He Ain’t Pelé

What if the world's top soccer player came and nobody showed?

Romário de Souza Faria is soccer's answer to the Greek demagogue. Since being named MVP of the World Cup in 1994, the stout Brazilian striker has astounded mortals with his curious mix of the mercurial and bacchanalian. He partied while others slept, froze his seed with the intention of farming a superteam of his own line, and ruled the goal — all while practicing with the same diligence with which most floss their teeth.

At age 40 and a mere 36 goals away from breaking Pelé's career record of 1000, the great Romário has come to live and play among us in Miami.

"But he's over the hill, like," said Brendan Clery in a matter-of-fact brogue. At five o'clock Friday, May 5, the frank Irish bartender at the Playwright, a South Beach soccer pub, had no idea Romário would be making his American debut in a tiny stadium across town.

"Normally," added Clery, spinning a church key on his finger like a pistol, "I wouldn't cross the street to see an American soccer game. But I'd go to see him, just to say I saw him. He's a legend in his own time, like."

And times have proven strange.

The Brazilian striker signed a five-month contract with Miami FC, the city's upstart professional soccer team, back in March. Romário played his first three games in early May, just a few weeks before the 2006 World Cup kicks off in Berlin. His play was less than impressive — he racked but two goals.

Miami FC billed his debut as an epic shot-in-the-arm for the local soccer scene, but the legend's arrival and first game proved almost as rocky as the city's three-decade relationship with the professional sport. The Miami Gatos tanked in 1972. The Torros lasted for just three years, until they were axed in '76. The Strikers enjoyed an impressive six-year reign in Fort Lauderdale before going under in '83. And Major League Soccer pulled the rug from under the three-year-old Miami Fusion in 2001.

Despite a wealth of fútbol enthusiasts, Miami has chewed up and spit out more than its fair share of soccer clubs.

But then so has Romário.

The petite prodigy came up in the dirt-poor favelas of Rio de Janeiro and testifies that soccer saved his life. In 1987 and '88 his team, Rio's Vasco de Gama, took the Campeonato Carioca (Brazilian state championship). Afterward, he competed with Brazil's national team and took an Olympic silver medal in Seoul.

In the years that followed, Romário hitched his star to the Euro-wagon, first with the Dutch and then the Spanish. In '94 he was declared FIFA World Player of the Year.

Romário inexplicably returned to Rio and then cycled through a half-dozen teams worldwide. The point, apparently, was to minimize his practice time — and maximize his romping. Romário's foxiness caused the Philadelphia Inquirer to dub him a "malandro — a sly soccer wizard with an ego the size of Brazil's inflation rate." If his past is any indication, Miami should be wary.

In 1993 he shrewdly signed a three-month contract with Al-Sadd in Qatar for $1.5 million. The poor bastards squeezed just 130 minutes of play and zero goals out of the rakish athlete before he was on his way back to Rio, dribbling a giant sack of riyals between his feet.

When Romário announced on March 30 he was signing with Miami FC, he hadn't shown up to practice for Vasco de Gama in two weeks.

After a five-day training stretch here in April, his calf muscle gave out. "Romário, in recent years, has not been the kind of player who has trained on a daily basis," says Aaron Davidson, vice president of Traffic Sports, the team's Brazil-based corporate owner.

Romário didn't play in Miami's April 16 scrimmage against Jamaica. Then visa trouble kept him from the team's first official game against Montreal.

Finally, on May 4, Miami FC held a poorly attended welcome-to-town press conference in a cavernous room at the airport Sheraton. Romário was seated with several of his teammates at a long, red satin-draped table — his head downcast, his bloodshot eyes fixed in an agitated stare. A white plastic drape decorated with the team's blue crests set off his silver temples and diamond earrings.

Owen Slot, a smartly dressed, bleary-eyed veteran sports correspondent for the London Times, ventured the only question. "I wonder," he began in a lilting British accent, "if I might ask Romário's teammates what they thought of him back when he was king of the world."

As Fabian Sandoval and Stephane Guillaume gushed nostalgia, Romário barely grinned. Soon after the conference, he ditched Slot, who spent the remainder of his stay chasing Romário to no avail.

Friday's debut against Rochester's Raging Rhinos was even more disappointing. The team's Tropical Park Stadium — a resodded high school football field with bleacher seating — resembled a glorified peewee pitch. The man who dazzled Brazil's 100,000-capacity megastadiums played to 3142 people.

"It's really weird to see him here," said Matt Weber, a Boca Raton attorney who turned out to watch some of his old college teammates. "[Romário] was MVP of the World Cup; now I get to see him play like it was my kid brother — that's how close I am."

During the National Anthem, the Rhinos (one of the United Soccer Leagues' fiercest teams) appeared distinctly taller and younger than Miami. When play began, the Rhinos locked down FC's midfield and never left Romário untended.

In the $15-per-seat grandstand, a boisterous band dropped a sloppy drum beat, tooted a single horn, and chanted Romário's name. Gia Bonfim, a Brazilian émigré, arrived 30 minutes late, decked out in her national colors. "Romário's the man we really came to see," she said.

Romário touched the ball only about ten times. He never managed a shot on goal. At halftime under the bleachers, two toothless old men cursed him in broken English. "Romário is tourist," cried one between deep drags on his cigarette. "He's coming here for vacation."

Rochester beat Miami 3-0.

After the game, Romário admitted he had been tired in the last fifteen minutes and said he wouldn't travel with the team to Charleston, South Carolina, for the first away game. "I wasn't expecting the opposition to be of such a high level," he said.

He did turn out for the two games that followed — both Miami FC victories. On Friday, May 12, after only thirteen minutes of play, he scored his first goal of the season against the Portland Timbers. Then he nailed the winner just as time expired — with his head, no less. Unfortunately for the team, a mere 2500 people were there to see it.

Then on Sunday, only 2125 fans saw Romário bumble two big opportunities against the Atlanta Silverbacks. Nevertheless Miami won 1-0. Baby steps.

Friday's goals brought Romário's career haul to 966. But don't get too excited. Romário has promised to return to Rio when he nets 999 goals so he can make the millennial money-shot at home.

Will Miami try to whip him into shape? Responds the team's general manager, Luiz Muzzi: "We don't have to tell him what to do and not to do. He knows better."

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