Juninho lifted the World Cup but won Middlesbrough hearts

Matt Stead

Who’s this then?
Osvaldo Giroldo Júnior, better known as Juninho or Juninho Paulista to distinguish him from others, is now 47 years old. The 5′ 6″ Brazilian was born in Sao Paulo but became a legend on that most unfashionable and out of the way places: Teesside.

In a 17-year career, latterly interrupted by injury, he played for Sao Paulo, Middlesbrough (over three spells), Atlético Madrid, Vasco da Gama, Flamengo, Celtic, Palmeiras, Flamengo, Sydney FC and Ituano.

He was capped 49 times for his country, scoring five goals and being part of the 2002 World Cup-winning squad.

Admired by all as a classic tanner ball player who had tremendous close control, speed and vision, he would play a total of 133 times for Middlesbrough, winding up his final spell in 2004 by winning the League Cup – Boro’s first trophy since their triumph in the 1980 Mirin Cup and 1976 Anglo-Scottish Cup.

After a notable start at his home club, Sao Paulo, he was pursued by many top-flight clubs in Europe, so it was a surprise that he signed for the Boro, not least to Boro fans themselves. Although he went on to play for many clubs, it was only on Teesside that he really performed consistently to a high standard and won the hearts of the fans. His career total of 353 games and 73 goals reflects how his game was curtailed by injuries all too often.

As a Brazilian in the English top flight, he was very much a trailblazer:

“People in Brazil didn’t really know the Premier League but, when I arrived, I could feel the size of the championship. I told all the guys back here it was the best league in Europe. Over time this started to consolidate and the Premier League started to open the market. Interest here began to increase with television partnerships. I think that I opened the door.”

He might not have been the biggest, most robust player, but he had an electric acceleration, seemingly moving across the pitch without leaving any footprint. Indeed, it is tempting to speculate that were he at the peak of his career today in a far less physical game, he would’ve been even more devastating in the manner of David Silva.


Why the love?
Middlesbrough’s love for The Little Fella was pretty much instant. He joined in 1995 for £4.7 million, the Riverside stadium had just been built and English football was pretty much still populated by British players. The idea that a Brazilian might ply his trade in England was the stuff of exotic fantasy; that he could do so on Teesside was almost unbelievable.

It can’t be overstated just how unlikely this was. Today, we’re used to the idea of players from all over the world arriving at our clubs, but in 1995 this simply wasn’t the case. So when the local newspaper The Evening Gazette ran a story that chairman Steve Gibson was trying to sign this man who no-one had even heard of from Brazil, there was much pish-taking.

Oh aye, signing a Brazilian are we? Aye, that’ll be right.

But the rumours were true. And then suddenly there he was. Scarf aloft.

The very fact that he came to play for the club in the first place immediately endeared him to fans. He seemed to confirm a new more upmarket status in football for Boro. The fact he lived with his parents in Ingleby Barwick, playing football in the street with kids, only cemented the affection.

“Bryan Robson demonstrated interest, came to Brazil, showed me the project and told me that he wanted a different type of football, less physical. I believed in it.”

Although 22 when he arrived, he had a very boyish, impish way about him. His skill level was something the club had rarely, if ever, seen. Playing in an attacking midfield role, he could light up even the most dull match.

His first goal came in a 4-1 thrashing of Manchester City. What was immediately noticeable was he played a very direct game, or vertical as we might call it today. Put simply, he would run as fast as possible towards goal, perhaps laying it off in search of a one-two.

The club were newly-promoted and under Robson’s management finished that season in 12th. The next campaign was to be tumultuous. Juninho would play 48 games, score 15 goals – his highest tally in any season – and along with two more exotic signings in Brazilian Emerson and Italy’s Fabrizio Ravenelli, led Boro to two cup final defeats and then relegation after a points deduction. It remains a unique record that fans are perversely proud of. His partnership with the White Feather was prolific, scoring 46 between them.

At the end of this amazing season, TLF went offski to Atletico Madrid, though he had offers from both Liverpool and Spurs. No-one really minded. He had broken down weeping on the pitch as Boro drew at Leeds when a win was needed to stay up. In his two years he had brought so much excitement and fun to the club that no-one begrudged him moving. In 2019 he confessed that he really shouldn’t have left Boro or England when he did. But hindsight is always clear. He was in search of a higher profile to get into the 1998 World Cup squad. Ironically, he was injured at Atleti and ruled out of the tournament.

But as for so many people, the pull of Teesside was too much to resist, so he came back in the 1999/2000 season and once again in 2002, a spell that culminated in a 2-1 win over Bolton to collect the League Cup in 2004. Later, he said winning that trophy meant more to him than winning the World Cup with Brazil. And no-one doubted him. He had an affinity with Teesside, with the club and the people that remains to this day.

Many players are loved for being consistently brilliant but Juninho was by no means consistently fantastic. He could get bullied out of a game at times, even though he often fought his corner well. His form sometimes dipped and he could be out for a few matches with an injury caused by one of the bigger boys. But none of this affected the high regard he was and still is held in at the club. It’s just that when he was on form and playing well, he was easily the best player any of us had seen playing for the club.

Here was a reason to believe in better days. Here was a reason for a spike of adrenaline firing into your synapses as soon as he picked up the ball and began to run with it. Here was a reason to stand up and shout. I cannot overstate the ripple of electricity that washed around the Riverside when he picked up the ball in the last third and sped towards goal.

Right to the end of his final season, there remained a slight air of disbelief that he was playing at Middlesbrough. The Gazette headline when he signed was ‘Brazilian can light up the Tees’ and he absolutely did.

He was always an easy-to-like player, both in style and personality, from the moment he arrived in a suit which appeared to belong to a much bigger man. There seemed to be little side to him and he played the game like a kid might do in the street. There was something almost child-like and innocent about his approach and to end his time on Teesside by playing in the only side to win a big trophy was the perfect ending.

It’s often forgotten that he then went to Celtic for a season under Martin O’Neill, but it wasn’t a happy time. He played 22 times and scored only once. From there he went back to Brazil to wrap up his career, barring a few games in Australia. It was at Middlesbrough that he really shone. It was, in a very real way, the place that made his legend.


What the people love
A lot of love came in from Boro fans, unsurprisingly. Again, it cannot be overstated just how important he was and in some ways still is to the club.

We start with a 4_4_haiku:

‘He had a strange effect on me. The 73/4 promotion – top class players like Souness and Murdoch – came when I was nine and going regularly. But my ludicrous boyhood gushing phase happened in my 30s and we were relegated. So glad he was in the team which won our only trophy in 2004. Several generations of both sides of the family were in Cardiff for that, and I had a very un-Teesside blubbing meltdown on the final whistle. Was it your piece or a later one where he said that medal meant as much as the 2002 World Cup one because he’d given so much of himself? Lineker and co didn’t believe him until I brought it up when he worked with us in Rio in 2016. He meant it alright. I’m still astonished he came to Boro, let alone came back twice. It’s a mutual love affair. Just wish he’d come back again to campaign for Remain in 2016’ – Paul Armstrong, ex-MOTD editor.

‘Without doubt the most exciting and the best Boro player I have seen wear our shirt. When he started running forward with the ball it would cause a reaction in the crowd, it was like a mass surge of power/ electricity. Superb.’

‘That first game against Leeds. He looked so tiny, desperate to be on the ball and make an impression but the game seemed to be passing him by. Then the moment when he slipped a sublime pass to Fjortoft who did it justice and lifted it over the keeper to score. We fell in love with Juno.’

‘I always liked the way he pronounced “club” as “cloob”. Very endearing. Pretty good footballer too.’

‘I recall travelling into London and the front page of the Times had a picture of the Tranny – it was the news breaking that Boro had signed a Brazilian star. For me, still the best player I’ve seen in a Boro shirt.’

‘What do you say about #TLF?!  He simply makes me smile when I hear his name. Amazing happy days that he brought with a team of superstars and workers. Love him to the moon and back.’

‘I still don’t think people understand how significant his transfer was during the mid-90s for Teesside and for English football. Even more difficult to process was seeing him and Emerson in The Purple Onion.’

‘Named my youngest after the little fella.’

‘When the Gazette linked him with Boro I dismissed it as preposterous speculation. Brazilian international at Boro? No way! We loved him for mere fact he had decided to sign for us before he had even kicked a ball. As it happened he was everything and more we had hoped for.’

‘The headline was “Brazilian can light up the Tees”. And he did, didn’t he?’

‘Influenced a generation of Boro kids.’

‘Not really a Juninho comment, but I’m from Stockport, now living in Boro – I like to remind Boro fans that their team with Juninho, Emerson and Ravanelli did a lap of honour once after losing at home to Stockport County! (1997 League Cup semi, 2nd leg).’

‘The background noise is hustling around the stadium, the ball drops to him and you hear a collective utter of “go-on”, he skips past the first and you hear a louder “go-on”, beats the next and people are up screaming “go-on”…silence and then that spontaneous eruption!’

‘I love him because how mad must Teesside have seemed to him in the mid ’90s (which to be fair would have been pretty surreal).’

‘Made every kid on Teesside fall in love with football – not the ‘experience’ or the family duty of going, but the game itself. It was a surreal experience knowing we had the best player on the pitch, in almost all of our games. Instinctively knew it’s better to be a hero somewhere, than just another player at a big club. Tried to understand the fanbase, rather than seeing them as a revenue stream or worse, as some sort of baying mob to be tolerated until he could get away.’

‘I was in a night club in Redcar. He came in with Emmerson. My ex said ‘what’s he doing here? He doesn’t look old enough.’ Not a clue who he was.’

‘His quote that winning a Cup with us in 2004 meant more than being part of the Brazil World Cup win was perfect. Best player we have ever had.’

‘Never spat his dummy out, never dived, always gave 100%, left out of necessity but came back twice – the last time with a World Cup winner’s medal in his pocket to complete his unfinished business. When Mikkel Beck put out his covid call, he was among the first to respond.’

‘Premiership player of the year in a relegated team speaks volumes. I always remember the frisson of excitement that went through the crowd when he got the ball. Best player I’ve ever seen in a Boro shirt.’

‘One of those very rare players that fans would turn out for, just to see him irrespective of the team. Every time he got the ball the excitement and expectation rose. A true Boro hero.’


Three great moments
Passing Manchester United off the park.

A classic one-two with the White Feather.

He could even score back-post headers.


What now?
After returning to Brazil in 2009, he spent a successful decade as a director at Ituano FC, a modest wee club from the city of Itu in Sao Paulo state.

Ituano won the Sao Paulo state title in 2014, beating giants Palmeiras and Santos along the way. The following year, they reached the last 16 of the Copa do Brasil. He learned how to oversee every aspect of a football club.

In 2019 he became the national team co-ordinator for the Brazilian FA and more importantly Teesside still thinks of him as one of our own. He’ll be back on the hallowed turf later this year or early next for a charity game organised by Mikkel Beck and doubtless he’ll enjoy some baked beans, which he apparently fell in love with while at the club.

Always loved, never forgotten. His name will live on in Teesside lore forever.

John Nicholson