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On Silly Brazilian Debates

February 24, 2011
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Romario & Ronaldo: the tall one was the best

To waste time debating who scored more goals, how many titles this or that player won, or who was essentially “better” is a classically comical Brazilian football pass-time. Moreover, football-related debates in Brazil tend to be extremely provincial – which, I suppose, only adds more comedic flavour.

While the rest of the world goes on about Pele x Maradona, fans in Brazil tend to focus on the everlasting Pele x Garrincha contest. It’s absurd. But kind of fun!

I will never forget this one particular Christmas we spent with my Grandma in Rio Grande do Sul, back in 1998. We were sitting around the kitchen table, chatting, and then in from the living room comes my uncle, Flavio: “did you guys see this thing about a Gremio player being called the ‘next Pele’? He’s only 19, but he’s really good. Oh, and his name is Ronaldo as well, how weird.”

And then my Grandma, calmly sipping her tea, very nonchalantly says: “nevermind Pele, I was alive then, and let me tell you, Garrincha was much better.”

Sheer genius. And classically Brazilian: to go against world-wide popular opinion.

The “other Ronaldo” my uncle was referring to was of course Ronaldinho; or, as he’s known in Brazil: Ronaldinho Gaucho, since he was born in the Gaucho State of Rio Grande do Sul.

Hardly the “next Pele”…

Currently, sports folk in Brazil have been keeping busy by generating yet another pointless debate over the skills and numbers between two other major stars: Romario and Ronaldo.

This one I consider a particularly useless debate simply because they were extremely different players, unique in their own ways, both on and off the pitch. Indeed, one was a micro-wave, and the other a fridge. Completely singular and useful tools, serving distinct purposes.

However, since I am myself Brazilian, I will indeed make an exception and jump headlong into this utterly silly discussion! Why the hell not?! But I must confess, I’m jumping in simply because I feel hurt. After all, and as I sadly expected, all polls in Brazil last week – from blogs to newspapers, from TV interviews to magazine pieces – arrived at the same conclusion: Romario was picked the better player.

A preposterous result. Yes, I am a self-declared Ronaldo groupie, but c’mon! Really Brazil?! Must you always be against obvious facts and popular opinions?!

Oh, my dearly beloved provincial people!

Let us go back to my “micro-wave/fridge” analogy. Surely, two very handy kitchen tools. However, if you had to pick one and lose the other, obviously you’d be forced to choose the fridge. Of course, a micro-wave is very handy when it comes to that midnight pizza snack, but you definitely couldn’t live without a fridge.

Ronaldo is my fridge.

Nevertheless, yes, Romario was superb. He saved Brazil from the embarrassment of being left out of the 1994 World Cup during the qualifying stages in South America, and then went on to lead the team to the ultimate glory by winning the tournament in the United States.

Inside the penalty box, Romario ruled absolutely. An extremely cerebral player, he was able to anticipate the trajectory of the ball, take possession of it in between three or four defenders, and mysteriously find a way to send it to the back of the net – without ever looking like he was working too hard.

Romario was graceful, precise, clinical – a true artist of the game. He wasn’t that fast on the pitch, in fact, he’d barely run or move at all. But he’d always find the ball. Or rather, he had a magnetic ability to make the ball come to him, effortlessly. Romario was classically Brazilian – or classically Carioca (a Rio native) depending on how you look at it: big mouthed, opinionated, annoying but somewhat likable, controversial, malandro (a “hustler”) and ambitious. Determined to stop only after having scored 1,000 goals or more, Romario played well into his late 30s. A bon-vivant to a tee, the striker enjoyed the good company of one (or two, or three) ladies, a game of fut-volley at the beach, booze by the plenty and the traditional samba-funk clubbing Carioca life style…

And, of course, he’s now a Congressman in Brasilia representing the State of Rio de Janeiro.

Naturally.

And what about Ronaldo? Well, to put it simply, football – as we know it now – could not have been developed without him. For he was a fridge!

Ronaldo pushed the game forward. He redefined the center-forward position. He reinvented the art of scoring goals by combining muscle power and gentle grace in perfect balance.

He raised the bar to new heights.

For instance, can you think of any player before him who was able to perform those insanely quick step-overs? Today we have Cristiano Ronaldo (the usurper), Robinho, Neymar, etc etc; all very skilled at the art of step-overs and clever dummies, but where would they be without Ronaldo? The Brazilian number 9 was the genesis of that new style of game. Incidentally, not even 60s star Garrincha, with his plethora of dance-like moves, used to move his feet like that. He couldn’t have, Ronaldo hadn’t yet been born to teach him.

Unlike Romario, who waited for the ball within the penalty area, Ronaldo would run after it all over the pitch. He was able to take it from one side of the pitch to another, dribbling past opponents, and then score a goal that defied all logic and physics. Ronaldo was also able to pass, acting as a competent playmaker. Watch any of the 1998 games and you will know what I mean. He didn’t score any goals in the quarter-final match against Denmark, but he provided all assists.

Ronaldo’s explosive runs, his astonishing recoveries from constant injuries, his three World Player of the Year awards, two World Cup victories, top World Cup goalscorer of all time record, etc, etc, and more etc… all make him the obvious answer to the question “who was better, Romario or Ronaldo?”

And that goofy smile…that charisma. The sheer joy of an eternal boy who played every match, however important the occasion, as if he were kicking about in a pick-up game, on the cracked cement of the streets of his poor youth.

Obviously, Ronaldo was a far superior and more complete footballer. And the fact that 80% of voters on the respected Globo website chose Romario both amuses and annoys me.

Nevertheless, Globo is a Carioca network, and let us not forget that Cariocas haven’t forgiven Ronaldo for not signing with Rio giants Flamengo in 2009, picking the Sao Paulo club Corinthians instead.

Silly. Absurd. Provincial.

Typical of us, Brazilians.

Cry on Cariocas. Cry on!

One player chose to spend his best years in Brazil, deeming European life away from beaches and extra-curricular fun too hard for him. The other conquered international football’s biggest rivalries, playing for both Barcelona and Real Madrid, as well as Inter Milan and AC Milan.

One is part of the cultural heritage of the State of Rio de Janeiro. The other belongs to the patrimony of mankind.

One was important to Brazil. The other was important to the whole world.

One was a mere micro-wave. The other an essential, indispensable, crucial and cardinal fridge – of the finest kind!

RB

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