The storied footballing journey of Juninho Pernambucano began back in 1993 when the Brazilian midfielder ran onto the field for this first time in the colours of his hometown club, Sport Recife.
This piece was written by Liam Bekker. Follow him on twitter @BekkersBlog
It was during his time at Sport that the first signs began showing of Juninho being a talent very rare to the game of football. Juninho, then a young teenager, helped Sport to victory in two regional titles and showed from the start that he possessed a unique mastery over the ball. The ease with which he picked his passes and dictated play was reflective of someone who had been in the game for many years more than he had, but it was his incredible ability from set-piece situations that had caught the eye of the big fish in Brazil, and in 1995 Juninho’s exploits earned him a move to Vasco da Gama.
DID YOU KNOW | On September 7th 1999, Juninho became the first player in the history of football to play in two separate official matches in two different countries. He played an international match for Brazil against Argentina before flying to Uruguay to play in a club match for Vasco against Club Nacional de Football
Juninho’s displays at Sport had been impressive, but at Vasco, the Brazilian took his game to the next level and as a result played his way firmly into the hearts of the clubs fans. Such was their adoration for Juninho that they nicknamed him Reizinho de São Januário – the little king of São Januário. Juninho though, was little only in his name as the midfield maestro delivered some mighty big performances for Vasco, including one in 1998 against European giants Real Madrid in the now defunct Intercontinental Cup. Vasco lost the tie 2-1 but Juninho, who had scored the equaliser earlier in the game, announced himself to the world as a player to watch out for in the future.
His 295 game stay at Vasco lasted just short of six years and rewarded him with two Brazilian championships and a brace of Continental cups, while on a personal level he earned himself the Player of the Year and Midfielder of the year awards. Legal issues and boardroom controversies within the club, coupled with Juninho’s ambition to display his talent at a larger scale saw the talented midfielder depart for the white and blue of Olympic Lyonnais in 2001. Given the immense talent that Juninho possessed, Vasco fans had expected that he would move on at some stage but it didn’t make his departure any less painful. They had lost their little king.
Juninho was always destined to play in Europe but the decision to move to France surprised many, as the mercurial playmaker had been attracting the attention of clubs much bigger in stature than Lyon, who at the time had never won a single domestic league title. That was all about to change. It was clear from the start that Lyon’s manager at the time, Jacques Santini, intended to build his squad around Juninho as the Brazilian’s passing range and creativity, along with the constant threat he provided from set-pieces made him the fundamental component at Stade de Gerland. It was a tactic that worked perfectly for Santini as Lyon, inspired by their new signing, went on to win their first ever Ligue 1 title in his debut season. Juninho’s arrival, and the subsequent stellar performances that followed, had sparked the clubs historic race to their first ever title. To the delight of the Les Gones faithful, this would prove only to be a tasty starter before an incredible main course.
DID YOU KNOW | Juninho scored an incredible total of 76 free-kicks throughout his career. It is interesting to note that neither Lyon nor Vasco have won their respective league titles again since the departure of Juninho
Over the next few years Juninho would go from strength to strength. His creativity and playmaking skills, long range goals and overall leadership made him the driving force in the centre of Lyon’s midfield but it was his brilliance from dead ball situations that had seen him become one of the most feared players in world football. Every shriek of the whistle, regardless of where on the opponent’s side of the pitch it was blown, was met with a sense of anticipation and excitement by the Lyon fans and players alike. There was a sense of inevitability when Juninho stood over the ball. No matter the impossibility of the angle or the distance from goal the result was always the same, the ball was going to hit the back of the net. The master technician had an incredible repertoire when it came to set pieces. He pioneered his trademark knuckle-ball free kick which was a technique that sent the ball flying towards goal with the most bizarre trajectory, often changing direction three or four times in flight. The knuckle ball has since been adopted by some of the world’s best players today but unlike them, Juninho honed his skills to each and every style of free kick imaginable.
The fact that Juninho could do just about anything, from any range with a static ball made him incredibly dangerous and unpredictable. He wrote his name into Lyon folklore with some of the best free-kicks of all-time. The most famous of these came in the Champions League in 2003 when Juninho hit a long range effort at goal, sending Bayern Munich’s Oliver Kahn – ‘the world’s best keeper at the time’ – smashing into his own upright. Needless to say, the ball went in.
There were many, many more, but the genius doesn’t lie in the number of goals scored. It lies in the technique, the sheer class and even audacity that Juninho showed when taking the set-pieces. His free-kicks were a thing of beauty and he took pride in them. Juninho Pernambucano was a free-kick specialist in every sense of the word. He was by no means a one trick pony though.
His impact and importance within the Lyon side went well beyond his set-piece abilities and in 2005, under the guidance of new manager Gérard Houllier, Juninho was given the armband at Lyon. This responsibility came as a direct result of the influence and importance he had within the team. He was their go-to-guy and more often than not he was the player that would make the difference in crunch games with defence splitting passing and match winning goals. Juninho was the alpha and omega in the city of Lyon. His final match for Lyon was an emotional one but was topped off in the greatest of fashions with the club legend scoring his 100th goal for the club from the penalty spot. He received a hero’s send off as his name rang out from the tear filled faces in the crowd. It was the end of an era. It was an end of the greatest era the club had ever seen, by the departure of the greatest player the club had ever called its own.
DID YOU KNOW | Andrea Pirlo has dedicated an entire chapter of his autobiography “I think therefore I play” to Juninho and how he spent hours trying to emulate the Brazilian’s set piece techniques
Juninho’s time at Lyon ended sooner than it should have and at his final press conference, the Lyon legend sat silently. The tears that filled his eyes told a story that no words could ever do justice. His Lyon record reads like something out of fairy tale. The Brazilian won fourteen titles in just eight years with the club, including a period of incredible dominance of the league that saw Lyon win it seven times in a row. He was named in the Team of the Year three times and won the French Player of the Year Award in 2006. His greatest achievements though, came as the reflection of his service to the club. Juni, as he was affectionately named by the OL fans, is the clubs 7th highest appearance holder, 4th highest goal scorer and top goal scorer in the clubs history in European competitions.
Lyon’s loss was Al-Gharafa’s gain though, as the Qatari clubbed snapped the inspirational Juninho up and immediately handed him the captain’s armband. Success seemed to follow Juninho as in his first season in Qatar, Al-Gharafa went on to complete an incredible treble winning season. Admittedly, Juninho did come in for some stick for ‘moving for the money’ but any questions about his character were swiftly answered two seasons later when Juninho returned to a now financially impaired Vasco, accepting a pay check of what is alleged to have been only £55 per week. After spending a year and a half at Vasco Juninho made a move to the ever expanding MLS where he joined New York Red Bulls before returning once more to Vasco for his final hoorah.
Throughout all of this, Juninho lent his golden boot to the Brazilian national side. He was handed his debut by Wanderley Luxembergo back in 1999 and went on to be part of the 2005 Confederations Cup winning side. The sad truth though, is that his success with the national side never matched that of club level and in 2006, after Brazil’s disappointing World Cup campaign, Juninho called it quits on international football having amassed 43 appearances and seven goals for the Seleção.
On the 30th of January 2014, on the day of his 39th birthday, Juninho announced to the world that he had decided to hang up his boots. The maestro had spent twenty years turning the football pitch into his playground, amassing no fewer than twenty three top flight titles, and bucket full of personal awards. Despite this, his career was not glittered in as much glory as many others of his stature, but he will undoubtedly go down in history in the eyes of the Lyon and Vasco faithful as one of the all-time greats. The sadness of his retirement was most felt by these fans with whom he had become family of, but the world over bid a sad farewell to the greatest free-kick taker of all-time, and one of the classiest players to ever grace the game.
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