“If I had to choose one defender I'd have liked to play with, it would be Aldair. We would have formed one hell of a partnership.”
In the summer of 1997, legendary Giallorossi coach Nils Liedholm was asked to pick out the 11 best players of the first 70 years of the club’s history.
When he reached central defence, Liedholm observed: “I choose two foreigners for Roma’s best-ever central defenders. One false foreigner, Vierchowod [Vierchowod was Italian, though his nickname was ‘The Russian’], and one real foreigner: Aldair.”
Indeed, less than seven years after his arrival in the capital, the Brazilian defender – whose most glorious years at Roma were still to come – had already gone down in history as one of the best players ever to represent the club.
For years, he was far-and-away the best centre-back in the world. Yet for years, he also was overlooked by the Brazilian national side and when Aldair finally did get his chance, it was under the most testing of circumstances.
Having just returned from a cruciate ligament injury to his right knee, the Roma defender was brought back into the Brazil fold just before the USA World Cup after a four-year absence. It is a measure of the player – and the man – that it took just three friendlies to convince coach Carlos Alberto Parreira to promote him from reserve player to first name on the team-sheet.
The story goes that there was a remarkably simple reason behind Aldair’s decision to become a centre-back. “As a striker I used to get kicked too much,” explained the player who went by the nickname of ‘Pluto’.
The Brazilian joined Roma straight after the 1990 European Cup final, which saw his Benfica side – coached by Sven-Göran Eriksson – beaten by AC Milan - and it was Eriksson who convinced president Dino Viola of the Brazilian’s talents.
In the Eternal City, Aldair won the Coppa Italia in 1991, the Scudetto in 2001 and the Italian Super Cup in the same year. And during his stay with Roma, ‘Pluto’ scaled dizzying heights with the Brazilian national team, winning the World Cup in 1994, the Confederations Cup in 1997, the Copa America in both 1989 and 1997 and an Olympic bronze medal in 1996.
Aldair was much-loved by the Roma faithful, with whom he shared a profound bond. Three days before the decisive clash with Parma on 17 June 2001, Aldair gave an interview which belied the passion he felt for his club of over a decade: “I can feel the anxiousness of the fans, the wait, their burning desire to explode into celebration. We have to wait a little longer, though I understand they can barely manage it. I feel like one of them right now. We have to give one more push – us and them – and then everything will be wonderful.”
“I’m delighted to be recognised like this by the fans and the panel. It’s also an honour to find myself in the company of the other players who were voted in. You can see that what we achieved hasn’t been forgotten. There are two moments from my time with Roma that I remember particularly fondly. First when I returned from injury in the 1993/94 season, at a tough time for the team, and the fans showed me what I meant to them. And then of course the Scudetto and the fantastic party which went on all over the city.”
Aldair Nascimento Santos