Football: Romario, Bebeto fight over World Cup

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - As teammates they brought home the 1994 World Cup for Brazil, but as politicians Romario and Bebeto have become bitter rivals over the hosting of this year's tournament.

Romario de Souza Faria - better known as simply Romario - was the wild child of the pair, known for all-night parties and a hot temper.

As a congressman for Rio de Janeiro, the 48-year-old Romario has turned that explosive personality against the World Cup, backing the protesters who say the US$11 billion-plus (S$13.7 billion) budget would have been better spent on education, health and transport.

Fifa, football's world governing body, have been the target of some of his fiercest criticism. In March he called their secretary general Jerome Valcke a "blackmailer" and their president Sepp Blatter a "corrupt thief and son of a whore".

Last year, when violent protests overshadowed the Confederations Cup, a rehearsal for the World Cup, Romario voiced sympathy for the movement and accused Fifa of "setting up a circus, not spending a cent and then pocketing everything".

He has also criticised Brazil's chronically delayed preparations, saying the country will not be "100-per cent ready" for the World Cup when it starts on June 12.

Bebeto - real name Jose Roberto Gama de Oliveira - is now a Rio state legislator, fighting in the opposite corner.

The sweet-smiled evangelical Christian is known for his visits to schools and social programmes - but also for his love of luxury cars and designer clothes.

An ambassador for the World Cup in Brazil, he has shrugged off criticism of the event.

"We have struggled hard to get where we are. And where we are is the result of the struggle and efforts of all Brazilians," the 50-year-old said in December.

Their shared story began in the late 1980s, two young forwards in a team that became national heroes as they went unbeaten for 27 matches.

Their first taste of defeat came at the 1990 World Cup, when arch-rivals Argentina sent them packing in the round of 16.

They made up for it four years later when, at their peak as players, they won Brazil's fourth World Cup.

Romario scored five times in the tournament, including the goal against Sweden which put Brazil into the final. He was awarded the World Cup Golden Ball and named Fifa World Player of the Year.

Bebeto scored three World Cup goals, including in Brazil's 1-0 win over the United States in the round of 16. "I love you!" he shouted to Romario, who provided the assist.

In the following match against the Netherlands, he scored again and melted hearts worldwide with his famous "baby cradle" celebration for his newborn son Matheus - today a player for Brazilian club Flamengo.

The pair rank among the top five goal-scorers in the history of the Brazilian side, Romario at number three with 55 goals, Bebeto at number five with 39.

After retiring they both turned to politics and both won election and took their respective seats in 2011 - Romario for the leftwing PSB, Bebeto for the centre-left PDT.

Now, two decades after sharing the football summit at the World Cup, the tournament is tearing them apart.

Their public rift began in April last year, at a Brazilian legends match to inaugurate Rio's revamped Maracana stadium. Bebeto announced Romario would participate. Romario confirmed, but then failed to show up.

Soon after, he lashed out at the Maracana renovations, saying planners had "totally disfigured" the legendary stadium.

By the time the Confederations Cup arrived that June, he was lashing out at Fifa and encouraging the protests that disrupted the tournament.

"He's as opportunistic in politics as he was on the pitch," commented well-known journalist Juca Kfouri.

Bebeto joined Rio's World Cup organising committee and has been a reliable cheerleader for the event, alongside fellow Brazilian legend Ronaldo.

"Either Ronaldo and Bebeto aren't aware of what is going on, or they are pretending they aren't aware of what is going on. Either way, it is ignorant," Romario told the New York Times in October.

Bebeto responded in his own style.

"My relationship with Romario is that he'll be my friend for life, forever. It's just that he has his ideas, and I have mine," he said.

The winner of this showdown will be decided off the field at the World Cup.