Long Reads

Juninho Paulista: the Little Fella who Mesmerised Teesside

Juninho Paulista - Middlesbrough cult hero
Image: Reuters

There’s something strangely beautiful about this. Juninho and Ravanelli playing in the same team. A combination that may not have seemed strange, had it co-existed in Ravanelli’s time in Italy; where Penna Bianca won everything Calcio had to offer, twice over. After helping Juventus win the Champions League in ‘96, natural progression landed him in Teeside; where “The Little Fella” awaited him.

A Brazilian playing for Boro. Think about it. Close your eyes and rewind the clock back to a period when the lack of foreigners in the Premier League would’ve made Neil Warnock wank himself into a coma. Middlesbrough are back in the Premier League and they really aren’t pissing about. They’ve brought in a Brazilian. Scratch that, they’ve brought in *two* Brazilians. We’ve barely had one in the Prem, now Boro have brought in two?! One, who guarded the back for Brazil, as they took home the ‘94 World Cup in the USA: Branco. The other, a 22 year old lad from São Paulo, who became world champion in ’02. Juninho Paulista. Yeah, him. Ridiculous.

“Teesside was today bracing itself for unprecedented scenes of Juninho fever.” – Teeside Gazette, October 17, 1996.

Rejected by Corinthians and a handful of other clubs as a boy for being too frail; it was Ituano FC, where his talents were eventually nurtured. A small, local club in São Paulo, who still (and rightly so) hold on to him as their finest ever export; with Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli hoping to be the next. The global spotlight eventually caught Juninho playing for São Paulo FC, where he won a long list of silverware, including the Copa Libertadores.

There, he proved himself to be indispensable in a team carrying the likes of Cafu and Raí. His slaloming rise continued. Brazil’s young player of the year later led the Seleção as the primary playmaker for what was yet another Golden generation. All whilst wearing the shirt of Pele and his idol, Zico.

Brazil’s number 10 was now Boro’s number 10, despite being drooled over by some of the biggest clubs in football. “The little fella” they called him, as all of 5 feet and 5 inches of him wriggled and feinted their way through the Premier League elite; a little fella making a fool of proper blokes. You can just picture him, letting the ball and himself drift through Tony Adams’ legs. He was tiny. But it was Joga Bonito — and big Tony didn’t have a fucking clue.

Smaller players were again beginning to stamp their authority on the game. One of the greatest lanky footballers in history, Marco Van Basten had just come to the end of his career. Guys like Romario, Hagi, and Baggio amongst others were star players for the biggest clubs in Europe, as Juninho became for his.

Coincidentally, it was around the time when the career of the greatest player our game has ever seen, had started brewing in Rosario, at Newell’s Old Boys. This may not just be about Juninho Paulista. This is about all the little fellas that have and continue to grace the game, from Maradona to Pablo Aimar. From Leo Messi to Santi Cazorla. Small men with an overpowering, domineering presence, on the pitch and the big history books.

“With little guys, *little guys*; he gave the ball back to football. It stopped being an athletic exercise. It started to become an artisan exercise” — The late Michael Robinson on Johan Cruyff

Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side were unquestionably the worlds most dominant side in the late ‘80s. With focus prominently on the “trio olandese” of Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten, it was a side filled with intimidating physical statures. Cruyff’s dream team collected the mantle from Milan, riddled with smaller lads like Romário, Bakero, Stoichkov, Eusebio, and Begiristain. They were increasingly taking a choke-hold over the game, and today, the smaller guys speak before others are permitted.

On squaring up to Albert: “I wasn’t scared of anyone — I thought he had been disrespectful and […] I told him not to do it again. It happened all the time in matches, but if it had been out on the street I think I’d call him names, punch him and run like I was running away from death.” (In an interview with FourFourTwo, 2017)

Low centre of gravity became fashion. Being a taller player, there’s a high chance you’ll look like a lanky streak of piss. When you don’t draw a Busquets or Zidane, you’ll be very likely to get a Žigić or Carlton Palmer. Plenty can be said about there not being one correct way to play the game, but it’s undeniable that technique is the most fruitful of all attributes, and Juninho had that in abundance. Juninho was fashion.

His long sleeved top tucked into his shorts, the cuffs swallowed whole by a shirt he refused to wait until he was tall enough to wear. He was everything Ravanelli wasn’t. Put the two together, sit back and enjoy the show.

Prior to arriving in Teeside, Ravanelli had spent 4 good years at Juve, surrounded by globally recognised names we all drool over, and never looked a minute out of place. With him, Bryan Robson’s promising side had an outlet to a variety of goals, exceptional movement, and high doses of “Grinta”. Add even a sprinkle of Juninho to that. Just a hint. Mouth-watering.

I’m avoiding touching on the nonsensical notion that foreign players plying their trade in England was a new concept in the mid ’90s. However, during the Bryan Robson era, Boro’s recruitment of foreign imports had at the very least helped pave the Premier League’s future. Proper old-school industry and foreign flair became an inseparable duo in England. Big Sam’s Bolton side of the noughties encapsulated this, with their disparate mix of attackers: Jay-Jay Okocha, Kevin Davies, Youri Djorkaeff et al.

Consistently paired nicely with tall Italian strikers, be it Ravanelli, Vieri or Maccarone. Juninho’s outrageous resistance to pressing made him the league’s David Silva of the pre-Wenger era. He’d glide past any hurdle in the way of a pinpoint pass, with sinister ease. Small when stationary; on the move, his body would transform. A slight arch in the vessel that brought nightmares of all defences to life. Cafu nicknamed him “Chucky” after the doll in the film Child’s Play. Cafu of all men knows this only came from him shitting himself whenever Juninho ran at him in training. Frightening. Child’s play.

Little Junior went from the streets of São Paulo, to having three stints in Teeside. “Juninho is magic…” still echoes around English stadiums, a weekly prayer from Boro fans, to a man who became a prophet in their town. Off the ball, he was Middlesbrough’s steel and iron industry; on it, he was a Parmo.

This is what I mean. There’s something strangely beautiful about all of it. Take Boro’s 4–0 pummelling of Coventry in ‘96. The game begins with Juninho serving Ravanelli the platter. The game ends with a Juninho-Ravanelli one-two, leaving all eyes on The Little Fella. He dances; passes it into the corner, then runs over to his provider who has the look of a father returning home for Christmas from military service, as Juninho, his youngest; gallops towards him and leaps into his arms – It’s party, party, party.

Written by Omer K – @OK_____10