Romário: Football Superstar to Champion of Brazil's Children

Romário de Souza
Illustration by Montse Bernal

In a banker’s gray suit, his hair flecked with white, the little man behind the desk is barely recognizable. Only the signature lisp and the slightly bloodshot, droopy right eye betray him as the Brazilian football legend. Romário is back—but not on the pitch, where the diminutive striker feinted and danced, leading Brazil to the fourth of its five World Cup titles in 1994. Now he’s in Brasília, the country’s wind-swept capital, where the junior Socialist Party representative from Rio is working the phones the way he used to work other teams’ backfields.

The town could use a superstar. With the 2014 World Cup approaching fast, and Brazil’s global cachet in play, construction on stadiums, hotels, and mass transit is badly lagging. The delays have embarrassed the country and set Brasília and FIFA, the international football authority, at dagger point, and yet Congress has still not voted on the ground rules for the planet’s biggest sports event. “Brazil is not going to be ready,” the pint-size giant says. “We’ve known the World Cup was coming for more than four years, but only now has the government woken up.”

This is a new game for Romário de Souza Faria. When he was wearing the green-and-yellow national jersey, Romário thrived on outsize challenges. Just 1.69 meters tall, “o Baixinho” (the Little Fellow) was once Brazil’s biggest asset on grass, scoring 1,002 career goals, just behind Pelé. Born in a Rio favela, he kicked his way into the pros, becoming a legend in Holland, the Spanish league’s high scorer with Barcelona’s 1994 “Dream Team” (scoring 30 goals), and a magician for Brazilian powerhouses Vasco da Gama and Flamengo.

He left his mark not only on the score sheet. Rich and famous beyond measure, Romário took extravagance seriously. I once watched him descend on the practice pitch at Vasco by helicopter, a deus ex machina in Ray-Bans. Such hubris galled coaches and delighted everyone else. “If I don’t go out at night, I don’t score,” he once explained.

But his most daring move came after he hung up his boots at 42. He could have made a bundle as an agent, coach, or sports commentator. Instead, he ran for Congress. “On the field, playing ball was automatic. It came naturally,” he says. “Politics is, well, different.” So why gamble glory on a team of suits?

“Ivy,” he says. Mention of his 7-year-old daughter yanks the honorable representative from Rio out of spin cycle. When Ivy (pronounced EE-vie), Romário’s sixth child, was born with Down syndrome, “it was a blow,” he recalls. His wife, Isabella, feared he would abandon her and the child. Instead, Romário doubled down and became a doting dad and husband, then a lawmaker. “Maybe this is God’s way of saying, ‘You’re the man,’” he recalls a friend telling him. That sounds right to Romário. “Angels don’t drop into just anyone’s lap,” he says. “If she fell in mine, maybe He was aiming.”

Raising Ivy drew him into a world he’d never stopped to notice. “Brazil has 45 million children with special needs,” he says. “Being an idol wasn’t enough to help.” Romário saw politics as a way to use his fame to accomplish something worthwhile. In his freshman year he drafted 48 bills and saw two signed into law: one to aid poor kids at risk in the favelas, the other for special-needs kids. He also emerged as the nation’s leading whistle-blower on the World Cup, sparing neither FIFA nor his fellow politicians. The Brazilian legislative-watchdog group Congress in Focus rated him 2011’s sixth most effective lawmaker out of 513.

For nearly two decades he worked wonders in one of God’s most demanding rectangles. Whether he can do the same in Latin America’s most grueling political arena is an open question. But no one doubts it’ll be a game worth watching.