Rome has a knack for turning basic into splendid. For many centuries, it has been a place admired by the rest of the world. There were rare moments, however, when the eternal city reached its heights. One of these moments occurred under a certain Brazilian who changed the aura of football in Rome: Paulo Roberto Falcão.
AS Roma, who won its first Serie A title in 41 years in 1983, enjoyed a prosperous spell under coach Nils Liedholm. The most prominent architect of success on the pitch was Falcão. The Brazilian mastermind was signed in 1980 and instantly gelled into Giallorossi culture, becoming a talismanic figure deeply loved by the fans and people of Rome.
Roma initially turned down the chance to sign Zico in 1980 and there was bemusement at that decision, however the commotion calmed when a deal did happen and he made it to the Eternal City that summer. There he would prove himself to be the most complete midfielders in world football during the 1980 – a general on the field, brilliant both tactically and technically. He won a Serie A title in 1983 and also excelled for Brazil, playing in their legendary 1982 World Cup team and scoring in the classic 3-2 defeat to Italy.
In 1973 the player began his professional career with Internacional of Porto Alegre at the age of nineteen. He rapidly developed into an elite midfielder and by 1978 he was reaching the quality we associate with him as Internacional took another state title and he was named Brazilian Footballer of the Year. Twelve months later, that honour was his again as International became Brazilian champions once more.
He earned his first taste of major international tournament play with two appearances in the Copa América and was now attracting the attention of major European clubs. He had led Internacional to its greatest period of success, taking the club to three Série A championships in 1975, 1976, and 1979. At the height of his dominance, the manager of Palmeiras was quoted as saying: “We did not lose to a team; we lost to the greatest player in the world” after their defeat to Internacional in the semifinals of the 1979 championship.
The 1979 Internacional team finished the season undefeated, a feat still unmatched by any Brazilian club in Série A history and one which cast a questioning light as to why Falcão did not receive a call up to be a part of the final Brazilian squad for the 1978 World Cup. A year later Roma identified his technical proficiency as the missing link in their quest for a Serie A title. Fãlcao was enthusiastic about the chance to play in the Italian capital and a deal was concluded at a cost of £650,000.
To his credit, and thanks largely to bringing over members of his family to the Italian capital, he settled into Italian culture and its football quickly. It took him little time to learn the language and virtually no time to make his impact on the pitch. In his debut season he played 25 games and scored three goals, but statistics barely tell the whole story. He became an influential and dominating figure in the centre of midfield and linked brilliantly with midfield and attacking teammates like Bruno Conti and Agostino Di Bartolomei.
Falcão quickly became regarded as one of the top foreign stars in Serie A. His first season saw the club rise in the table to a second-place finish in the league behind Juventus, but some silverware was still forthcoming as the club lifted the Coppa Italia, beating Torino on penalties, with Falcão scoring the decisive spot-kick. The following season was less impressive for the club, but a better one for Falcao as he notched six goals in 24 league games to force his way into the 1982 Brazilian World Cup squad with a string of outstanding individual displays.
An incredibly talented Brazilian side was well fancied to win the tournament but fell in the second group stage to Italy after losing a game they only had to draw. Falcão scored Brazil’s second equaliser but could not prevent a 3-2 defeat. He was one of the last players to join up with the World Cup squad and only played in the last two warm-up games before the opening fixture against the Soviet Union. Coach Santana recognised Fãlcao’s organisational ability, leadership and considerable European experience as a suitable replacement for Toninho Cerezo in the opening fixture.
Following that World Cup campaign with Brazil, Fãlcao returned to Roma and set about inspiring the Giallorossi to a first Scudetto triumph in 40 years. Serie A recognised him as the Player of the Year that season ahead of such luminaries as the mighty Michel Platini at Juventus. Nils Liedholm said of him: “Fãlcao is the man who conducts the orchestra on the pitch. All I do is write the music for him, or prepare the score based on certain ideas.” Roma fans started referring to him as the ‘eighth king of Rome’. After seeing him in action for the first time, journalist Roberto Chiodi said: “It’s impossible that anyone can play the way he does. He has two hands in place of his feet.”
Roma followed up the defence of their title the following season with a runners-up finish, being in contention right until the last round of fixtures. Fãlcao contributed five goals and 27 appearances. The team was imperious in that season’s European Cup as it fended off challenges from Gothenburg and CSKA Sofia to reach the semi-final stage.
The midfielder was known for his knack of being everywhere on the pitch. Former Roma legend Fulvio Bernardini wrote: “Fãlcao appears wherever the team needs his feet, his ideas, and his brain. He’s not a showy player and he’s only spectacular for brief moments. He controls the ball with long legs and doesn’t have a blistering pace, yet he is everywhere. He shows for the ball, makes it easy for his team-mates to find him and so often slips away from his marker.”
With that season’s European Cup final set to take place in Roma’s own Stadio Olimpico, hopes were high that the Brazilian would be leading the capital club to the biggest honour in European club football. Fãlcao was an ever-present during this European adventure, until missing the semi-final first leg due to an injury picked up in the previous League game. Roma lost 2-0 in Scotland to Dundee United and their fans were desperate for the return of their hero for the second leg. Fãlcao duly obliged and regained some semblance of fitness in time to star in a 3-0 victory that sent Roma into the European Cup final against Liverpool.
His knee was still bothering him as he took his place in the starting line-up and it contributed to the midfielder turning in a poor display. Roma ultimately lost in a penalty shoot-out to the ‘wobbly legs’ antics of goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, his unconventional behaviour putting off Francesco Graziani as he ballooned his shot over the bar to give Liverpool their fourth European Cup. Falcão’s relationship with Roma soured after missing this opportunity.
The following season Falcão was only able to play in four games due to knee troubles, partly resulting in Roma finishing a lowly eighth place in the league. At the end of that campaign, he flew to New York for unauthorised surgery which caused Roma to terminate his contract. During his time in Italy the Brazilian appeared in 107 games and scored 22 goals. In 1985 he moved back to Brazil to wind down his playing career with São Paulo, but only appeared ten times for the club. He received a call-up to the 1986 Brazilian national roster that was to fly out to the World Cup but was only used as a late-game substitute in some matches.
The midfielder featured just twice in Brazil’s run to the quarter-finals, both times in the group stage. His appearance against Algeria proved to be his last cap before retirement as his playing career came to an end at the age of 33. Following his retirement Falcão served as a coach for several teams, the highlight being named as manager of the Brazilian national team between 1990 and 1991. Initially he struggled to win games, but at the Copa América of 1991 he took the team to second place in the final group with only a defeat by fierce rivals Argentina denying them the title.
After leaving the national team he subsequently coached Club América in Mexico and the Japanese national team. Little in the way of success ensued and in 1994 Falcão retired from coaching altogether, or at least for the next sixteen years. Following this lengthy hiatus, Falcão signed a contract with his former club Internacional. Unfortunately, this proved a brief sojourn and he was fired that same year for poor results. He continued to coach some of Brazil’s lesser lights and even returned once more to International in 2016.