Tom Beck1 Comment

THE PRINCE AND THE ANIMAL

Tom Beck1 Comment
THE PRINCE AND THE ANIMAL

Fans called it ‘the attack of dreams’, for defenders it was the partnership of nightmares.

Fourteen years ago, Romario and Edmundo, the self-proclaimed ‘Bad Boys of Brazilian Football’ both rejoined their boyhood club, Rio de Janeiro side Vasco da Gama. Following a third place finish the season previous, president Antonio Soares Calcada and manager Antonio Lopes were convinced the pair could settle their differences and lead the club to the title; they were half right.

The combination of extremely talented, egotistical men with explosive tempers battling for supremacy could be compared to a Shakespearean plot – but this was real life – and whilst on-field the pair’s lethal goal scoring made them near-undroppable, away from match days, the men were unprofessional, unbalanced and often inebriated.

Romario and Edmundo were not always enemies; in fact, the two Brazilian strikers shared many similar comforts. Neither were interested in training and both favoured boozing, womanizing and playing foot-volleyball together on the luscious Rio beaches.  Romario was especially keen on sex. He once told a journalist: “Good strikers can only score goals when they have had good sex the night before a match”. These comments forced a Brazilian priest to question Romario’s place in the national team, so concerned that ‘Baixinho’ could pass ‘bad spirits’ onto star-man Ronaldo.

However, their friendship ended back in 1998 when World Cup-winner Romario opened up Café do Gol, a beach side bar in Rio. A cartoon of Edmundo sitting on a deflated football was placed on one toilet door, with another cartoon of his former lover on the adjacent cubicle. Furious, ‘O Animal’ Edmundo demanded the drawings were removed but Romario refused, insisting it was meant as a joke.

Following this incident, the pair were involved in a highly-publicised falling out, largely aided by the local media’s constant coverage.On the turn of the Millennium, Edmundo had returned from a short, ill-fated stay at Fiorentina in Serie A, where he had failed to recapture the form of 38 goals in 44 games which had earned him a move from Vasco just two years earlier. During his spell in Florence, the front-man would regularly return home to Rio for the carnival, despite first choice striker Gabriel Batistuta being badly injured. Back at his favoured club, Edmundo was once again the main man at Estadio Sao Januario, scoring goals and helping boss Lopes’ charge up the table. However, with the 2000 Club World Championship just months away, it was decided the club needed extra fire-power if they were to challenge for major honours in all competitions and Romario was brought in on a free transfer. At 34, the squat striker had found the back of the net on a regular basis for Flamengo, with 26 goals in 39 appearances for Rubro-Negro.

But that success came to an abrupt end after he was sacked for visiting a nightclub hours after the team had been knocked out of the national championship. At this point Vasco stepped in to snap up the freebie. FIFA controversially gave Romario permission to play in the upcoming tournament, despite signing terms after the registration deadline. Publicly, Edmundo reacted positively to the news of Romario’s arrival. Speaking ahead of the Club World Championship, he said: “To have Romario on my side is an honour and pleasure. Playing with Romario is easy. We had only 15 minutes of practice time together before the first match but we have played together already. We have had some good times. We will continue to succeed.” But behind closed doors he made it abundantly clear that he would not speak to Vasco’s new signing and exercised a ‘clause’ in his contract that prevented the club from interfering with his private life and continued to party in Rio nightclubs. Romario, publicly, too, showed signs of not wanting to re-open old wounds. “I have not come to steal the anyone’s place, including Edmundo’s,” he said shortly after his unveiling.

Their first match playing alongside each other following their fallout would long be remembered. Manchester United had controversially taken exodus from the 2000 FA Cup, supposedly forced by the Football Association to enter the tournament in order to gain political points in an attempt to sway votes for their (ultimately unsuccessful) 2006 World Cup bid. In match two in the group stage, the attacking duo of Romario and Edmundo combined to lethal effect as Vasco famously beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s Champions League winning side 3-1. Romario bagged two and Edmundo the third. The first, after 24 minutes, saw Edmundo react to a weak back-pass from Gary Neville, before waiting for his new strike-partner to arrive and assist for a simple tap in from close range. Two minutes later and another mistake from Neville at right back saw Romario steal-in to double his tally on his debut. Nicky Butt pulled a goal back for the visitors but the match would be remembered for Edmundo’swonderful touch and finish around Mikael Silvestre as Vasco sealed a 3-1 win and a place in the next round. Vasco eventually lost in the final to rivals Corinthians, with Edmundo missing the crucial penalty in the shootout. Years later, he described the penalty miss as the ‘worst moment' of his career.

The pair led Vasco to the Campeonato Brasileiro, the Copa Mercosur (winning 4-3 in an absolue classic) and the Rio State Championships but not before more highly publicized disagreements. After finishing as runner-up in the Club World Championships (Romario finished as top goal scorer alongside Nicolas Anelka) a familiar dynamic returned. The battle of the egos was back on and Romario and Edmundo again fell out.

Romario insisted he played better after a night on the town, traveled to away matches on his own and never trained following a match day. Brazilian football expert Tim Vickery described him as a master of the penalty area: “For Romario, a square metre is like an acre", whilst former manager at PSV, Bobby Robson, commented: “In a large pool of good players, we had one tropical fish. Romario, the little jinking Brazilian striker, was as brilliant as he was unmanageable. He was a fantastic player, a match-winner, but his indiscipline was a constant cause for concern."

Edmundo’s explosive temper and disregard for abiding his manager’s orders caused further friction. But he was to be frustrated further when he was stripped of the captaincy just weeks before the season in 2000 – only for the armband to be handed to his rival. Edmundo exploded in the dressing room, storming home and missing the match against Palmeiras. He refused to play for the club and was duly suspended, stating: “It feels like I was an important journalist who, after staying at home for three days due to illness, returned back to work as an office boy”. With O Animal AWOL, Romario hit form, scoring 12 goals in just seven games.

The feud climaxed just weeks later. At this point it was evident that their personal dislike of one another had spilled onto the pitch, both players reluctant to pass to their teammate. With Vasco goalless at home to minnows Bangu, Edmundo was brought down in the box. The number 10 immediately got to his feet to collect the ball and place it on the penalty spot – but not before Romario pulled rank. The Vasco captain insisting it was his responsibility as skipper. However, Romario’s penalty struck the angle and rebounded clear as he was jeered by fans’ calls – “Edmundo, Edmundo!” – the rivalry split supporter groups. At half time, a reporter asked Edmundo about the incident, to which he replied: “The King decided his Prince should take it”, referring to club president Eurico Mirando and Romario respectively. Vasco went on to win the match 3-0, with Edmundo scoring one and setting up another. In the very next match, Romario got his name on the scoresheet before sniping back at Edmundo: “Now, everyone in the kingdom is happy – the King, the Prince and the court jester.”

In March that year, Vasco treated their home fans to a 6-0 victory over Americano. Romario bagged a four-goal haul, whilst Edmundo scored a brace. The pair refused to celebrate any of the goals together as their personal animosity heightened – the battle of the egos was reaching breaking point. The local press fueled the fire with their incessant coverage. Media outlets would report on the behaviour of the players in each training session, analyzing and examining if they left the field together, how often they passed to each other and even how they shared glances.

Off the pitch, Edmundo had a history of finding trouble. In 1995, he escaped a lengthy prison sentence after being involved in an accident that resulted in the death of his three passengers whilst drink driving during the Rio carnival. However, in 2014, Edmundo was re-arrested for his involvement. Edmundo’s lawyers successfully appealed recently; saying the time limit for the conviction had expired, but campaigners continue to press for justice. His most famous (and bizarre) off-pitch moment came about in 1999. After hiring a live circus act to celebrate his son’s first birthday, Edmundo faced accusations of cruelty to animals from animal rights organizations after he was seen supplying beer and whiskey to a chimpanzee named Pedrinho. Edmundo denied and continues to deny the charges.

The partnership with Romario (at Vasco, at least) was finally put out of its misery when Edmundo fell out with the directors over his wages. The player was reportedly being chased by Italian sides Napoli, Perugia, Milan and even former club Fiorentina but eventually unceremoniously left for Santos. Following his early exit, Romario afterwards said: “They say his dream is to play alongside me in the national team. My dream is to never play with him again.” 

But that wasn’t quite the end of the story. Four years later in 2004, the pair joined forces once more at Fluminense, the third Rio de Janeiro based club to bring the duo together, in a desperate attempt to save the club from relegation. After signing terms at the club just two years earlier, Romario had declared: “When I was born, God pointed at me and said “That’s the man”. Age was clearly not dampening his confidence. Older? certainly. Greyer? definitely. Wiser? questionably.

Edmundo was returning from a spell in the Japanese J-League, where had scored a hat full for Tokyo Verdy and the Urawa Reds before once more joining Vasco, for his third of five spells at the club. Romario, meanwhile, was continuing to prove that age was merely a number after bagging 41 goals in 46 appearances for Vasco before continuing this trend at Flu. Now 38-years-old, he seemed confident of success, insisting: “We have much work to do. I can assure you that things will go well. We’re older now and we will not let vanity harm the team.” The duo did aid the Rio club, as they improved on a 21st place finish in 2003 to a top 10 spot the following year. But the dream didn’t last long, and at the end of the campaign, and after only 19 matches and seven goals, Edmundo was again released.

By 2007, Romario was back at Vasco – but this time as manager. Following spells in America and Australia, the 42 year old had netted his 1000th goal of his career by this stage and was now in charge of the club he grew up with. After three goals in six matches, Baixinho was restricted only to a backroom role after testing positive for the banned masking agent Finasteride. The 5ft6” striker was forced to serve a 120-day doping ban despite blaming the incident on a hair-loss product he had been taking.

Following his appointment as head coach, club president Eurico Miranda came to the decision to recruit 36-year-old Edmundo, who looked on the verge of retirement a year earlier. But following another successful spell at Palmeiras, O Animal was thrilled to be handed the opportunity to end his playing career at his boyhood club on a short-term deal. “I’m very happy. I watch the Vasco games from afar and I’ve never stopped missing this club. I jumped at the chance to come back here,” he said. “I was told that Romario was the one who suggested that I be called back to the club and that gave me enormous satisfaction. There always been real affection between us no matter what problems we have had in the past.” But, once again, the pair could not make it work. And after just 40 days in charge, Romario stormed out. Edmundo struggled too – he failed to find form and in his final match as a professional, Vasco were relegated for the first time in their history, picking up just 40 points. They later went on to record a (non-hit) record together, titled ‘The Bad Boys of Rap’

Nowadays, Romario is a Brazilian Socialist Party politician, fighting for better rights for the working class and offering vociferous criticism of the amount of money being spent on the 2014 World Cup. His stature and status in Brazil means his comments continue to be headline news, especially recently, after labeling Brazil-legend Pelé an ‘imbecile’ in another personal feud. Edmundo, meanwhile, has ventured into football punditry following his retirement. He remains a powerful man at Vasco da Gama and is a major influence on the outcome of the club’s presidential elections.

Personal animosity between the pair spoiled one of the most lethal strike partnerships in Brazilian history. Powerful and explosive, prolific and volatile; their unrivaled talents – and in-turn their rivalry – resulted in unmanageable conditions for anyone attempting to chain the Prince and the Animal.

Tom is on Twitter @twjbeck.

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