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The day Pep assisted all three goals of an outrageous Romario hat-trick

There is no greater sign of respect from Pep Guardiola than a comparison to his old Barcelona team-mate Romario.

It was clear from Guardiola’s emotional farewell to Sergio Aguero that he loved the Argentinian striker. But those tears were nothing in comparison to the tribute he gave.

“When he’s fit he’s a guy like Romario was in Brazil, a guy who in five metres is like a lion in the jungle, making steps that kill the opposition,” the Manchester City manager said ahead of Aguero’s final match for the club in 2021.

Guardiola knew first-hand what a special player Romario was. The Brazilian is one of the most prolific goalscorers in history, but he arguably peaked as the spearhead of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona dream team in 1993-94.

It was his debut season at the Camp Nou. He was just unstoppable, scoring 30 goals in 33 La Liga appearances to fire them to a knife-edge title victory over chasers Deportivo La Coruna.

Romario couldn’t quite inspire Barca to European glory that year as they succumbed to a masterclass from Fabio Capello’s AC Milan, losing 4-0 in the Champions League final.

The Rossoneri’s clean sheet was almost as impressive as the four goals they scored, given how freakishly brilliant Romario was at that time – something he underlined with his show-stealing performances in Brazil’s World Cup triumph later that summer.

Think Ronaldo under Bobby Robson. Ronaldinho in his Ballon d’Or-winning pomp. Neymar in the MSN era. Romario had been the standard-bearer for Brazilian excellence in Catalonia.

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There’s a tale in Guillem Balague’s Guardiola biography that sums up his deference to the star signing from PSV.

“My role was to move the ball around the pitch for my team-mates to finish off the move,” Guardiola said.

Think Sergio Busquets at Pep’s Barca, or Rodri at Manchester City today.

Guardiola had developed into Cruyff’s faithful lieutenant, the man on the pitch entrusted with bringing the Dutch tactician’s intricate gameplan to life. It was as obvious then as it is today that Guardiola was obsessed with the collective effort.

But he also possessed a healthy amount of respect for those special individuals who are capable of winning games by themselves. Romario was the closest thing that Cruyff’s Dream Team ever had to a Messi.

When Romario first arrived at Barcelona, he was taken out to dinner by Cruyff and Guardiola. The story goes that when Romario took a bathroom break, Cruyff told Guardiola to “stop acting like a starstruck fifteen-year-old”, such was his admiration and reverence for his new colleague.

Instantly, they formed a wonderful relationship on the pitch. Romario set the tone for the 1993-94 season with an absolutely outrageous hat-trick on his La Liga debut, a 3-0 victory over Real Sociedad. Guardiola assisted all three of the goals.

It took just 15 minutes for Guardiola to set up Romario’s first Barcelona goal. He found the striker with a clever and perfectly weighted through ball and just watched as he stepped inside and demonstrated that devastating finishing ability.

Midway through the second half the pair combined for a neat one-two. Guardiola’s deft volley returned Romario’s sexy flick, sending him clean through in the box. The two quickfire touches he took to score bring to mind Guardiola’s later line of “a guy who in five metres is like a lion in the jungle”.

They saved the best ’til last. La Real made the grave error of allowing Guardiola time and space to trap the ball dead and assess all the options in front of him. He sent over a looping ball to find his new team-mate breaking through the offside trap.

Romario had all the time in the world to take a few touches and slot past the goalkeeper, but that would’ve been too easy; instead, he chested the ball down before sweetly catching it on the half-volley to lob the stranded ‘keeper. Obscene.

It became abundantly clear that opening day Barcelona were onto something special. But it only lasted that one year.

Hristo Stoichkov and Romario returned from USA ’94 with the awards for the Golden Boot and Golden Ball (best player) respectively but Cruyff lost the ability to harness that talent into something harmonious and functioning.

Romario’s reported predilection for the city’s nightlife began to take its toll. He was out of the door in January ’95 after a spectacular falling out with his manager. But Guardiola holds nothing but warmth and appreciation of his old team-mate.

“Now he is a politician, an important person in Brazil. I could not have expected that,” Guardiola recently reminisced in an interview with Sky Sports.

“I have incredible memories of him as a player, of course, but also as a guy. Easy-going. A lovely person. I would love to see him again.”

By Nestor Watach

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