How PSV developed Brazilian stars like Romario and Ronaldo

When a galaxy of stars align this summer for a mouth-watering World Cup, PSV will be well-represented. Bryan Ruiz will captain Costa Rica against England. Memphis Depay has demonstrated form worthy of a starting place for Van Gaal’s Oranje. Karim Rekik, Stijn Schaars and Jeroen Zoet are likely to feature in the same squad. But on a deeper level, these players will be honouring the club in one of its traditional strongholds, planting a new PSV flag in the fertile Brazilian soil it once mined for superstars. The best of PSV will travel to Brazil, reversing a path worn by legends. The nostalgia is intoxicating.

While the history of football in Eindhoven is cast in red-and-white, intermittent bursts of yellow, blue and green have enriched its lustre. In total, 22 Brazilians have played for PSV, and only Denmark has sent more players to Eindhoven.

From Ronaldo and Vampeta through Heurelho Gomes and on to Marcelo, most were rough diamonds who helped the Dutch giants win trophies while entertaining a growing fanbase en route to financial profit.

The success of players like Ronaldo made PSV known throughout Brazil, with youngsters yearning to be the next prospect plucked from the dangerous favelas on a journey to Europe. Chelsea star David Luiz admitted as much in a recent interview, recalling how he followed PSV closely as a kid. PSV became a gateway to stardom, a giant stepping-stone towards security. Eindhoven became the place to be.

The sublime and ridiculous era of Romário at PSV

Romário de Souza Faria was the catalyst, the role model and the archetype. If you ask some, he was also a right royal pain in the backside, but Romário undoubtedly illuminated PSV during an era of complete domination.

A diminutive striker who slithered through penalty areas the world over, Romário first appeared on the radar of an ever-expansive PSV in the late 1980s. At that time, Philips dominated transfer policy at PSV, the electronics giant eager to see a return on its lavish shirt and stadium sponsorship by attracting the superstars that would ensure large audiences and worldwide exposure to its brand. PSV rode the wave of European Cup glory into the summer of 1988, with officials eager to use the club’s continental success as leverage in negotiations.

Romário’s rise to international prominence coincided nicely with that plan. A predatory forward plucked by Vasco da Gama from the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Romário starred at the 1988 Olympic football tournament for a Brazil side that claimed silver. A seven-goal haul earned Romário top scorer honours, while his performances piqued the interest of many European clubs.

Ultimately, signing Romário was a no-brainer for Philips, who snapped up the kind of burgeoning superstar sure to increase attention around PSV. In addition to satisfying the marketing aims of Philips, Romário’s addition brought success to a club with which it maintained deep sentiment.

During five seasons in Eindhoven, Romário was unlike anything domestic Dutch football had ever encountered. In the wake of Ajax’ complete domination with homegrown players, PSV set the Eredivisie on a new course with bold spending and scintillating ambition. Romário blazed a trail through Dutch football with on-field wizardry and off-field melodrama. He maintained an exquisite record of 96 goals in 107 games, produced spellbinding performances of spontaneity, and won three league titles. He also gained a reputation for indiscipline, working hard only occasionally and playing up to his image as a flawed genius. The result was a neurotic circus of skill and enigma.

Tim, a PSV fan who lived in the same district as Romário throughout early childhood, recalls how the Brazilian was lauded in Eindhoven:

“We used to hang around a shopping mall in the neighbourhood, and Romário occasionally visited the local supermarket. We just happened to be around. We followed him through the entire supermarket, watching his every move, analysing why he would buy Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola. Everything he did was like how he played football: kind of lazy, yet brilliant. Imagine having ten kids aged 9 or 10 following you around when you go shopping. To us it was serious business. I can only wonder what went through Romário’s mind.”

Sir Bobby Robson, the legendary coach of PSV for three years over two spells, dedicated many pages of his absorbing autobiography to explaining the Romário conundrum, ultimately conceding that the Brazilian was as “brilliant as he was unmanageable.” Robson, who succeeded Guus Hiddink in attempting to concentrate the silky forward on football at PSV, offered the following assessment of Romário:

“In a large pool of good players, we had one tropical fish…The Romários of this world don’t realise how much they can undermine the fabric of a team. On the whole, the lads liked him. He was a classic Brazilian, bubbly and full of life. They respected him as a player, too. Thirty yards from goal, he was mustard. He could take anyone on. He was a great finisher, a good hold-up player and dangerous in the air, despite his modest size. Some mornings he would be phenomenal in training. Other days, you’d take one look at him and know he’d left his energy and his legs at home, or in a nightclub.”

Romário rarely slept the night before games, preferring all-night parties in downtown Eindhoven as his pre-match preparation. He also shied away from physical work in training, to the chagrin of established professionals like Eric Gerets. Yet when he decided to perform, to turn on the skill, to take a game by the horns, few in world football could compare.

“God created me to delight people with my goals,” Romário once declared, and that was particularly true in Eindhoven. In the Dutch league, he was often two yards faster than opponents, darting into spaces like a blur to poke the ball away with nimble feet and sharp presence of mind. Romário often rounded the goalkeeper, or prodded the ball past him when all angles seemed improbable. He was a joyful footballer.

One of his most sensational performances is still debated in mawkish terms throughout Eindhoven, a remarkable hat-trick against Steaua Bucharest in 1989 capped with a slaloming, jinking, heroic effort that affirmed his place in PSV royalty and evoked comparisons with Diego Maradona.

It was all so natural for Romário, who hit the Eredivisie like a whirlwind. Often, helpless defenders seemed to be in control, only for this pocket dynamo to flash through the box and steer home another goal with instinctive determination. He juggled the ball, flicked it over powerless rivals and created consistent danger. Romário played on an entirely different level to everybody else.

Naturally, Johan Cruyff was interested. The innovative coach, then overseeing the creation of his Barcelona Dream Team following years of Camp Nou stagnation, was given a lavish budget with which to transform a failing side. The likes of Michael Laudrup, Pep Guardiola and former PSV star Ronald Koeman formed a nucleus around which Cruyff sought to build. Romário became the final piece in Barca’s jigsaw, forming a lethal partnership with Hristo Stoichkov and dazzling new audiences with his genius. A 30-goal haul in his one full season catapulted Barça to the La Liga crown.

During summer of ’94, Romário claimed the World Cup Golden Ball as Brazil won a fourth championship. Individually, Romário was named 1994 FIFA World Player of the Year. However, his volatile off-field behaviour exacerbated a rift with Cruyff, who was quick to offload the prolific striker.

Romário proceeded to enjoy an almost mythical significance in his homeland, with goal-laden spells at Flamengo, Vasco and Fluminense adding to his legend. The lithe forward then extended his career with experimental stints in Qatar, Australia and the United States.

In 2007, he established a hallowed record by scoring the 1,000th goal of a wild career. While records are somewhat quixotic, it is widely believed that only five other professional players have managed such a feat. Romário etched his name alongside the greatest.

How PSV played a pivotal role in the development of Ronaldo

In the mid-1990s, the task of replacing such a talisman was monumental for PSV. The club yearned to remain competitive in Europe while holding off a charge from Louis Van Gaal’s resurgent Ajax. The success of Romário generated interest, trophies and self-sustaining revenue. Accordingly, executives thought it only natural to replicate the process. PSV scouts, led by legendary evaluator Piet de Visser, began trawling Brazil once more, intent on finding another potent forward, another skilful maverick, another raw prodigy to set the Eredivisie alight and reap a huge financial profit. They found Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, a seventeen year old phenom starring for Cruzeiro.

A precocious talent, Ronaldo’s career began with rejection when Flamengo, the club he idolised as a boy, refused to pay the bus fare to transport him to training sessions. Unperturbed, Ronaldo played beach football with friends and futsal at a local social club. Eventually, second division outfit São Cristóvão gave the pacey forward an opportunity. The club was closer to Ronaldo’s working class neighbourhood of Bento Ribeiro, so he could jump the train without purchasing a ticket.

A string of explosive performances gave birth to a new nickname: O Fenómeno. The Phenomenon. Jairzhino, a legend of Brazilian football, saw Ronaldo play and urged Cruzeiro, a sleeping giant, to sign the talented youngster as a 15-year old. After working his way through the youth team, Ronaldo was finally granted a professional debut in 1993. He never looked back, scoring goals at will and producing performances of dynamism extraordinary for so young a player.

It was only a matter of time before Ronaldo outgrew Brazilian football. Following a formidable season with Cruzeiro, he was part of the Brazil squad that won the 1994 World Cup. While an unused substitute throughout, the experience gave Ronaldo an appetite for different footballing cultures, and he seemed destined for Europe, the cradle of superstar reputations.

Again, this coincided perfectly with the growing intentions of PSV. Cruzeiro accepted a bid of €4.7 m from the Dutch giants and a deal was concluded with help from Romário, who suggested PSV as an ideal stepping stone into European football’s highest echelon. Ronaldo, a future behemoth of the world game, signed for PSV Eindhoven prior to the 1994/95 season. The club’s thirst for Samba verve had been satisfied once again.

In terms of pure skill, Ronaldo eclipsed even the great Romário. During his two seasons in Holland, Eredivisie defences were entirely ineffective when faced with such a whirlwind of blistering pace and technical poise. Ronaldo scored 42 goals in 46 games for PSV, petrifying Dutch defenders with fearless drive and teasing goalkeepers with a stupefying array of clinical finishes.

Alongside Luc Nilis in a formidable strike force, the Brazilian scored all manner of goals: volleys, headers, back-heels. Often, he collected the ball some forty yards from goal and swivelled with grace past the initial attention of industrious midfielders before shifting through gears no other player possessed to fire home a spectacular goal. Ronaldo destroyed the realms of possibility on the Philips Stadion pitch, to the astonishment of unbelieving spectators.

Eindhoven was consumed by Ronaldomania. The way in which PSV fans watched matches changed, Ronaldo treating them to new tricks, new goals and new standards of brilliance on a near-weekly basis. The club came to expect such greatness, such entertainment and such wild ingenuity. All around, attitudes were transformed by the Ronaldo aura. PSV jumped forward as a club, into a pantheon of honour and mystique. The baby-faced Brazilian wrote a conclusive chapter in PSV’s bildungsroman. He hauled the club into a modern age.

“It was great,” recalls Emiel, a lifelong PSV fan who saw Ronaldo score twice on his first visit to the Philips Stadion in 1994. “The atmosphere is incredible when you’re young. I remember watching Ronaldo as a kid. He was one of the greatest talents in the world. Everybody wanted to be him when we played football. I remember him as very fast and in my memories he never missed a chance. Even as a youngster, he scored against Ajax and in Europe!”

Indeed, Europe provided a stage on which Ronaldo produced his most mesmeric PSV moments. In the 1994-95 UEFA Cup, PSV were drawn against Bernd Schuster’s Bayer Leverkusen. The first leg, at Ulrich Haberland Stadium, was Ronaldo’s first ever game in European competition. It was also his defining match as a PSV player, his repost to Romário’s magnum opus against Steaua five years prior.

At the tender age of seventeen, Ronaldo left Leverkusen truly bewildered with a plethora of mazy runs, audacious efforts and unflinching confidence. He equalised from the penalty spot following an early Bayer goal before the Germans raced into a commanding 4-1 lead. However, Ronaldo had little time for the boundaries of reality.

A sublime 25-yard curler from his right boot drew a smattering of applause from the home crowd, before a 61st minute tap-in completed a prodigious hat-trick. Even as Leverkusen manager Dragoslav Stepanovic resorted to robust man-marking on Ronaldo, and the game finished 5-4 following a flurry of late goals, the Brazilian stole the show. A display of such explosive strength and assured dexterity had rarely been seen in the annals of PSV history. Certainly not by a seventeen-year old wonderkid, at least.

While Ronaldo struggled with persistent knee injuries in his second year at PSV, he still maintained a phenomenal goal rate and inspired awe when given the opportunity. Ronaldo combined the swift pace of a gazelle with the brute strength of an ox, an intoxicating blend mixed with skill and control and inimitable appreciation of space. He was an artisan dictating play on a superior level. He deserved to play on the brightest stages, in the biggest stadiums, before the largest crowds. Moreover, the world deserved the chance to see him play. A move onward, a la Romário, was only natural.

Again, Barcelona won the race to sign a Brazilian starlet from PSV. Internazionale also featured in the bidding, as European football’s premier forces flirted with a world record transfer fee. Ultimately, PSV received €15.5 m, and Ronaldo walked anew the well-worn path between Eindhoven and Catalonia.

Once again replacing Romário in his new home, Ronaldo produced a staggering season at the Camp Nou, the Brazilian from PSV firing la Blaugrana to glory once more. As Barca won a unique treble, Ronaldo fascinated with rarefied virtuosity. He played with such speed, such simplicity and such inexorable power as to be entirely alone in a unique dimension. Nobody could compete with Ronaldo. No league could contain his talent, nor represent a challenge to this record-breaking icon.

How PSV transformed the market for Brazilian footballers

As he ventured through Europe, winning a succession of Ballon d’Or awards and triumphing through adversity at Inter and Real Madrid, clubs from all over the world attempted to replicate the buy-low, sell-high philosophy of PSV. Every team in the world wanted their own Ronaldo, a player who could ensure success on the pitch and at the box office. Yet in the seminal days of modern football, few clubs could afford to pay the gargantuan transfer fee required to secure such a player. Accordingly, the PSV model of early international scouting was adopted throughout Europe, with major clubs eager to steal a march on their nearest rivals.

Cafu signed for Roma. Roberto Carlos joined Inter. Dida was transferred directly from Corinthians to Milan. In less than a generation, the stepping stone had been removed. The success of players like Romário and Ronaldo taught Brazilian players to dream big from the start of their careers, while PSV’s consistent harvesting of talent from underexposed lands alerted bigger clubs to the possibility.

The richest, most powerful developed a presence in Brazil, building academies and pumping millions into detailed scouting operations. What once had been a rudimentary market for bargain-hunting enthusiasts was transformed into a fizzing mall of rampant materialism.

PSV toiled away, attempting to battle with heavyweights like Real Madrid to find a replacement for Ronaldo. They usually settled for very raw prospects who had slipped under the widening radar. Vampeta brought guile to Dick Advocaat’s midfield before earning a lucrative move back to his homeland. Marcelo Ramos struck eleven goals in twenty-two Eredivisie games after moving from Cruzeiro. Leandro Bonfim was relatively successful in the early millennium.

Nevertheless, PSV were no longer fishing in a lake by themselves. Rather, they were hopefully dangling their rod under the large net of established giants, anticipating the arrival of a prized carp that had escaped capture. They gambled on a host of bright Brazilian prospects in the late-1990s, with many failing to meet lofty expectations. Alas, the likes of Claudio and Marcos and Jorginho Paulista; Manoel, Cleberson and Marquinho are eminently forgettable.

Occasionally, major stars wriggled away when a deal with PSV seemed inevitable. Adriano, the powerhouse forward who rose to fame with Inter, was initially scouted by de Visser, but then-PSV manager Eric Gerets nixed a deal at the last possible moment. Later, Guus Hiddink travelled to Brazil to conclude a deal with Santos ace Robinho, only for Real Madrid to swoop instinctively for his signature. Even Lionel Messi, a prodigy from nearby Argentina, almost joined the club on loan in 2005.

These stars may have eluded PSV, but the club maintained a voracious appetite for South American talent. A string of Eindhoven coaches fell in love with the flair and panache of such players, and the marketing department benefited from a newfound glitz. PSV fans appreciated the ebullient personality of their Brazilian idols, who illuminated Dutch football with charisma and charm and character.

Why Heurelho Gomes is so beloved by PSV fans

No player embodied this special relationship more than Heurelho Gomes. The enigmatic goalkeeper may be viewed as a quirky liability within a British sporting press obsessed with Premier League football, but his contribution to PSV was legendary.

A vivacious entertainer, Gomes was signed from Cruzeiro in 2004 amid little fanfare. The early moments of his PSV career didn’t inspire confidence, with Heurelho displaying a native Brazilian flair even while playing in a usually dogmatic position. At first, PSV fans were anxious whenever the ball came near Gomes, who parlayed almost every save into an elaborate adventure.

Yet ultimately, his was a lasting legacy. A legacy of success, as PSV won a record four consecutive Eredivisie titles and reached a bittersweet Champions League semi-final with him between the sticks. A legacy of skill, with extraordinary reflex saves and awe-inspiring distribution. A legacy of fun.

PSV admirers, myself included, came to love Heurelho Gomes. He received a level of adoration reserved for true greats, fans producing emotive choreography and cheering wildly as he leapt above the crossbar in trademark style prior to matches. In developing a resilient defence, he was indebted to Alex, another Brazilian with whom he nurtured a close friendship and electrified Eindhoven.

A formidable centre-back, Alex joined Chelsea in 2004, but was loaned to PSV in order to gain experience. He spent three seasons in Eindhoven at the behest of Jose Mourinho, arguably influencing team fortunes even more than the inimitable Gomes. In almost a century of appearances, Alex developed a penchant for spectacular goals in big matches, with thunderbolt free-kicks and explosive headers becoming regular weapons in his arsenal.

This Brazilian core was central to PSV reaching the very precipice of a Champions League final in 2005. Tim, the guy who spied on Romário as he shopped for biscuits as a kid, recalls this special era with equal affection. “It was almost nine years ago, yet I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says of the exceptional run that saw PSV defeat AS Monaco en route to a quarterfinal date with much-fancied Lyon.

“They completely dominated us, but Gomes played arguably the best game any goalie ever had. His impossible saves kept us in the game, while Lyon hit the post twice. That was all we needed. One counter attack and it was 1-1. We were still in it, thanks to an incredible Gomes, Alex the Tank at centre back and Cocu with an unexpected goal.”

Tim recalls a pensive mood in Eindhoven before the second leg, which also finished 1-1 after Alex struck a memorable goal. When extra-time yielded no further action, a dreaded penalty shootout loomed.

“I can’t recall much from the game itself,” says Tim. “Yet the penalties are ingrained in my mind. Especially the last one. We were up 3-2. I look at the scoreboard, and it slowly dawned on me that if we scored the next penalty, we were going to Milan. I am not religious in any way, but I said a quick prayer. Robert took the ball and walked towards the box.”

Robert de Pinho de Souza, a lively forward from Salvador, only played a handful of games for PSV yet somehow managed to etch his name into club folklore by scoring the winning spot-kick. “A more perfect penalty has never been taken,” concludes Tim, who celebrated long into the night.

The future of South American talent at PSV

PSV enjoyed a subsequent renaissance in attracting Brazilian talent. Fagner, a young full-back from Sao Paulo, made a handful of appearances. Alcides, a tall defender similarly loaned from Chelsea, was influential in his half-season under Sef Vergoossen. Even Diego Tardelli of Atletico Mineiro fame spent time at PSV, during an era that saw the club promoted its first “homegrown” Brazilian prospect from De Herdgang. The highly-talented but fatally-flawed Jonathan Reis owns that distinction.

However, the lineage of great Brazilians at PSV was eventually disrupted. The club ran-out of patience with Reis, who battled drug addiction late in his PSV career, and have appeared reticent to sign South American players ever since. Marcelo, an erratic central defender who came to symbolise the clubs post-Hiddink identity crisis, made almost a century of appearances before joining Hannover last summer. Now, PSV currently have no Brazilian players within the first team squad.

Such a situation may become even more common in future years, as the transfer landscape shifts once more. Perhaps PSV have been too successful for their own good. In signing and making great unproven wildcards like Romário, Ronaldo and Gomes, the club put an international spotlight on Brazil. Such attention was grist for the worldwide television coverage that made instant stars of raw prospects and, by extension, over-hyped their skill to a point where modest Dutch clubs were overpowered by bigger, hungrier rivals in a frantic transfer market.

In this age of social media, twenty-four hour news and instant live streams of football around the globe, everything is known about every player at every club. There is no undiscovered Ronaldo playing futsal in a sequestered Brazilian gymnasium. Even if there was, the forensic-style scouting network of top European clubs would detect him earlier than in previous generations. Furthermore, the Brazilian league system has improved and, imbued with greater professionalism, appears better positioned to attract star native players. Ronaldinho, Luis Fabiano and Fred all returned home in recent years. Jo did the same. Therefore, it is more difficult than ever to attract a top Brazilian player to the Netherlands in his prime.

If, for arguments sake, we still adhered to the system prevalent twenty years ago, Neymar would now be a PSV player. He would likely have excelled in relative obscurity for Santos, moved to Holland as a teenager and advanced to Barcelona only after proving he could dominate European opposition. But the innovation of PSV changed football’s ecosystem forever.

Somewhat harshly, the roaring success of their trademark philosophy forced heavyweights into battle and, ultimately, blasted the market so far into the stratosphere as to be largely unreachable nowadays. As a result, Neymar was a global celebrity before even kicking a ball on European soil. While his forebears wound up in Barcelona via Eindhoven, Neymar headed straight for the top for €57 million.

To find himself in such a comfortable position, Neymar is forever indebted to the work of his footballing forebears who, at clubs like PSV, smoothed the path to success. Similarly, PSV must be eternally grateful to Brazil, a glittering land that produced some of the most incredible players ever to grace de rode en witte strepen.

It’s a special relationship, that between Brazil and PSV. A relationship of trust, ambition and hope. A relationship that will be renewed once more as football’s greatest event winds its way to Rio. There poetry here, and we should definitely savour it.

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