There’s a reason the term ‘galácticos’ is a fairly modern phrase in the footballing world, one popularised by Florentino Perez and Real Madrid at the start of the 21st century following the arrivals of multiple attacking superstars for large fees in quick succession.
The building of such squads was nigh-on impossible pre-Bosman ruling in 1995, with the three-foreigner rule for European club competitions forcing the sport’s elite to rely on homegrown talent as opposed to supremely talented exports.
Up until the point, the emergence of superstar-packed and diverse squads were rare. Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello’s Milan and Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona served as two anomalies in the early 1990s.
At a time where a Dutch core was spearheading the Rossoneri’s un-Italian revolution, Cruyff, one of the protagonists in the emergence and evolution of Total Football, had set about assembling a side so individually spectacular that they’d soon be touted as the ‘Dream Team’.
While ideological coaching rival Louis van Gaal opted for a structured, collective and authoritarian approach to the revered Dutch style, Cruyff was happy to indulge superstars and thus, four bona fide talents of such kind arrived in Catalonia.
But it wasn’t the Cruyff-like Dane, unpredictably mesmerising Bulgarian or a Romanian genius who served as the Dutch godfather’s crowning jewel. Instead, it was a hedonistic and arrogant but equally spellbinding Brazilian.
By the time Romario joined Barcelona in the summer of 1993, he’d established himself as one of the deadliest goalscorers the continent had to offer following a remarkable five-year spell at PSV Eindhoven.
Romario had proven in central Europe that his combination of supreme technique with innate, predatory movement was simply overwhelming, while very few could finish such an array of chances with freakishly unerring quality. He was arriving at Barcelona just how Cruyff liked ’em: a superstar who boasted remarkable self-confidence.
Upon his arrival, the diminutive forward declared himself the world’s best ever striker and promised the Blaugrana faithful a 30-goal season in his debut term.
It got off to the most incredible start, as Romario produced one of the great forgotten hat-tricks on debut against Real Sociedad amid 90 minutes of utter mastery.
His first was trademark: darting between two defenders before rifling into the bottom corner. A combination of touch, movement, toe-poke helped him to his second and then came the third. God, the third.
Latching onto Pep Guardiola’s subtle chip over the Sociedad defence, Romario ditched all levels of decorum in goalscoring. Simply bringing the Spaniard’s ball down before finishing one-v-one just wasn’t Romario. Instead, an unfathomable lob over the advancing keeper after expertly manipulating the ball with his chest was much more to the Brazilian’s taste.
It was the start of, you guessed it, the 30-goal season he promised as his tally proved enough to secure the Pichichi Trophy.
He’d immediately struck a fine off the field relationship with the similarly self-assured Hristo Stoichkov as their respective egos seemed to thrust their on-field performances to new heights in a bid to out-duel one another.
The pair were magnificent in Barcelona’s 4-0 victory over Manchester United in a November Champions League group-stage clash during the Brazilian’s ill-fated second season at the club.
“The suddenness with which they [Stoichkov and Romario] attacked was a new experience,” Sir Alex Ferguson described post-match after the pair of protagonists combined for three of Barça’s goals.
It was, without question, the Brazilian’s most memorable showing on the European stage but for the Blaugrana faithful, his Clasico masterclass the season prior held much greater significance.
With carnival season well underway in his homeland, party animal Romario was intent on returning and had negotiated a deal with Cruyff that should he score twice in the Clasico, he’d be rewarded with an extended break.
With 24 minutes on the clock, he scored one of the most memorable individual goals in La Liga history. Deploying a move known as ‘the cow’s tail’ which brought a sense of bewilderment akin to Cruyff’s first utilisation of his iconic turn two decades prior, Romario outwitted Real defender Rafael Alkorta before toe-poking home effortlessly.
His two-goal milestone was reached after 56 minutes as he notched a trio of strikes in a 5-0 rout over Barcelona’s fiercest rivals. Cruyff’s side would stutter to their fourth consecutive title with Romario leading the way, although Capello’s regimented Milan prevented an overly confident Dream Team from achieving further European glory in Athens.
Nevertheless, the summer of ’94 would mark Romario’s apex, where his exploits at the World Cup across the Atlantic thrust him into footballing folklore as he masterminded Brazil’s triumph.
At Barcelona, however, the World Cup served as the turning point in Romario’s Catalonian demise.
The partying and distinct lack of attitude rubbed up senior teammates and close friend Stoichkov up the wrong way, with the Bulgarian and Cruyff, who particularly lamented his “lack of discipline”, barely on speaking terms with the maverick Brazilian.
The rift with his manager was beyond repair by the time he was crowned 1994 World Footballer of the Year – with Stoichkov second – as Romario departed Catalonia in January 1995 for Flamengo.
However, the bitter end to the Brazilian’s Barcelona stint amid the death of Cruyff’s Dream Team shouldn’t cast a cloud over what was one of the most impactful debut campaigns in La Liga history.
Despite the egotistical clash with his meticulous Dutch coach, it didn’t stop Cruyff from naming Romario as “the best player he’s ever coached”.
Conceited? Sure. Outspoken? Certainly. Overwhelmingly arrogant? Most definitely. But boy, did he mesmerise with those sequences of samba innovation, those ruthless toe-pokes and those preternatural feet.
Romario truly was one of a kind.