In the post-season of 1995, the England football team hosted a four-team Umbro Cup as part of their preparations for the following year’s European Championships. The pre-tournament hype surrounded the prospect of viewing an 18-year-old striking phenomenon, Ronaldo. However, it was another player, the scorer of a sublime free-kick against England and Brazil’s player of the year at the time, who sparkled.
Oswaldo Giroldo Jr, or Juninho as he would become known, was a diminutive attacking-midfielder who formed part of a successful Sao Paulo side that had scooped a number of Brazilian domestic titles. Already part of the national team and on several European managers’ wish lists, a major move abroad beckoned. Thus it came as quite a shock in October of that year when the Brazilian speedster opted for Middlesbrough – the newly-promoted Premier League side, backed by enterprising young Chairman Steve Gibson – who announced they had captured the playmaker for a club record fee of £4.75m. The arrival of a Brazilian international sparked a sense of excitement and expectation around the club and the region as a whole.
By 1995, English football had only been allowed back into Europe for a couple of years following the Heysel Stadium disaster and most domestic defences had yet to be fully exposed to the quick feet and minds of top foreign attackers. Only the previous year, Manchester United’s centre-halves Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister had been brutally tormented by the swift movements of Barcelona’s Romario. Juninho’s mission was to inflict similar pain on the traditional, arduous defenders he encountered in England.
Juninho is certainly the most celebrated Middlesborough player of the modern era. Nicknamed ‘The Little Fella’, the Brazilian’s dribbling skills, quick feet, and silky trickery injected flair into the team and he possessed the natural agility and nimbleness to weave his way past opponents. He instilled flair, speed and exuberance into the Premier League and became Boro’s playmaker – the man who could win them a game or bail them out of trouble with a moment of magic. Juninho brought an idiosyncratic offensive style and world-class ball skills, and the manner in which he carried out his art helped create a strong bond between player and fan.
Juninho returned only two league goals in his first season, but that did not justify his overall impact. He was a constant menace, causing a trail of destruction wherever he went. His nimble footwork left defenders desperately swiping at fresh air, leading to panic attacks in and around opposition boxes. Individually he excelled, but collectively he inspired. Middlesbrough were rejuvenated by their little magician and finished in a respectable twelfth position, sandwiched between Chelsea and Leeds. His hero status is not solely attributed to his genius feet, but also his cheeky and passionate persona. The industrial town, at the time, also required an injection of flair and vivaciousness which the Samba star seemed to bring to the area that holds football so close to its heart.
In order to fully understand this unique love affair, we must recall the heartbreak of the 1996/97 season. Despite boasting Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson among their ranks – the side struggled, and after three points were controversially deducted for failing to field a team against Blackburn Rovers, the Teesiders were relegated. Juninho’s own form was imperious, not only did he score ten league goals and contribute numerous displays of brilliance, but he won the hearts and minds of fans all over the country with his selfless determination, straining every sinew in a desperate attempt to keep his team afloat. After failing to beat the drop on the final game of the season, one of the enduring images of the campaign was seeing little Juninho sat crestfallen on the Elland Road turf, sobbing uncontrollably and genuinely sharing the hurt of lifelong Boro fans. The following week presented fresh anguish as they lost out to Chelsea in the FA Cup, having already been defeated in the League Cup Final against Leicester City.
Relegation to the second tier of English football meant Juninho had to leave to aid his chances of a spot in Brazil’s World Cup squad at the end of the following season, and was transferred for £12m to Atletico Madrid, taking with him the blessings and adoration of every Boro fan. His time at Atletico started well until a broken leg curtailed his progress. Upon return, Juninho failed to regain his form in the Spanish capital and was subsequently loaned out to Boro, Vasco de Gama and Flamengo. He made a permanent return to the Riverside in 2002 and despite gaining glory with Boro in the 2004 League Cup, Juninho could never fully recapture the brilliance of his first spell in the North East. There is no modern footballer who has created such an indelible bond with the people of Middlesbrough as the petite Brazilian.
Name Oswaldo Giroldo Jr ‘Juninho’
Age 36 (February 22, 1973)
Clubs Sao Paulo, Middlebrough, Atletico Madrid, Vasco Da Gama, Flamengo, Celtic, Palmeiras, Sydney FC
Club level honours 1993 Copa Libertadores, Supercopa Sudamericana 1993, Intercontinental Cup 1993, Recopa Sudamericana 1994, Copa CONEMBOL 1994, Brazilian Champions Cup 1995, Brasileiro Serie A 2000, Copa Mercasur 2000, Football League Cup 2004
National honours FIFA World Cup 2002, FIFA Confederations Cup 1997