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The Cult: Juninho

There have been many Brazilian footballers called Juninho, but if you grew up in Britain during the '90s there is only one who can claim the name as entirely his own.
Illustration by Dan Evans

There have been many footballers named Juninho, but if you grew up in Britain during the '90s – particularly in Middlesbrough – there is only one who can claim the name as entirely their own. You can read past entries from The Cult here.

Cult Grade: The Truth

You sit, in the garden of a beachfront house, gazing down across a generic Sao Paulo beach. Sipping a generic Brazilian cocktail from a coconut, you watch the generically beautiful Brazilian figures sauntering past (according to my sources the generic Brazilian figure on a beach is aggressively overweight, but we'll ignore that). The smell of sizzling rump steaks fills the air and you think, with a happy sigh, a vida e doce. From somewhere in the distance, you hear "Osvaldo", your name, being called by your mother. She rushes into the garden, clutching a phone. "Osvaldo, there is a European football chairman who wants to speak to you."

For a moment, your eyes close. You are not yet 23, but you have played in a Sao Paulo team that has won the Copa Libertadores, and the Intercontinental Cup, and the Copa Conmebol. There are rumours – rumours that turn out to be true – that you have caught the eye of Mario Zagallo, the Brazilian national coach. A smile drifts about your lips. Who could it be? Images of the Duomo di Milano, of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, of the Arndale Shopping Centre in Manchester, flit through your mind. "Hello," you say.


"Hello Osvaldo, it's Steve Gibson here."

Steve Gibson? You swiftly ransack a mental list that you wonder if all footballers keep, a list of important names to receive phone calls from. There is no Steve Gibson on it. From somewhere buried since birth in your subconscious floats up a new image: a dank, provincial roundabout. With some moth-eaten cooling towers behind it. In the drizzle. And what you then think is: that is where I shall find my true self.

READ MORE: The Cult – Matt Le Tissier

Osvaldo Giroldo Junior – called Juninho, by that Brazilian predilection I can make head nor tail of – wasn't quite the most confounding arrival at Middlesbrough (number of major trophies: 0). That award has to go to Fabrizio Ravanelli, who I'd convinced myself left Juventus after a fallow year or two; in reality, his last act with the Turin club was to win the Champions League with them. That'sPedro joining Watford, as a modern basis for comparison.

As an entity though, Ravanelli was predictable: in being made the highest-paid player in the Premier League to join the club, for his behaviour that apparently left teammates in no doubt of the gulf between him and them, and – despite now running impromptu job applications reminding the Boro how fond he is of the city – for getting the hell out of Middlesbrough after only one season. What is more surprising than all of that, is that while Steve Gibson and co. presumably thought they were buying a fancy Brazilian to sprinkle some mercurial flair over the grit of the north-east, what they were actually buying was a 24-carat diamond of a human first, and all the Brazilian stuff second. Bryan Robson had made approving noises beforehand as to 'the character' of his signing; perhaps he had an inkling. But no-one could have known the whole truth.


Entry Point: High

I imagine that being the fan of a club when a massive new injection of money has come washing in is a tricky business. You want to like these shiny new players, you want to believe in them, but there is forever a slight rancour stuck in your teeth, waiting for the moment when what their true allegiance is reveals itself. Cliché has that moment as happening in Stoke, on Tuesdays, surrounded by people like Glenn Whelan trying to remove your sock, boot and Achilles tendon in the same tackle. Newsflash: Middlesbrough is always like Stoke on Tuesdays, except worse. It's on about the same latitude as St. Petersburg. Think how that must have felt to fingers and toes used to sub-equatorial sunshine.

READ MORE: The Cult – Titus Bramble

And yet no snood did Juninho ever wear. It's possible he was never even cold. One of the joys of this column is getting to go back and watch the old football footage of my childhood with more experienced eyes – one of the things you immediately notice about how Juninho played for Middlesbrough is that otherworldly tempo. Too many of his goals that it could be an accident were scored from being the first player there to capitalise on a goalkeeping error; he scored diving headers, he scored rebounds from his own shots because he hadn't stopped running.

It's something that goes almost beyond description. A Brazilian wonderkid (and eventual World Cup winner) who could expect all the indulgences life can give was prepared to play like that – as if he owed everything to this club with no trophies in its cabinet and nothing but hope driving it. Maybe just call it the truth – what humans can be unexpectedly capable of. And make no mistake, you could replace Suarez or Neymar with Juninho in his pomp and that Barcelona frontline wouldn't be poorer for it.


The Moment: vs Bolton, League Cup Final 2004, Millennium Stadium.

Because, of course, he came back. Twice. I can't imagine a single Middlesbrough fan truly begrudged him leaving when they were relegated in 1997, a year before the World Cup. By 1999, looking for a club to go on loan to, where did his mind wander? Back to Teesside. Then he left for Brazil for two more years, by which point you assume he must have settled back down into his native culture.

And still he came back. Because, you'd like to think – and it's The Cult, so we must assume these things – he had to make sure that on his watch Middlesbrough won something. Let's just repeat that one last time, for the sake of it: Juninho, born nearly 10,000km away in Sao Paulo, multi-capped Brazilian World Cup winner, winner of the South American Champions League at 20, had to make sure, after two empty-handed finals in his first spell, that Middlesbrough won something.

READ MORE: The Cult – Allen Iverson

The team in that era was lovely, littered with the seeds that (with a heavy dose of Yakubu) grew into eventual UEFA Cup finalists: Mendieta, Boateng, Schwarzer, Rochemback, Viduka, Downing. Parnaby. David Wheater. And Juninho – the private moment of happiness that's evident in him as the winning side stand waiting on the podium is one of the most warming things you'll ever see.

Final Words on Member #17

Just recall, before you read this, how Pepe Reina has acted celebrating all of Spain's international tournament victories. Not to denigrate him too much – because apparently he is pretty valuable behind the scenes – but still, you and I both know Spain could have done it without him, despite his appearance as chief co-ordinator of the whole thing. Juninho, in describing why the League Cup in 2004 held a different place in his affections than the World Cup, said:

"It's special when you feel more part of the title.. [in the League Cup win] I felt more involved in the game."

For the record, at the 2002 World Cup Juninho played three-quarters of the first four games and made a cameo in the final.

How's that for humility?

Words @tobysprigings / Illustration @Dan_Draws