Scour the team sheets of any of the world’s top football clubs and you are unlikely to come across many players over the age of 40, then again you are unlikely to come across another player like Romário. On Sunday evening the 41 year-old struck home a penalty and with it marked his 1,000th goal – a milestone reached only once before, by his fellow countryman Pelé.
The goal came in the São Januário stadium rather than the Maracanã, and against Sport Recife not arch rivals Flamengo as Romário had hoped, but that did little to diminish the joy of his team-mates. It took 16 minutes to clear the pitch of journalists, fans and family members who rushed to congratulate the player known to most as simply Baixinho, or Shorty.
"I dedicate this to my family, my children. I’m really emotional, this is an extraordinary moment in my life," he said immediately after the goal.
Despite clocking up accolades most footballers can only dream of (including Fifa Player of the Year, a World Cup winner’s medal and various Spanish, Dutch and Brazilian titles) much of Romário’s career has been marred by controversy – his hunt for the 1,000th goal has been no different.
While most seem happy to allow the striker his moment of glory large swathes of the Brazilian press have been quick to challenge his goal count; seventy-seven goals were scored at youth level, including seven when he was just thirteen. Some were hit home in testimonials and others in non-competitive games such as a series of official friendlies dubbed Project Romário, organized to help him on his way to his goal 1,000.
Romario rebuffs critics who claim he compiled the count himself. Arguing "the counting was done by professionals. If I’d counted them myself there would be around 3,000."
Earlier this year Pelé joined the array of dissenting voices and attacked the "everything counts" strategy, on Sunday however he was quick to congratulate the player . "He is a good student," he joked, "Now he is just 282 goals short [of Pelé’s own record]."
Born Romário de Souza Faria in a favela on the outskirts of Rio, Shorty’s first signing came at age 13 for the small Carioca club Olaria. He soon moved to Vasco de Gama and it was there that his career really took off as they glided to consecutive victories in the state championships.
After eight years and 273 goals he was Europe bound first to PSV Eindhoven, clocking up 174 goals in four seasons, and than on to Barcelona, adding another 51. Since then he has played for a handful of Rio clubs and enjoyed spells at Valencia (Spain), Al Saad (Qatar), Miami FC (US) and Adelaide (Australia).
Romário has donned the Brazilian national jersey on over 70 occasions and scored 55 times for his country. 1994 is widely accepted as his greatest year when he was not only named player of the year but helped Brazil to their fourth World Cup victory as well.
Sir Bobby Robson, his former coach at PSV once described him as, "the most difficult character I have ever had to work with." though he went on to add, "He is also one of the most wonderful footballers I have ever encountered."
While in Europe Romario began to develop a ‘party-animal’ image and became notorious for missing training and arguing with coaches. The media was quick to attack and has never truly forgiven him.
His public image has however mellowed in recent years, especially since he fathered a girl with Downs Syndrome. While many Brazilians remain skeptical about the goal count most were happy to celebrate this historic moment with Shorty.
As Fifa announced on their website, "The date May 20th 2007 will go down in football history."
Joe Kent is a journalist and football writer based in London. Amongst other things he writes for the Brazilian football website www.sambafoot.com.