Edmundo: “Ronaldo wasn’t better than me”

In 1997, kitted out in an exceptional strip that seemed to have it all – an ultra-cool badge, a sash, and the iconic Kappa logo repeating down the sleeves – Vasco da Gama steamrollered the Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A. Losing just 5 all season (only matched by second-place Palmeiras), outscoring all other teams, and winning more games than anyone else, Vasco finished 12 points clear at the top.

In midfield, a 22-year old Juninho Pernambucano was breaking through, but for a team that so comfortably won the league, it lacked any real star attraction. That was, of course, aside from Edmundo. With 24 goals in 21 league games, ‘O Animal’ strolled to the Golden Boot, finishing with a total of 29 – five ahead of Internacional’s Christian.

That kind of scoring form in Brazil, especially when Europe was going crazy for Brazilian forwards, landed him a move to Fiorentina for just shy of £6m. For context, a year earlier Rivaldo had joined Deportivo La Coruna for £10.8m from Palmeiras, after they had completed the most successful Campeonato Paulista in history, as the future Ballon d’Or winner netted 22 times in 32 outings.

The Palmeiras of Rivaldo provided the definition of ‘romped the league,’ scoring 102 goals, conceding just 19 and losing only once. That season they had the record for both the biggest home and away wins – 6-0 vs America and 8-0 vs Botafogo. For good measure, they chucked in a 6-0 battering of rivals Santos in their own backyard.

On the surface of things, £6m was a good bit of business for Fiorentina, especially considering they were signing a player who believed he was better than Ronaldo; the same Ronaldo who had just smashed in 47 goals in 49 games in that year in Barcelona, helping Bobby Robson to a cup treble, and then moved to Inter Milan for £25m.

“Ronaldo wasn’t better than me,” Edmundo told FourFourTwo in their 90s Icons series. “I have no doubt that if FIFA had considered the players from Brazilian football in the ‘90s, I would have been close to winning World Player of the Year. I did better than Ronaldo in ’97 – actually, not only in ’97 and I had a longer career. But Ronaldo had a big advantage over me because he was fantastic for Brazil and the whole world saw it. He had a positive image and was charismatic. But that doesn’t mean he was better than me – he wasn’t.”

In 1997 it was indeed Ronaldo that won the FIFA World Player of the Year, as he had done the year before, and only just missed out on making it a hattrick the following year when he finished runner-up to World Cup winning Zinedine Zidane. Had that famous final played out differently it could well have been three.

As we all know, Ronaldo started that final, despite having seizures in his hotel room on the day of the game. But it could have, and arguably should have, been Edmundo starting in Saint-Denis, given the circumstances. Brazil lost 3-0 and two years later, a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry – the most serious type of congressional hearing there is in Brazil – into why they lost the World Cup Final was launched.

Edmundo was called as a witness and told Deputy Jose Rocha and the hearing:

“I was in my room. It was one of those rooms linked to another room. There was me and Doriva in one, and Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos in the other. About 3pm, I can’t remember the exact time, I was watching television and Roberto came into the room: ‘Edmundo! Edmundo! Doriva! Ronaldo’s feeling unwell!’ And when I saw what it was, I despaired, because it was a really strong and shocking scene.”

The inquiry was eventually closed without blame being placed at the feet of any of the prime suspects – Nike, French doctors, or the team’s own medical staff – and two years later a conceivable hypothesis was put forward to explain Ronaldo’s mystery illness. Lance!, a daily sports newspaper in Brazil, quoted an anonymous source close to the striker who said that a routine anaesthetic injection into Ronaldo’s knee by squad medic Lidio Toledo had entered a vein by accident and that Ronaldo did not tell anybody at the time to protect Toledo.

Bizarrely, Edmundo recounted the whole episode differently over a decade later, placing himself as the main protagonist.

“I’ll usually joke with [Ronaldo] that he owes me part of his fortune because I saved his life. I was the one who found him having convulsions in the middle of the night. Roberto Carlos was lying in the bed next to him but didn’t realise what was happening because he was watching television with his headphones on. I ran off to find the doctors.”

When Edmundo appeared in court, he had told the hearing that it was “3pm” when it happened, that Roberto Carlos came to Edmundo’s room shouting that Ronaldo was feeling unwell, and, on further questioning, informed Deputy Rocha that when he returned from the hotel corridors yelling for a doctor, it was Cesar Sampaio “administering first aid.”

Contradicting claims and outlandish statements riddled Edmundo’s career as unapologetically as his goals rained down on opposition nets, and his violent temper struck his foes. In his mind, he was the greatest and when he looks back on his career, he justifies wrong turns with the wisdom of hindsight.

“Real Madrid offered me an eight-year contract, but I said no,” he said, addressing the fact he spent just 3 seasons of a 17-year career in Europe. “I could have spent much more of my career abroad, but I was too dumb back then – all I thought about was money. It may sound odd, but that was one of the reasons why I refused to go to Real. They offered me the same wage that I had in Brazil, so why would I leave my country to have the same salary? I could have gone on to become a much bigger name than I was.”

Instead, his impact and legacy in Europe – confined to Serie A with Fiorentina and Napoli – extends as far as Calcio devotees’ memories and a superb goal against Manchester United in the Club World Cup in 2000, having returned to Vasco. “The goal actually seems to be better remembered in England than in Brazil, which is a bit strange because it was great!”

Vasco beat Manchester United 3-1, with a Nicky Butt goal in the 81st minute nothing more than consolation after a Romario brace inside the opening half an hour and Edmundo’s sublime finish just before half time put the South Americans three goals up. It was a move straight off the beaches of Brazil. With Mikael Silvestre on his back, Edmundo received a pass and stabbed his foot at the ball, encouraging it to spin up and over the Frenchman as he leaned in to make the interception. Edmundo ran onto his own flick to slot past Mark Bosnich.

In the 1960s a hybrid of football and beach volleyball was borne out of necessity. With a ban on beach football before 2pm being instated on Copacabana, streetwise kids decided to move their game away from the sun-worshippers and their loungers and onto the volleyball court. Knowing they were safe from the ban there and improvising with space and structure, footvolley was spawned.

The two-a-side game, played with all but the arms and hands, distils the trickery, creativity, and spontaneity of Brazilian culture into a four-man, 162-metres-squared plot of the beach, and some of its greatest proponents have been some of the world’s greatest football players.

Before Ronaldinho brought the game to the world’s attention through YouTube, it was Romario and Edmundo providing it as a journalist’s curiosity in the comparatively internet-free 90s. When the former moved to Flamengo from Barcelona in 1995, he insisted the club install two footvolley courts; one at the club and the other at the training ground. Also arriving at the club later that year was Edmundo, who was used to spending his free time in Ipanema – known for its iconic beach – playing the sport. So when the two reunited at Vasco in 2000, five years on from their very short stint together at neighbouring Flamengo, it was surely a match made in heaven. However, it wasn’t without its difficulties.

“When I was with Vasco da Gama,” Edmundo said years later, “I had received an offer from Lazio, but the president refused to let me go. The only reason I stayed at Vasco was out of my respect for our coach, Antonio Lopes. When I got to the dressing room for the following match, I noticed Romario was wearing the captain’s armband. I freaked out and rushed to the director to ask what had happened – he told me that it was the president’s decision.”
On the pitch, they were sensational together, which was not a given despite their compatibility in playing styles.

When they both signed for Flamengo, it was on the premise that alongside Savio, the club would have a front three conquer the country with – “the dream attack,” was how they were billed. Unfortunately, the triumvirate were collectively a flop and the project came to an acrimonious head when, against Vasco of all clubs, they were jeered and had their names sung alongside a refrain of “worst attack in the world, the worst attack in the world.” Edmundo was provoked and he turned to face the Vasco fans and thrust his hips at them.

Now, five years later, the two were firing on the pitch for Vasco and misfiring off of it. Attempting to mediate the issue was Vasco’s very own priest, Padre Lino – Jose Carlos Lino de Souza – who in his former life was an athlete at Vasco’s sports club, competing in the 100m, long distance running, and fencing.

“The Catholic religion doesn’t officially work with sport. I’m trying something new. This is my laboratory,” Lino said at the time. “The football player [Edmundo] is very different from all other athletes. He comes from a much more difficult social situation. The ones with problems shut themselves off.” Padre Lino was unable to solve the matter, but as long as they were functioning on the pitch, it didn’t matter.

However, Brazil is a very religious country with manifold traditions and cultures. Despite Padre Lino’s insistence that the Catholic Church did not work with football, the 2000 FIFA Club World Cup suggested Candomble did. Keeping their differences off the pitch, Romario and Edmundo scored their way through to the final, where they faced fellow Brazilian side Corinthians. It was Rio versus São Paulo. It was a big deal.

After the game finished 0-0, it went to penalties. At the time, Corinthians had a Candomble priest, Father Nilson. Candomble is an Afro-Brazilian religious oral tradition, inspired by Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu beliefs, as well as drawing inspiration from Roman Catholicism.

“It is said that macumba doesn’t win games,” he said of Candomble’s Rio-specific witchcraft. “We have proved this wrong.

With Vasco on 3 goals from 4 penalties, it was Edmundo’s turn to take one. If he scored, it would go to sudden death and if he missed Corinthians would win.

“Exu was paid for stopping Edmundo’s goal,” Nilson said of Edmundo’s wide struck penalty. “We paid him with a lot of farofa manioc powder and juicy steak cooked with onions – he likes to eat well – cigars and cachaca. This was put by the train line just as you enter [my home town]. Thanks to him we won the title.”

Shortly following the final, after 18 years’ service, Father Nilson was sacked by the club. They immediately went on a 9-game losing streak. It was the worst run in Corinthians’ history. Father Nilson was asked to restart the macumba rituals. He did. The club immediately returned to winning ways with a six-game winning streak. “Coincidence?” he knowingly asked.

Edmundo left Vasco for the third time shortly after the penalty shootout loss, missing out on the club’s Campeonato title later that year. He would enjoy two more spells at the club before retiring, all as prolific as one another.

In 2012, four years after retiring from football in his final spell at the club, he returned for a farewell match. Also playing that day was Juninho, himself back at the club after prolonged success at Lyon. The opponents were Barcelona SC of Ecuador, in a rematch of Vasco’s 1998 Copa Libertadores final success that Edmundo missed due to his transfer to Fiorentina. The game finished 9-1 to Vasco – Edmundo scoring twice – but it wasn’t about the football anyway. It was a celebration of a player who was, ultimately, a Vasco legend. After the game, taking the microphone, Edmundo emotionally stated his regret at not spending his entire career at the club.

All in all, Edmundo scored 466 goals in 748 games over the course of his career, with 138 of them coming for Vasco. He was a striker plagued by his own bravado, Afro-Brazilian ritual, and the shadow of greatness.

“Ronaldo was not better than me, he wasn’t. Romario was, though.”

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About the author

Jordan Florit

Jordan is an insatiable reader, as well as a writer. Books on Latin America, politics, psychology, sociology and psychology take up the space left on his shelf after those on football have had their pride of place. It is these topics that influence his writing, where he likes to skirt the main topic of football with culture, demography, and trends. His favourite author is British sports journalist Jonathan Wilson.