CELEBRATING THE BRILLIANCE OF PAULO ROBERTO FALCÃO

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 their first Serie A title in 41 years in 1983, enjoyed a prosperous spell under coach Nils Leidholm. Their most prominent architect of success on the pitch was Falcão. 

The Brazilian mastermind was signed in 1980 and instantly gelled into the Giallorossi, becoming a talismanic figure that was deeply loved by the fans and people of Rome.

Roma turned down the chance to sign Zico in 1980 and there was bemusement. However, that commotion calmed as Falcão entered the field and proved himself to be the most complete midfielder in world football during the 1980s. 

He was a general on the field, brilliant both tactically and technically. He won the Scudetto in 1983, while he also excelled for Brazil, playing in their legendary 1982 World Cup team. Furthermore, he scored in the classic 3-2 defeat to Italy during that tournament in Spain.

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The legend did not experience the same widespread success on the international stage as other fellow Brazilian greats. However, Falcão is celebrated for his brilliance at the club level. 

He was known in particular for his flair, control, vision, passing, and long-range shooting ability. The Brazilian was quite popular with his tactical intelligence, organisational ability, and leadership. Falcão is a player often forgotten and overlooked by many, and this seems like the time to regard him as the true Genius he was on the field.

The midfielder began his professional career at Internacional at the age of 19 in the year 1973. He quickly moved up the ranks as an elite midfielder of Brasileiro and was praised for his ability to control the flow of the game with his accurate passes and strength in marking.

In 1978, Internacional took another state title, and Falcão, reaching the peak of his powers, was named Brazilian Footballer of the Year. Twelve months later, that honour was his again as International became Brazilian champions again. 

He also got his first taste of a major international tournament with two appearances in the Copa América and was by now attracting the attention of major European clubs.

He led Internacional to its greatest period of success, taking the club to its 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. Though during this period of brilliance, 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 scudetto. Fãlcao jumped at the chance to play in the Italian capital and signed for £650,000. 

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To his credit, and thanks largely to bringing over members of his family to the Italian capital, he settled into Italian culture and Calcio quickly. It took him no time to learn the language and even less time to make his impact on the pitch.

In his debut season, he played 25 games, scoring three goals, but statistics rarely tell the whole story. He became an influential and dominating figure in the centre of midfield and linked brilliantly with his midfield partners like Bruno Conti and Agostino Di Bartolomei. 

Falcão immediately became regarded as one of the top foreign stars of the game. His first season saw the club rising in the ranks to a second-place finish in the league to Juventus, but silverware was not missing from his debut season 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 overall season for Falcao as he notched six goals in 24 league games and forcing 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 to go through. Falcão scored Brazil’s second equaliser but could not prevent a 3-2 defeat.

He was one of the last players to join the 1982 World Cup squad and only played in the final two warm-up games before the opening fixture against the Soviet Union. However, Santana saw Fãlcao’s organisational ability, leadership, and considerable European experience as a suitable replacement for Toninho Cerezo for the opening game. 

Following a good, but ultimately unsuccessful World Cup campaign with Brazil, he returned to Roma and set about inspiring the Giallorossi to their first Scudetto triumph in 40 years.

Serie A recognised Fãlcao as the Player of the Year that season beating such luminaries as Michel Platini, who was starting to make his own legacy with Juventus.

The Brazilian was a classy midfielder with an amazing touch and vision that knew how to defend and attack. A pure genius and one of the best players in the legendary Brazil squad of 1982, he was a complete player.

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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.”

After leading the team to the quarter-finals in the UEFA cup, Roma fans started referring to him as the ‘eighth king of Rome’. 

For those who never saw him play ought to know the incredible touch, he was blessed with. One of the first things one noticed was that he really could place the ball anywhere he wanted.

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 finished second the following season, after defending their title up to the last day of the season, and again Fãlcao impressed with five goals in 27 games. 

Roma was dominant in Europe that season as they fended off challenges from Gothenburg and CSKA Sofia to reach the semi-final for the first time in their history.

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.”

An elegant and technically gifted player, he knew how to make his fellow squad players play together on the pitch. He had an eye to orchestrate his team’s attacking moves. He usually functioned as a deep-lying playmaker. Due to his physique and tenacity, the midfielder was capable of aiding his team both defensively and offensively. 

With next season’s European Cup final set to take place in Roma’s Stadio Olimpico, hopes were high about the Brazilian leading the team to the biggest honour in European club football. 

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Fãlcao was an ever-present during this European adventure until the semi-final first leg, due to an injury picked up in the previous Serie A game. Roma lost in Scotland to Dundee United 2-0 and the fans were begging for the return of their hero.

The Brazilian duly obliged and regained some semblance of fitness in time to star in a 3-0 victory that sent Roma to the European Cup final against Liverpool. 

With his knee still bothering him in the final, he took his place in the starting line-up, but the midfielder turned in a poor display. Roma ultimately lost in a penalty shoot-out, thanks mainly to the ‘wobbly legs’ antics of goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, which certainly put 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 declining this chance. It was an odd decision, especially considering the Brazilian had been an inspiration for much of their success in recent years.

The following season, Falcão was only able to play in four games due to knee troubles, resulting in Roma finishing in eighth place in the league. At the end of the season, he flew to New York for an unauthorized surgery, causing Roma to terminate his contract. Throughout his tenure in Italy, Falcão appeared in 107 games and scored 22 goals.

In 1985, he moved back to Brazil to wind down his playing career with São Paulo, only to appear in ten games with 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 most 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, and his playing career came to an end at the age of 33.

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Following his retirement from his playing career, Falcão has served as a coach for several teams, highlighted by being named manager of the Brazilian national team from 1990 to 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 later coached Club América in Mexico and the Japanese national team. Following that, in 1994, Falcão retired from coaching due to his teams’ lack of success. 

However, after a 16-year hiatus, Falcão returned to coaching, signing a contract with his former club, Internacional. Unfortunately, this was not successful, as he was fired that same year for poor performances. Currently, Falcão is under contract as the manager of the Brazilian club, Bahia. 

His life at the pitch saw many ups and downs and his contributions would always be remembered.  Falcão has been a huge inspiration to the thousands of Brazilians who love football. For those who grew up seeing him playing, he became the hero. In simple words, watching Falcão play makes one appreciate the game in its true spirit.

BY SHIPRA KAPOOR