For the next two weeks, ESPN FC is counting down the 20 greatest World Cup players of all time, with two unveiled per day until the final five. The identity of the No. 1 player will be announced on April 18. It took Brazil 24 long years to win their fourth World Cup title. The inspiration to ending that wait at USA ‘94 was Romario, a striker of impudence, vision and dead-eyed finishing. Romario claims to have scored over 1,000 goals -- a tally he admits includes youth, friendly and testimonial matches -- in a professional career that lasted 24 years, too, but his five strikes in the United States are his crowning achievement. Brazil were a strong team, well organised by coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, but they would not have been champions without the Carioca hitman with an eye for a party. “He was a killer, he didn't fail,” ESPN Brasil’s Paulo Vinicius Coelho told ESPN FC. “If the ball was with him in the box, he would score.” In what was all but his only World Cup, having played a minimal role at Italia '90, Romario dominated from Brazil’s first match right up until the final, the 0-0 stalemate with Italy that ended in a penalty shootout. Brazil’s hero had been shackled by typical Italian defending but still converted his spot kick. His sense of destiny would not have allowed anything else. A player whose enjoyment of nights out on the town often dwarfed his application in training had knuckled down, determined to produce his best. "I'm going to give my life to win this World Cup," Romario told the New York Times from the team’s California training camp.
Until the final, only Team USA in the second round stopped him from scoring in a narrow 1-0 defeat, and even then, it was Romario who provided the assist from which partner Bebeto grabbed the winner. “He could kill you in so many different ways,” said Alexi Lalas, who played in central defence for the U.S. against Romario in that match. “If you remember from that World Cup, he scored so many types of goals. That ranged from solo adventures to an outside-of-the-right-foot half-volley off a corner kick. Romario was both the most difficult to play against and the best that I have faced.” Brazil has disappointed hugely in the previous final -- Italia ‘90 -- and Romario had played very little part. A broken leg sustained while playing for PSV in Holland meant he managed just 66 minutes of a drab encounter with Scotland, won 1-0 only once he had left the field; Scottish goalkeeper Jim Leighton suffered a late calamity, deflecting a Careca shot straight into Muller's path. Argentina humiliatingly ended Brazil’s participation at the first knockout stage. Brazil’s dominance of possession in Torino was undone by a piece of Diego Maradona magic that set up a Claudio Caniggia winner, the only goal of the game. “It was a scar for this generation,” Coelho said. Romario was part of a fresh wave of talent brought together for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, that won a silver medal. Goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel, defender Jorginho, midfielder Mazinho and fellow striker Bebeto eventually accompanied Romario to the 1994 World Cup finals. Parreira was, for a Brazilian coach, cautious, and played two pivots in Mauro Silva and captain Dunga in midfield. Back in Brazil, some still view this as a betrayal of tradition, even though it was effective in restoring the nation to its rightful place as world champion. “It was a strong team in defence, not a defensive team, but one who could pass the ball well and keep possession,” Coelho said. “And then they had Romario. Possession and Romario, that's what the team was, and whenever they found a space, Romario scored.” With a goal in each of the group games against Russia, Cameroon and Sweden, and a headed winner against Sweden in the semifinal, there were few doubts about who was the tournament’s star. Romario’s skills won the admiration of the record crowds that filled American stadia that hot summer. “Roberto Baggio was doing his thing, but in terms of consistency and living up to the hype, he [Romario] was the best,” Lalas said. “As with all-stars, there was a moment when the fans sit up in their seats, and that was a feeling I got with Romario. When it got close to him and the potential for his involvement in a play was there, everybody sat up in their seat. They knew that something spectacular would be happening.” He never again returned to a World Cup. A thigh muscle injury robbed him, and Brazil, of a chance to partner with 21-year-old Ronaldo in France '98. “When the information came that Romario was going back to Brazil, it was a total shock,” Coelho said. Romario sobbed openly at the news conference; coach Mario Zagallo’s refusal to risk him had caught him by surprise, too. By 2002, Romario was 36, still scoring goals. He was a reduced force, though, and then-coach Luiz Felipe Scolari ignored his pleas to play. The memories of 1994 will suffice, though. “He was sure that the World Cup could be his,” Coelho said. “He thought he was the best player, he knew he was, in fact, and knew that the World Cup would be the confirmation.” This summer, Romario will be a very different presence at a World Cup. His political career -- he serves in the Chamber of Deputies for the Socialist Party -- has seen him become a highly outspoken critic of FIFA and the amount of money spent on Brazil 2014.