ROME -- Leaning forward from the back seat of a taxi to check a wildly racing meter, a visitor noticed a small photograph of a soccer player affixed to the dashboard. It was the Brazilian, Careca.

"With all the great players in Italy, why Careca?" the visitor asked with the help of an Italian-speaking colleague. The driver's response: "Because I love Napoli and Careca plays for Napoli. He is so clever. He is the greatest center forward in the world."

The driver pulled to the curb and lifted the baggage from the trunk. Then he added: "Of course, I could not get Maradona's picture."

That's the story of Careca's career. No matter what, he's been overshadowed. Worse, he was shredded a few months ago by the Italian press after picking a big game to have a bad day. In print, he was labeled "coniglio" -- "fat rabbit." But the real meaning was "chicken." Last week, he was even stung indirectly by the legendary Pele, who berated his countrymen for beating Costa Rica by only 1-0.

That was the limit for Careca. He won't speak with Italian journalists, checking writers' World Cup identification badges before deciding whether to say anything. But Pele's remarks called for a response.

"If every shot went into the goal," Careca said, "football would be just like basketball, except played with the feet."

It was spoken like the peer Maradona considers Careca to be. It was Maradona who brought Careca to Napoli, having told the club's owners: "You must get this guy."

"Day to day," Maradona has said many times, "Careca is the best player in the world."

The world may come to know this Sunday when Careca's powerful Brazilian team goes against Maradona and defending World Cup-champion Argentina in Turin (11 a.m. EDT). It's for the informal championship of South America -- with the loser departing the World Cup.

"The Brazilians are very strong," Maradona said the other day, "better than we are." Argentina is not the team it was in 1986. Yet Maradona, being Maradona, is the one man capable of balancing the sides.

But in this World Cup on this particular Sunday he must first discard the emotional baggage he's clearly carrying. "I feel strange, very strange," continued Maradona, looking earnest if not sad. The little man who will always be identified with the 1986 Cup finds it wrenching having to play against his Napoli teammates Careca and Ricardo Brito, known as Alemao, or "German," for his beach-bleached hair.

"I feel strange, very strange," Maradonna said. "But I'll try my best to beat them."

He paused. The Cup that Argentina won and Maradona kissed in '86 is at stake. Yet he concluded with his brown eyes looking watery: "This is only a soccer game. Friendship is something else." He Became "Baldie"

When Careca was a boy growing up in Araraquara in the province of Sao Paulo, he was Antonio de Oliveira Filho. He loved the circus, especially two clowns: Carequinha (which means "little bald head") and Fred.

By then, Antonio was progressing in soccer. And what Brazilian soccer player of merit doesn't have a single name? Antonio's friends began calling him -- even though he had all his hair -- Careca. (Were they going to call him Fred?) It was an honor.

Especially so because as a small boy Careca wasn't that good at the game. Tennis was his sport. His parents worked at a fancy club, his mother picking up tennis balls on the courts. Sometimes her son would help her collect the balls. Soon he learned to swing a racket. But employees weren't allowed such privileges, and he was barred from the courts.

So Antonio and a couple of other ball boys built their own court. But boys being boys in South America, they turned, in time, to soccer. He was 9. Playing in the streets, he was cuffed around and Antonio would come home scraped and bloodied.

When Careca was still talking freely to the media, he said of his youth: "In the street, football players don't discriminate like kids in tennis." They weren't apt to let up on someone like himself who "wasn't very good."

In 1970, he watched on television as Pele's team trounced Italy, 4-1, in Mexico City to win the World Cup. But his eyes were on Tostao, not Pele. After that, Careca said, "I would try to emulate everything about him, even the way he walked."

It is in honor of Tostao that Careca wears No. 9 on the back of his buttery yellow Brazilian shirt.

Hooked on the game, Careca joined a junior team called Guaran, located in Campinas, the second largest city in the state of Sao Paulo, the industrial center of Brazil. He was 12. At 17, he scored the winning goal as the club won its only Brazilian championship. At last, the Sao Paulo team wanted him. In 1986, he scored 25 goals in 31 games and delivered a national title for Sao Paulo.

He seemed destined to take Brazil far in the 1986 World Cup.

He had seemed destined to be a phenom on Brazil's 1982 Cup team. But an injured thigh muscle prevented him from playing. Disheartened, he considered quitting the game. "I thought the world had fallen on my head," he said.

By 1983, his love for soccer had revived and, in 1986, he appeared to be Brazil's chief World Cup hope. But the '86 team had several holdovers from its much-touted '82 team that had been beaten in the second round, 3-2, when Paolo Rossi scored three goals for Italy, a setback that traumatized the nation.

Careca didn't fit with that clique. He didn't even get the publicity he deserved for scoring five goals, runner-up with England's Gary Lineker to Maradona's six.

But Careca's goal-scoring ability didn't escape the notice of Maradona, already a god in Napoli. As a midfielder who usually stays close to the goal, Maradona envisioned squirting upfield and having a virtuoso like Careca waiting there. Together, the two could make the sweetest music in all of Italy.

Maradona spoke. Napoli paid Sao Paulo $3.5 million, a record for a Brazilian player. (In May, Juventus paid Fiorentia $13 million for Italian Roberto Baggio.)

Once before, Careca had had a chance to go abroad. But he'd declined, saying he had only recently been married and did not believe himself mature enough to live away from home. This time, flattered by Maradona's beckoning, Careca went enthusiastically to Naples. Yet he was no instant celebrity in a city where Maradona already had given long-frustrated fans a first-ever national title. Like much of the world today that knows little or nothing of Careca, Napoli would have to learn.

Sebastiao Lazaroni was one interested observer. In January 1989, he was named Brazil's national coach. He knew Brazil's frustrations. Brazil has not won the Cup since 1970. The Brazilians always have been able to score. But 1986 had gone the way of '82, '78 and '74. Brilliant passers and scorers, flowing like the gently rippling sea, they always came to the day when their hopes washed away in a wave of opponents' goals.

Withstanding criticism that he was destroying traditional exuberance, Lazaroni rebuilt the team in what amounted to revolutionary strategy. He emphasized defense. "Before, we played a very pretty and much applauded style of soccer," Lazaroni said just before these World Cup finals. "But in the end our opponents won."

Lazaroni's plan featured two players: Careca, now a mature 29, and the goalkeeper Brazil has always needed, Claudio Taffarel. But Lazaroni had to wait for Careca to finish his season with Napoli.

"I feel I owe something to Napoli," Careca said, "and I want to score as many goals as possible to help the team." He is, after all, being paid $790,000 a season, plus bonuses, and a new contract will carry him through 1993. Believes in Earning Pay

Now he knows life's comforts, which he can share with his wife and two daughters. But his ethic always has been to work for his paychecks, modest or grand. And so he gave his heart to Napoli and helped it to its second national title, taken April 29, although Maradona got most of the credit.

Napoli's season finally over, Lazaroni got Careca's services. It's been as Lazaroni imagined, with Careca Brazil's scorer. Lazaroni has made Careca feel that, at last, he is the premier player of a team, the feeling he's never had since he left Sao Paulo.

"He is the inspiration and motivation of Brazil," Lazaroni said of Careca. "It is because of the joy and greatness of his plays."

Bobby Robson, England's coach, said that, "He's up there with Maradona, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten."

Careca has been defended hard recently, but Maradona observed: "The more they kick him, the better he plays, the more dangerous he becomes."

He has a swiftness like no other Brazilian striker. He moves with the quickness and pain of a thrown dart.

The visitor to Rome paid the taxi driver, went upstairs to his hotel room and turned on the television. Brazil was playing a surprising Scotland. Within minutes, the Italian announcer was screaming: "Careca, Careca, Careca, Careca."

A teammate had taken a wickedly hard, spinning shot from 20 yards. Scotland's goalkeeper had fumbled it. And Careca had done what he does best -- in a second, he was there, his foot on the ball. He might have scored. But he left no room for error. With a flick of his left foot, he sent the ball to a teammate at the other side of the goalmouth with so much space ahead of him it was like kicking the ball into a pasture.

That was Scotland. Sunday is Argentina, perhaps Careca's last chance to show the world what Maradona knows.