We continue our legends of Rome series on asroma.co.uk with a look back at one of Roma’s finest ever defenders and the man who made more appearances than any other non-Italian player, Aldair.
Aldair was a rock solid defender with a superb left foot who combined a prophetic sense of anticipation with the refined technique and elegance of a skilled midfielder. He was not only an exceptional professional on the pitch, tenacious but fair and quietly effective in his leadership, but was as exemplary off the pitch as he was on it, conducting himself with courtesy and class at all times. He was affectionately known as ‘Alda’ or ‘Pluto’, a nickname given to him because of his resemblance to the homonymous Disney cartoon character, his shambling gait and his taciturn nature. Some have also likened Aldair to Pluto for his unyielding faith to Roma for, just as Pluto was the faithful, silent friend of Mickey Mouse, so Aldair was the quiet man who chose to remain faithful to Roma during the peak of his career when he could have played for any club in Europe.
Aldair Nascimento dos Santos was born on 30th November, 1965 in Ilheus, in the Bahia region of northern Brazil. Although he only lived with his mother throughout his childhood, he began playing in his father’s team at 8 years old before, aged 14, his father suggested that he go for a trial with Vasco da Gama. Despite being worried by the idea of moving away, Aldair joined Vasco but soon felt the pangs of being away from home and left after just four months. He was given a second chance a few months later when Flamengo scout Juarez dos Santos spotted him playing in the dust and dirt of Duque de Caxias, and this time Aldair didn’t pass up the opportunity. He signed his first professional contract in 1986, making his debut in the Maracana in the derby against Botafogo alongside the likes of Bebeto and Jorginho.
He played for Flamengo for three seasons, making 185 appearances and winning one national title as well as a regional championship. His performances were not going unnoticed by European sides, and in the summer of 1989 Sven-Goran Eriksson – who had just taken over at Benfica after leaving Roma – called him to Lisbon. Initially hesitant, he was urged on by his wife and eventually accepted Eriksson’s offer. He suffered an injury early on, falling down the pecking order, but finished the season with 33 appearances in all competitions and started the European Cup final, which Benfica lost 1-0 to Milan. Aldair made quite an impact in his first season in Portugal, catching the eye of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Roma president Dino Viola was among his admirers and, on Eriksson’s recommendation, signed the Brazilian for 6 billion lire (Aldair was in fact Viola’s last signing as president).
Aldair slotted into the centre of Roma’s defence straight away, and Roma supporters soon fell in love with ‘Pluto’ and his style of playing the game. After years of watching classic centre backs, they immediately took to Aldair’s way of bringing the ball out of defence with his head up and the ball at his feet. Underneath the style was an incredibly accomplished defender, with an excellent sense of timing, positional awareness and tactical nous. While he would often look to play his way out of trouble with a clever turn on the edge of his own penalty area, he also knew when the pressure was too great and to clear the ball into touch instead. His calmness under pressure even allowed him to launch counter-attacks; after anticipating and intercepting a pass, he was able to keep a cool head and start Roma’s move downfield.
Despite playing regularly from the start, Aldair’s early years at Roma weren’t the easiest as he took time to adjust to Serie A and longed for home, partly due to an awkward relationship with coach Ottavio Bianchi. In fact, he considered returning to Brazil after just one season, but fortunately he stayed on. His first season was in fact a successful one as Roma beat Sampdoria to win the Coppa Italia, the seventh time the Giallorossi had lifted the cup. Little was he to know though that he would have to wait a decade for his second trophy as Roma struggled to challenge for honours under a succession of coaches during the 1990s. After Ottavio Bianchi left in 1992, Vujadin Boskov, Carlo Mazzone, Carlos Bianchi, Nils Liedholm and Zdenek Zeman all came and went before the arrival of Fabio Capello.
Even though the Giallorossi were rarely troubling the upper reaches of the league, Aldair was nonetheless thriving on the international stage. He had made his debut for Brazil in 1989 and remained a constant at the heart of the Selecao defence until 2000. His time with the Selecao was richly decorated, starting with victory in the Copa America in 1989. It was their first South American title in 40 years, and Aldair started six of the seven matches in the tournament. Brazil didn’t concede a goal in any of them. This success was followed up with the World Cup in 1994 (which he nearly missed out on until a late injury to Mozer gave him a place in the squad), the bronze medal at the Olympics in 1996 and the Copa America and Confederations Cup in 1997, though Aldair missed out on a second World Cup as the Selecao lost in the 1998 final to France.
At club level under Capello, Aldair not only commanded Roma’s backline in his inimitable fashion, but while Roma were attacking he used his positional awareness to provide defensive cover for his team-mates – particularly his international team-mate Cafu. While Capello built his attack around Francesco Totti, Aldair was equally vital at the heart of defence. He had been given the captaincy in 1998 by Abel Balbo, but when Roma played Udinese on 31st October, 1999 he took the decision to pass the armband on to Totti. Even though Totti was just 22 years old, Aldair said afterwards that he had passed on the captaincy as it was time for him to take up his responsibilities for the team.
With Aldair playing alongside Walter Samuel and Antonio Carlos Zago, Roma’s three-man defence of 2000/01 was one of their strongest ever. Unfortunately for Aldair, he suffered a serious injury midway through the season and missed the remainder of Roma’s title-winning campaign. Even so, when Roma were crowned champions on 17th June, his team-mates still sang “Aldair, Aldair, Aldair!” in the dressing room. The injury was really the beginning of the end for Aldair at Roma though, as the inevitable effects of age began to take hold. He was used less and less frequently by Capello over the next two years as a result, but there were no doubts about his enduring class – as proven on 30th October, 2002.
Roma were playing Real Madrid, the European champions, in the Bernabeu a month before Aldair’s 37th birthday. Defeat would have meant elimination from the Champions League, and with Roma struggling in the league and now coming up against the Galacticos of Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane, a defeat seemed to be inevitable. Even history was against the Giallorossi: Real Madrid had not been beaten on home soil by an Italian team for 35 years and, more recently, Roma had lost the first meeting 0-3 at the Olimpico. But then, on 27 minutes, Francesco Totti put Roma ahead with a close range finish. Aldair marshalled the defence with his usual nonchalance, keeping the three Ballon d’Or winners and the rest of the Galacticos at bay in arguably his best performance in a Roma shirt, and the Giallorossi emerged 1-0 winners.
The 2002/03 season proved to be Aldair’s last for Roma, and his 436th and final appearance came in the home match against Atalanta on 24th May, 2003. The game was otherwise meaningless; Atalanta were relegated despite a 2-1 win and Roma were well-cemented in 8th place. But it provided ‘Pluto’ and the supporters with an opportunity to say farewell to each other, and as he lapped the pitch amid the applause that rang out around the ground, tears were shed by both the player and his fans.
Aldair Day was organised for 2nd June, 2003 as a Roma XI played a Brazil XI in front of more than 40,000 supporters at the Olimpico. There were a few controversial protests at the start after a disappointing season, but Aldair soon took centre stage and his friends, current team-mates and former team-mates played out a 3-3 draw. Emotions were high, particularly after Aldair converted a penalty (which was taken after he and opposition keeper Marco Aurelio had exchanged a few words) and both his Roma and Brazil team-mates carried him aloft. There were more tears as he ended his lap of honour by embracing his children in the middle of the pitch. “I’m really touched. I’ll always keep you in my heart, forza Roma!” he said in characteristically few words, while the Curva Sud displayed a number of banners thanking the defender including “It was easy to love you, it will be difficult to be without you” and “13 years of honour, thank you Pluto”. At the end of the game, he presented his number 6 shirt to president Franco Sensi, who retired the number on the supporters’ request. It was held in retirement until 2013, when Aldair himself requested that it be reintroduced for new signing Kevin Strootman. “It would be great to see the number 6 back on the pitch, especially for those youngsters who have never seen it”, he told Roma Channel at the time.
Aldair went on to play for one more year with Genoa in Serie B, where he wouldn’t have to play against the Giallorossi, before retiring in 2004, but he was brought out of retirement three years later by his friend Massimo Agostini who invited him to play for San Marino del Murata. Aldair accepted and, at the age of 41, returned to the Champions League, but they were defeated in the preliminary round by Tampere. He remained with the club for another three years – winning one league title and turning out in the Champions League again in 2008/09 – before hanging up his boots for good in 2010.
‘Pluto’ is still involved in football, running his own scouting agency that recommends young Brazilian talents to numerous clubs, including Roma (to whom he recommended Felipe Anderson before he joined Lazio). Aldair is also involved in the world of Footvolley as a promoter and endorser of various events around the world.
Aldair was one of the most complete defenders in Roma’s history. Although he was a man of few words, this shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of character as on the pitch he combined strength and effectiveness with superb technique and class, and off the pitch he was an example of professionalism, honesty and decency. Players, directors, coaches and even presidents came and went during the 1990s, but Aldair was a constant in the heart of Roma’s defence throughout. Once asked to describe Aldair in a couple of words, Francesco Totti replied, “Two words aren’t enough, he’s too good for that. He’s a part of Roma, and that’s how we’ll remember him”.
Honours: Serie A (2000/01), Coppa Italia (1990/91), Supercoppa Italiana (2001/02).
Legends of Rome graphics courtesy of forza27.com