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Last Updated: Monday, 16 August, 2004, 08:43 GMT 09:43 UK
Romario close to swansong
By Tim Vickery

The Brazilian championship limped past the halfway stage this weekend and the end is clearly approaching for one of its star attractions.

On Saturday I saw Flamengo's game with Gremio, which attracted 6,413 at Rio's giant Maracana stadium, while the next day Fluminense and Paysandu played in front of 5,598 spectators at the same venue.

Both were terribly-low crowds but not massively short of the average for the competition.

The money collected at the gate for both games came to around 30,000. It is no surprise then that Brazilian clubs are constantly forced to sell their star players.

The fact that almost all the big names are playing abroad is one explanation for the empty terraces. But it is not the only one.

The economic crisis, awful organisation and unsafe streets are other factors and - as veteran striker Romario said last week - the standard of play from a technical point of view is dismal.

Romario says this decline helps explain why he is stil scoring goals at the age of 38. But he will not be scoring them for much longer.

Even when he was at his quickest his mind was faster than his legs

On Sunday he suffered the rare indignity of being substituted when Fluminense were chasing an equaliser.

It is nearly a decade since Romario returned to Brazilian football and his native Rio. He has since played for three of the city's clubs - Flamengo, Vasco da Gama and now Fluminense.

I have been lucky enough to watch him in that time and he is without doubt a footballing genius - a stocky marriage of skill and intelligence.

He has lost the lightning speed of old - but even when he was at his quickest his mind was faster than his legs. He can still produce the occasional moments of magic.

Like Muhammad Ali, Romario was able to change styles mid-career. The post-comeback Ali reacted to the decline in leg power by inventing his more static 'rope-a-dope' style.

When Romario could no longer burst past defenders he became a master at finding space at the far post. It has been a privilege to watch him but perhaps it would have been better if he had stayed a few more seasons in Europe.

At the time of his return he was the biggest name in football, Barcelona's top striker and the star of the 1994 World Cup. Coming back to Brazil was the soft option. He was not pushed, he trained only when he wanted to and when he believed that he could get by on natural talent alone.

The result was that time after time he broke down with a muscle injury at crucial times - the most important keeping him out of the 1998 World Cup.

Had he stayed longer in one of the major leagues, playing with other great players in packed stadia, he would surely have been forced to push himself to the limit.

As it is, in 50 years football historians will probably see Romario as a footnote in between the eras of Pele and Ronaldo. But those who saw him will know that the genius of Romario deserves something better.



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