The Rio Report

A thousand times Tulio: The man who never gave up

As final chapters go, it perhaps wasn’t quite the glamorous affair he had spent so many years dreaming about.

No Globo television cameras. No Maracanã. No Botafogo shirt. No, this was destined to happen here, on this bumpy scrubland pitch so typical of the footballing hinterland that operates a few levels and a few light years below the glitz of the Seleção.

Araxá vs Maimoré in the second division of the Minas Gerais state championship. A game between two teams even local football fanatics had probably never heard of and never will again. Or rather, wouldn’t have. For at the weekend, these sides’ names were woven into the mythic tapestry of the Brazilian game.

For Túlio Maravilha, nothing else mattered but the numbers. For days and months and years and decades he had counted. One more here. Two more there. Tick followed tock followed tick followed tock. Even if the passage of time had begun to make a mockery of his nickname, he would never admit it.

Even at 44, bones creaking and hair thinning, he was still Túlio the Marvel. And he still had history to make.

His big day was a long time in the making. He could remember the 1980s, the emerald green of Goiás, his first goals. His short-lived spell in Europe. (Even now, he wept when he remembered Sion.)

Botafogo, Corinthians, Vitória, Botafogo again, always adding to the tally. 13 goals in 15 games for the national team. Ever plundering.

Tulio in his mid-1990s heyday

But somewhere down the line, Túlio stopped enjoying scoring for scoring’s sake. The siren song of immortality crept into his veins, throbbing through his body until he could think of nothing else but a number. The number. It was neat, round and promised to etch his name into Brazil’s footballing pantheon. 1000. A thousand goals. Pelé, Romário… Túlio.

For years thereafter, scoring still came easy. A scuttling, predatory striker, his knack for being in the right place at the right time served him well. Sure, he was moving in less prestigious circles but goals are goals are goals. One more here. Two more there.

The cluster of years that usually signal a footballer’s retirement came and went, the number still some way off. But Túlio couldn’t stop. He was going to get there, even if it meant resigning himself to the life of a travelling salesman, pitching up in any dead-end town whose football team offered him a few thousand Reais in exchange for a few weeks of (relative) national fame.

The spotlight on Túlio had grown wan, but it still shone enough to make signing him worthwhile.

Not that this arrangement pleased everyone.

In 2012, the coach of tiny Tanabi, Túlio’s 28th club, expressed his frustration that the forward was allowed to commute from his home in Rio rather than being forced to move to the area. “How can a guy just turn up on matchday and play?” he asked. “The president and the city are spending a lot of money, and he’s not the player he once was.”

He has also had other, more forceful critics. Túlio’s talent for scoring has never been in doubt, but his ability to count certainly has been; 18 months ago, when he claimed to have reached 990, Placar magazine totted up the official goals and only reached 655. Túlio had been counting goals in friendlies, commemorative games and amateur football. If he’d been a videogame fan, he’d probably have added those he scored on old versions of Pro Evolution Soccer as well.

The discrepancy, of course, only adds to the storybook aura of Túlio’s tale. In a country whose sporting history is so lovingly embellished by lore and half-remembered fable, the Man Who Built His Own Mountain fits right in. Besides, if Pelé and Romário were allowed to play hard and fast with the rulebook, why not him?

As he scrimped and saved his way towards the fabled gol mil, there was to be one major disappointment. He always planned to reach the landmark playing for Botafogo, the side with whom he felt the strongest emotional connection.

The Rio club appeared happy to grant his wish, signing the then-43-year-old Túlio in August last year and promising to register him to play in the Brasileirão.

Tulio re-signed for Botafogo but was overlooked

But despite notching for their under-23 side and in a low-wattage friendly, he left under a cloud, claiming the club had failed to support his “project”. He was just two goals from his target.

No matter. Good things come to those who wait.

27 minutes played at the Fausto Alvim ground (the word stadium would be pushing it). Araxá are awarded a penalty. Everyone knows who is going to take it. Túlio, wearing shirt number 999, steps up. Nobody wants to see him miss – not even the opposition goalkeeper. The world stops spinning, just for an instant.

He scores.

Everything goes blank. Túlio is lifted aloft by his team-mates. The rest of the game fades into insignificance.

“Mission accomplished,” Túlio swoons afterwards choking back the tears. “This is for all the people who believe in their dreams.”

It wasn’t quite what he had pictured. No Globo television cameras. No Maracanã. No Botafogo shirt. But he doesn’t care. All he cares about are the numbers.

By Jack Lang - on Twitter @snap_kaka_pop