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Romario,a World Cup champion,is now a World Cup dissenter

Ronaldo and Bebeto are ambassadors for the local organising committee.

Written by New York Times |
October 17, 2013 3:33:25 am

He has never been like the others. It is not his way. When Romário de Souza Faria was a boy playing soccer on the streets of Jacarezinho,he dominated the neighborhood pickup game,the pelada,day after day after day. When he became a star for club and country. When his career was at its peak,he reveled in a social life so rambunctious that he once said,“If I don’t go out at night,I don’t score.”

Now,as a politician,Romário is breaking away again. While other Brazilian legends,including Pelé,Ronaldo and Bebeto,support Brazil’s plans to host the World Cup next summer,Romário has cast himself as a dissenter. That is why he recorded a YouTube message encouraging the protesters who rocked his country during the Confederations Cup earlier this year. That is why he writes on social media about where he sees corruption and who is to blame. That is why he continually criticises the spending and the planning of the World Cup while also serving as a congressman from Rio de Janeiro.

Some find it odd. One of Brazil’s biggest soccer stars is now the Brazilian World Cup’s biggest critic? It is strange,to be sure. But for Romário,it fits.

Romário believes the Brazilian soccer federation,known as the C.B.F.,is a “disgrace” and says that its former president,Ricardo Teixeira,who resigned amid allegations of corruption,is “directly a part of everything that has been evil in Brazilian football for the last 10 years.” Teixeira’s replacement,José Maria Marin,is “somehow even worse.” A spokesman for the C.B.F. declined to comment. FIFA is also to blame for “robbing the Brazilian people,” Romário said,adding that he believed FIFA’s president,Sepp Blatter,had little interest in leaving Brazil in a good state after the World Cup.

Romário also has little use for his fellow Brazilians who put a positive spin on what he sees as a missed opportunity to help alleviate his country’s numerous social needs. Ronaldo and Bebeto are ambassadors for the local organising committee,and Romário laughed when his former teammates were mentioned. In reference to Ronaldo,who once said that “you host World Cups with stadiums,not hospitals,” Romário rolled his eyes. “Ignorant,” he said. “Either Ronaldo and Bebeto aren’t aware of what is going on,or they are pretending they aren’t aware of what is going on. Either way,it is ignorant.”

Initially,Brazilian officials said no public money would be used on stadium construction. Now,some estimates show as much as 6.4 billion reais of public money ($2.9 billion) will be spent on stadium construction. The total bill to stage the tournament could be 30 billion reais ($13.8 billion),a figure Romário says leaves him sick.

“You see hospitals with no beds,” he said. “You see hospitals with people on the floor. You see schools that don’t have lunch for the kids. You see schools with no air-conditioning,where kids are going to school in 45 degrees Celsius.”He continued: “You see buildings and schools with no accessibility for people who are handicapped. If you spend 30 percent less on the stadiums,they’d be able to improve the other things that actually matter.”

Perspective,such as it was,arrived eight years ago. That was when Romário’s daughter,Ivy,was born with Down syndrome and,he said,he was awakened to the plight of the disabled.

Asked to name his proudest moment,he did not bring up his domination at the 1994 World Cup or the day he scored his 1,000th career goal (a total that took some creative math because it included goals scored in youth and friendly matches,which are not counted by FIFA). “One of my best days was in the first six months of my term,” he said. “I was able to get a law that was sanctioned by the president that incentivised and helps those who are handicapped. It used to be that those who were handicapped did not want to work because they might lose their government money. Now,they can go find work.”

It still must be said that the old Romário has not disappeared. Although he may run for governor of Rio de Janeiro next year and his hair has grayed at the edges,his political vigor remains mixed with a heavy dose of hard living. He still goes across the street from his apartment whenever he can to playfootvolley,a version of beach volleyball that prohibits the use of hands. He still deals with gossip columnists tracking his romantic relationships (his divorce was a tabloid staple,and he was once linked to a woman who competed in the Miss Bum-Bum competition,which is a beauty pageant where women are judged on their posteriors). He also still regularly goes to clubs and parties.

Ultimately,Romário makes no apologies — not for his demeanor and not for his politics. His constituents in Rio know him; they know who he was and who he has become.

“At first,I thought he was going to get into the media or get easy money,” said Tiago Antonio,a cabdriver in Rio,“but it seems he’s doing a good job.” Paulo Tadeu,another cabby,said he admired Romário’s agenda. “There’s no good schools,there’s no good hospitals — how can there be a World Cup?” he said.

This,of course,is what Romário keeps asking over and over. He wants them to stand and march and chant and scream. He wants them to make noise. He wants them to speak up for what they believe — whether it is cleaner government or cheaper public transportation — even if it leaves the Brazilian World Cup with a legacy that is less than pristine.

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