Juninho was the brilliant little Brazilian who became one of the Premier League’s most popular imports at Middlesbrough. Here, he talks to Sky Sports about how he blazed a trail for his countrymen as he returns to England to play in the Star Sixes tournament in London.
Juninho is a sentimental character. It’s why he cried on the pitch at Elland Road when his beloved Middlesbrough were relegated on the final day of the 1996/97 season. It’s why he kept going back to the club he still calls his „second home“. And it’s why he is now president of Ituano, the Brazilian side in Sao Paulo where it all began.
„It means a lot to me to feel a real connection with a club,“ he tells Sky Sports. „I was looking for something to do in football when I finished my playing career, but I had no ambitions to be a manager or a director anywhere. I wanted to start a project and use my own experience. Ituano was my first professional club, so where better to start again?“
It is eight years now since Juninho swapped the pitch for the boardroom, but his presence at his boyhood club is not just driven by sentiment. Ituano celebrated only the second piece of major silverware in their modest history when they defied the odds to win the Paulista state championship in 2014, and their long-serving president is determined to bring more success.
„It is only a small club but we are getting better,“ says Juninho. „I always say the best part of football is when you are playing on the field, but when the body doesn’t want that any more you have to adapt to another job. I was lucky to have this opportunity to take charge of Ituano. It was not planned but it was a happy coincidence.“
Juninho’s love of the underdog is familiar to Middlesbrough supporters. The 5ft 5ins Brazilian was a thrilling talent courted by some of Europe’s top clubs when he made his unlikely move from Sao Paulo to the Riverside Stadium in 1995. With his free-wheeling flair and infectious grin, he seduced Teesside and became one of the Premier League’s most popular imports.
Juninho went on to have three separate spells at Middlesbrough. He was named Premier League player of the season despite their relegation in 1996/97, and in 2004, two years after he lifted the World Cup with Brazil in South Korea, he helped them to League Cup glory with a 2-1 win over Bolton at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. It remains the only major honour in the club’s history.
„I still think about Middlesbrough and the times I had there all the time,“ he says. „It was one of the best periods of my life. I will always support them and I still follow them now. Whenever I go back the people receive me with a great welcome. It’s a place I will always consider my second home.“
Juninho was only the second Brazilian to play in English football after former striker Mirandinha, who spent two years at Newcastle in the late 80s, but his success paved the way for dozens of others. He was joined by midfielder Emerson and left-back Branco in his first spell at Boro. These days, his countrymen can be found up and down the division.
„When I first arrived in England I always used to say it was the best league in the world, but people in Brazil couldn’t watch many of the games,“ he says. „Now, more and more people are watching the Premier League here. It’s great for me to see players like Philippe Coutinho, Willian and Gabriel Jesus doing so well. It makes me proud to see them being successful in the Premier League.“
Such was Juninho’s impact in England that it was only in April, 13 years since he last kicked a ball for Middlesbrough, that he finally lost the title of the Premier League’s top-scoring Brazilian. And it was fitting that Coutinho, another little magician with a brilliant right foot, was the man to eclipse his total of 29 goals. Juninho admits he sees something of himself in the Liverpool man.
„The record couldn’t be in better hands,“ he says. „He is a great character and a great player and he deserves all the success he is getting. He knows how to score and create goals. When he gets the ball he is always looking to go forward, to find someone in a scoring position. I think he’s very similar – but his finishing is much better than mine!“
Coutinho added four more goals to his total before the end of the campaign, but even he might have his work cut out to keep the record from Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus in the years ahead. The 20-year-old’s first six months in the Premier League were hampered by injury, but he has scored seven times in 10 appearances so far and already looks like a superstar-in-the-making.
Star names at Star Sixes
Juninho will be playing alongside Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Gilberto Silva for Brazil at Star Sixes, a six-a-side world cup for legends at The O2, London, July 13-16 which is also being shown exclusively live on Sky Sports.
„He has impressed everyone in Brazil by how quickly he has adapted to the football in England,“ says Juninho. „The football here is very different to the Premier League and it’s difficult to make that change, but he has a very strong personality. He made his Palmeiras debut at the age of 17 and had no problems. He has done the same at Manchester City.“
Juninho is now aiming to produce more players capable of hitting those heights at Ituano. He oversaw the opening of the club’s academy six years ago, and he mentions Clayson, an attacking midfielder now at Corinthians, as one of a number of youth products to have already moved to a big Brazilian club. „He’s playing well,“ he says. „I see a great future for him.“
As Juninho returns to England, however, it’s inevitable that thoughts will drift back to his own past. The 44-year-old is one of a host of famous names set to feature at Star Sixes, and he will even come up against his former Middlesbrough team-mate Fabrizio Ravanelli when his Brazil side face Italy in the group stage. It’s another happy coincidence.
„It’s long time, no see for me and Fabrizio so it will be great to catch up with him,“ says Juninho with a chuckle. „I’m always happy to play football. When you have the opportunity to see old friends, it’s even better.“Soccer Accumulator Bonus
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