Brazilians won simply because they were willing to fight as hard as the host nation. This meant that superior skill was allowed to determine the outcome. Some of the Selecao's forebears over the past 24 years - notably the spoilt aristos of 1982 - would not have earned the right to make their talent the deciding factor.
Italy may have got to the final on heart and guts, but so, in their way, have Brazil. And while Romario may not have scored against the US, he strove just as hard as the midfield workhorses and made the only goal for his partner, Bebeto, with a run from the centre circle and a pass threaded between three defenders which demanded the conclusive response. 'It's more important for Brazil to score than for me to score,' he said afterwards, and you knew he wasn't lying because you knew he could see more goals coming his way.
As early as their second match, against Cameroon, Bebeto was praising their partnership. 'He's someone that I've understood and played well with for a long time,' Bebeto said after a game in which both of them scored. 'Every time we've played together, we've won whichever championship it was. We're on the way to producing our best, but we have to keep working at it so that we can produce even more.' The results will be in the record book tonight.Reuse content