We continue our Legends of Rome series on asroma.co.uk with the eighth King of Rome, the masterful Paulo Roberto Falcao.
From 1980 to 1984, football in Rome revolved around Falcao. Even though Romanisti weren’t entirely happy when he was signed instead of Zico, it didn’t take long for them to be convinced by his quality. In four years at the club, Roma won their first title since the war and two Coppe Italia, as well as finishing as Serie A runners up (twice) and European Cup runners up in 1984. Falcao was a tactically proficient and elegant regista who seemed to caress the ball when it was under his control, which was more often than not as he orchestrated the play from the middle of the pitch.
Falcao was born in Abelardo Luz on 16th October, 1953, and moved at a young age to Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. After coming through the youth ranks at Internacional, he made his debut in 1973 – the perfect time to be a part of O Colorado. Although the era of the great 1940s side was over, another cycle was about to begin as Inter won five regional Campeonato Gaucho titles and three national titles in 1975, 1976 and 1979. Falcao won the Bola de Ouro award for best player in the Brazilian championship in 1978 and 1979 before helping Inter to the final of the Copa Libertadores – the equivalent of the Champions League – in 1980, but they were beaten over two legs by Uruguayan giants Nacional.
Internacional’s fans were distraught when it was announced that Falcao was leaving, and after a proposed move to Milan fell through when the Rossoneri were relegated due to the Totonero matchfixing scandal, Falcao completed a transfer to Roma for $1.7 million. Many Giallorossi fans were disgruntled at signing an unknown Brazilian instead of Zico, the signing they were expecting president Dino Viola to make, but coach Nils Liedholm leapt to his defence, telling the press: “He’s a great player, intelligent, who can use his feet like you’d use your hands”. Falcao’s first game was a friendly against Internacional, especially organised for him, and before the match Viola went up to him and said: “The fans expect something spectacular from a Brazilian. I hope you won’t disappoint them, or me”. Towards the end of the game, he indulged Viola and the supporters when he flicked the ball with his heel over the head of an opponent, ran round him to collect the ball and fired a shot at goal. Afterwards, ‘il Divino’ – as he later became known – told the president, “I did it, but don’t ask me to do anything like that again. I’m a professional footballer, not a performing seal”.
Showing off for showing off’s sake wasn’t Falcao’s style at all; instead he played simple, effective and efficient football in all areas of the pitch. There was little need for flamboyance with the extraordinary class that he brought to the pitch, but when necessary he could pull off a clever backheel or leave a defender in his wake with a feint or shimmy. When he joined Roma, Falcao explicitly asked for the number 5 shirt; although in Italy it was worn by central defenders, in Brazil it held a special significance – the player who wears the number 5 commands the play and, when a great player wears it, the entire team revolves around him. And Falcao was a great player. From the start, Liedholm wanted Falcao to organise the play, and although the first few months weren’t easy they allowed him to settle into a new team and gain understanding of his new team-mates and a new league. He made his Serie A debut in a 1-0 win against Como on 14th September, 1980, and his constant movement off the ball forced Como’s coach to ask three different players to mark Falcao. It was plain to see from early on that he would play a leading role in Liedholm’s team as he was tactically very intelligent, vital in a team that needed to play at a consistent and precise tempo, and elegant on the ball. He was even elegant in his style, with his shirt always tucked into his shorts and socks pulled up to the knee.
Falcao’s first goal, expertly finished after bringing the ball down with his chest, came in just his second game as Roma beat Carl Zeiss Jena 3-0 in the first round of the Cup Winners Cup, and he really established himself with an inspiring performance against champions Inter. Although Roberto Pruzzo grabbed the headlines with a hat-trick, Falcao was the one who dictated the play and dominated his duel with Inter’s regista Herbert Prohaska. Falcao led Roma on a charge towards the club’s first scudetto in 39 years, but they eventually finished as runners up in the league, though Falcao did score the goal that knocked Juventus out of the Coppa Italia as the Giallorossi secured back to back cup victories. The following season was notable for a spectacular midair backheel to set up Pruzzo for a stunning goal against Fiorentina, but a month later Falcao was at the centre of a controversial incident. Roma travelled to San Siro to face Inter, and both teams were furiously competitive as they battled for every ball. Then, in the 35th minute, Falcao flew in for a challenge on Alessandro Altobelli, taking the ball with both feet. Such a tackle was allowed in Brazil, but after Altobelli went to ground a melee ensued that resulted in Falcao being shown a red card. Inter went on to win 3-2, but the incident was not forgotten as debates raged in Rome and across the country for days afterwards.
Falcao was called up for the World Cup finals in Spain that summer, and was part of a stellar squad as he took his place alongside the likes of Zico, Socrates, Luizinho and Toninho Cerezo. He played a major role in one of the great World Cup games when Brazil faced Italy in the second group stage; the Selecao twice fell behind to a brace from Paolo Rossi, but then Falcao made it 2-2 with a precise finish past Dino Zoff after a number of feints that opened up the Azzurri defence. His unbridled celebrations caused controversy in Italy, and he was picked out by the Italian media to be the symbol of the Brazilian defeat after Rossi completed his hat-trick to take the Azzurri through. It was a huge disappointment for Brazil and Falcao, but his disappointment was to be short-lived as Roma were set to begin their famous 1982/83 campaign.
‘Il Divino’ played 27 games for Roma that season, scoring seven goals, but it was his general performances that stood out as Liedholm’s side dominated the early weeks of the season. His ingenuity and guile was seldom more evident than when Roma faced Inter in December. In the 34th minute, Falcao stood over a free kick while the team lined up for a cross into the box. Instead, Falcao saw Ivano Bordon out of his goal and fired a shot into the bottom corner that flew past the keeper. Roma went on to beat Inter 2-1, while Juventus were struggling for consistency. They were five points behind Roma by the time they visited the Stadio Olimpico in March, but after Falcao put Roma ahead Michel Platini equalised with a free kick and Sergio Brio scored the winner. Furious debates followed about whether Platini, who supplied the assist, was offside or not but regardless, Roma had a difficult trip to Pisa to come. With confidence wavering, Falcao took the game by the scruff of the neck and scored with a powerful header. The win gave the Giallorossi renewed self-belief and courage, and by the time they played Avellino in May they were within touching distance of the title. Falcao scored with a stunning free kick from 30 yards, and the title was finally won. Falcao, the eighth King of Rome, had been crowned. Years later, when the Brazilian tennis player Gustavo Kuerten won the Rome Masters, he was asked whether he felt a bit like the eighth King of Rome. Kuerten replied that the only eighth King of Rome was and always would be Falcao.
The following year, Viola laid his plans bare. “Roma are aiming to win the European Cup, and we want to win it before Juventus do”, he said, and their chance to do so came at the peak of Falcao’s career. Roma started the league season poorly, mainly due to their focus being on Europe instead of Serie A. Liedholm’s side eliminated IFK Goteborg (worth remembering for Falcao’s feint in a fantastic move leading to Toninho Cerezo’s goal), CSKA Sofia, Dinamo Berlin and Dundee United on the way to the final, which took place at the Olimpico against Liverpool. Roma couldn’t match the frenzied build-up though and, like Platini in Athens the year before, Falcao had one of his most lacklustre days in a Giallorosso shirt. Without Pruzzo or Cerezo, who had both gone off injured, Roma couldn’t find a winner with the game finely balanced at 1-1 and the game went to penalties. The shootout was the darkest moment in Falcao’s Roma career, as he failed to step forward and take a penalty. Whether it was cramp, injury or an unusual lack of courage, the team had been so used to being led by Falcao in good times and bad that his absence, even in a shootout, was telling. Roma lost on penalties and Falcao’s decision harmed his relationship with the fans, who were left feeling betrayed and abandoned.
Something was irreparably broken that night in the Olimpico. Liedholm left Roma at the end of the season to return to Milan, where he was joined by Di Bartolomei. Falcao, now nearly 31, was also suffering a series of knee injuries that was damaging his own relationship with president Viola. On 16th December, 1984, Roma went to Napoli. Falcao scored but as he landed after jumping in the air to celebrate he felt a strong pain in his knee, and five days later he underwent an operation. It was the beginning of the end for Falcao at Roma, as his lucrative contract was a severe financial burden for a club who were less and less inclined to pay him while he spent more and more time on the treatment table. On 14th June, Roma arranged a high profile friendly against Ajax, which saw Falcao return to the pitch for the first time since his injury. While the fans hoped that this would mark a comeback for Falcao, Viola had already decided to rebuild Roma without him and signed the talented Zibi Boniek that summer. As a result, Falcao’s salary had to be removed from the wage bill one way or another. Viola asked the league to rescind Falcao’s contract, and the league accepted without a right to appeal.
Released by the club, Falcao decided to end his spell in Italy and go back to Brazil. He knew that the 1986 World Cup in Mexico would be his last chance to play on the biggest stage of all, and joined Sao Paulo to try to give himself the best chance of making the Brazil squad. Coincidentally, his debut for Sao Paulo came against his former club Internacional. But he was no longer the same player that had left Inter – after all his injuries, his physical condition and technical ability were never the same. He was called up by Tele Santana for the World Cup, but only played as a substitute in two games and ended up watching most of the competition from the stands. It was a disappointing end for Falcao, who decided to retire that summer to avoid ending a brilliant career as a forgotten man in his own country.
Falcao has returned to Rome on a number of occasions since, including Roma’s match with Juventus in 2002 when 80,000 fans sang his name and gave him a rousing ovation, and was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2012. Whatever happened against Liverpool, Roma became a great team in the 1980s thanks to the brilliance and personality of the eighth King of Rome. Falcao’s injuries left him unable to continue to play in an increasingly fast and physically demanding game, but he was nonetheless considered by many to be the greatest player in Roma’s history until Francesco Totti. Whether he was or not, he was certainly one who was able to bring a winning mentality to a team that after his arrival became legendary.
Honours: Serie A (1982/83), Coppa Italia (1980/81, 1983/84).
Legends of Rome graphics courtesy of forza27.com