Brazil Braces for a (Bogus) Soccer Milestone

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Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty

Brazilian striker Romario de Souza Faria shoots to score against Mexico.

In the colorful pantheon of Rio de Janeiro stereotypes, none is more beloved than the malandro. Brazilians like to believe that many of their Portuguese words defy direct translation, and in this case they are right. A malandro is, for want of a more succinct description, a hustler who survives by his wits and savvy, often fooling those richer or more powerful than himself, and usually skirting the law. He is a bohemian, a joker and a smartass. The word has been cropping up all over the sports pages of the local and international media in recent weeks, thanks to the efforts of the consummate malandro, Romario de Souza Faria. Better known to the world's soccer fans simply as Romario, the 41-year-old former World Cup winner is still playing professionally, and is just one goal away from equaling the storied feat of the legendary Pelé by scoring 1,000 goals.

Romario's quest for the symbolic 1,000th goal has been a lesson in malandragem, as the way of the malandro is known. There is no question he was the greatest goal scorer of his generation, a "creative, straightforward, genius, goal-scoring superstar," in the words of top sports columnist and former Pele World Cup-winning teammate Tostao. Wherever he played, he scored: at home in Brazil, with top European clubs such as Barcelona, and on the international stage, where his genius was crucial to his country's 1994 World Cup victory in the U.S.

In his prime, during the early 1990s, Romario was quick, slippery and deadly. He could make an inch of space seem like a mile, and he worked angles like Pythagoras. But, in true malandro spirit, the creativity he showed in and around the penalty box may have also been at work in his math when it came to counting goals. The Vasco da Gama striker has padded his tally with goals scored in youth matches, amateur games and friendlies (although there's no reason to believe reports that his 999 goals include those scored on his Playstation).

Brazil's top football magazine, Placar, did its own research, and came out with a Romario goal tally about 100 short of the 999 claimed by the striker himself. That forced Romario to admit that not all the 999 goals were scored in first-class games. In the U.S. or Europe, the admission of such chicanery in pursuit of a hallowed sports milestone would likely be condemned as unscrupulous, if not immoral. But in Brazil, where the original malandros of samba songs were celebrated for their ability to triumph through deceit and cunning, Romario remains a hero — or, at worst, a lovable rogue. He is the bad-boy-made-good, and in Brazil, particularly in Rio de Janeiro, everyone loves someone who can put one over on authority.

For that reason, Cariocas (as Rio's residents are known) have overlooked some of Romario's other less appealing qualities — the string of ex-wives and paternity suits; the frequent insulting of and occasional attacks on fans, players and coaches; the lack of anything resembling team spirit or a work ethic, and the undisguised selfishness on the field. Instead, they have filled stadiums in the hope of seeing his 1,000th goal, and those that can't make it to the ground have crowded around TV sets in bars and homes to him on.

So far, though, the roar of the crowd hasn't done Romario much good — he's gone four games now without scoring, since bagging number 999 on March 25. His next chance comes on Sunday, when Vasco hosts Sport. Thousands are expected to turn out to see him search for that elusive Gol Mil. Expect an epic celebration when he does; if there is one thing Romario does even better than score goals, it's party — and this party town will be happy to provide the platform. After all, everyone loves a malandro.