Juninho Pernambucano: More Than a Pretty Free Kick

We all know Juninho Pernambucano. To some, he is the Juninho and to others, he is the other Juninho. The one from Pernambuco couldn’t stay away from Vasco da Gama and his namesake from Sao Paulo couldn’t stay away from Middlesbrough. The former managed to swerve playing in the second tier of numerous countries through transfers and loans, whilst the other won league titles at every club he played for bar one. It was the player entering his peak that missed out on Brazil’s World Cup squad in 2002 and the player on the decline included. Nevertheless, both were incredible talents – so why the varying international career that seems inexplicable?

Juninho Pernambucano – referred to as simply Juninho – managed to spend his career collecting honours, individual and collective, for club and country, while remaining somewhat of an anomaly, and was overlooked when it came to Brazil’s most recent World Cup triumph. When you take a concerted effort to look at his history, past the cursory glance that reduces him to a showreel of expertly executed free kicks from all angles and distance. Juninho is a little bit different from your average footballer, let alone the Brazilian norm.

Juninho is a common Brazilian nickname in the Portuguese-speaking world, meaning ‘Little Junior.’ There are an estimated 26 Brazilian footballers, past and present, that go by the name, and they, without exception all have ‘Junior’ in their full given name. Our Juninho’s name in full is Antonio Augusto Ribeiro Reis Junior.

Brazil – and to a lesser extent Portugal – are renowned for their nicknames: there is the diminutive suffix -inho, meaning small or little, such as Ronaldinho – Little Ronaldo – so named because there was already a Ronaldo in the team; the -ao ending, indicating the biggest or eldest, such as Ronaldao – there was once a Ronaldao, Ronaldinho and Ronaldinho Gaucho in the Brazilian team in the 1990s; and the simple preference for mononymous naming, such as Fred, Willian, Oscar, Dante….and the list goes on and on.

Some nicknames are entirely unrelated to the player’s actual name, such as Hulk, due to a resemblance to the actor who played the superhero; Pele, who mispronounced his favourite player’s name – Bile – as a child; and Vampeta, a hybrid of ‘vampire’ and ‘devil’ in Brazilian, due to his physical appearance as a child. The naming system is symbolic of Brazil’s informal culture and colonial past.

For Juninho, the appendage of Pernambucano to his moniker was to some extent forced. In 2000, five years, a Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A (Brazil’s top flight), two domestic cups, and the Copa Libertadores, into his time at the club, Vasco da Gama signed Juninho Paulista on loan from Atletico Madrid. Until then, the King of Sao Januario – the name of Vasco’s stadium – was simply Juninho. The former ‘Boro man’s arrival, marked the beginning of Juninho Pernambucano, according to Bellos.

As much as nicknames are ubiquitous in Brazil and its football, to have yours altered to accommodate the arrival of another – particularly one who is not even a permanent signing – must have irked. Pele hated his nickname, to begin with, being teased with it incessantly and preferring to be known by his actual name, Edson, given to him in tribute to Thomas Edison. It’s a sentiment likely shared by Brazilian footballers of previous decades, such as Escurinho, Telefone, Petroleo, Meia Noite and Pretinha – Darky, Telephone (because they were traditionally black), Petrol, Midnight, and Little Black Girl. Although it is commonplace to refer to someone by their skin colour in Brazil, it doesn’t mean it is right or appreciated in private by those on the receiving end.

There is a whole chapter, brilliant and wonderful, dedicated to the wacky and intriguing nicknames in Brazilian football and its wider society in Bellos’ book, and I urge you to read it. But why is this particularly relevant in building up an understanding of Juninho?

Take my middle name, for example. It is Alex. There’s nothing special about that on the surface, but it was chosen by my mother as she miscarried before me and had settled on that name should she have had a son. My brothers is Juan. Juan was the name of my father’s brother, who died while still an infant. Names can have a lineage, a status, or importance, for its owner or those who betrothed it.

Juninho was the Little Junior and he was the only one. He was also The Little King of Sao Januario and The Little King of the Hill. His very standing at the club was altered, even if just nominally, with the arrival of his Paulista namesake. A year later, Juninho left Vasco da Gama, under the cloud of a legal dispute with the club’s board, but not before winning a second Campeonato and the Mercosur (a South American UEFA Cup style competition).

It could be argued the change to Pernambucano was just one of identifying and differentiating between the two, but when it is your very identity at stake, it takes on an additional significance. Juninho, it is worth mentioning, was at this point passionately infatuated with Vasco, yet he wasn’t even a local.

Juninho’s hometown, Pernambuco, was literally thousands of miles away. For a player that prided himself, throughout the entirety of his career, on identifying with the fans and valuing the importance of representing them, definitively categorising him as another through the extension of his name – even though that other was his hometown – may have slighted him. In addition, Juninho Paulista’s arrival required Juninho to move positions to accommodate him. When the club started allowing months to pass by without wages being paid, both players upped and left, but had Juninho been afforded the respect he deserved, perhaps he would have stayed – after all, his heart never left.

“When the club came to talk to me,” Juninho said in 2011, ahead of a return to Vasco a decade after leaving, “they thought they would have to pay a high salary, like the one I’m earning in Qatar. I didn’t want this. That way I have a clean conscience because I’m not going to harm the interests of the club. It’s fair to the institution and the fans. If I help the club to win titles, the Copa Sul-Americana, if we finish in the top four in the Brazilian Championship, or if we win the title, then, in that case, I get paid a bonus.”

Juninho returned to the club that had wronged him and to the fans that loved him. The whole time he was away, the stadium would echo with chants and songs of their once physical embodiment on the pitch; songs glorifying his performances in the Copa Libertadores, and others idolising his free kicks. When he made his comeback, he did it on a $350 a month contract – the national minimum wage. Reinstated as simply Juninho, and with a change at the top level of the club, the Sao Januario had its king back.

Money had never interested Juninho – at least not his price tag. When he left Lyon in 2009 aged 34, he left on a free transfer after the club agreed to terminate his contract a year early. He won seven league titles in his first seven seasons at the club and finished third with Lyon in his last. Before he signed for them, the club had never won Ligue 1.

As Lyon’s chairman, Jean-Michel Aulas, broke the news in an emotional press conference, Juninho sat next to him crying. “Juni,” as referred to him by Aulas. Not Juninho Pernambucano, not even Juninho – just Juni.

It came just days after his last goal for the club – his 100th – and what turned out to be his last appearance, too. He had joined the French side in 2001, entering his prime, on a free transfer.

“Vasco da Gama have not fulfilled their obligations towards me,” said Juninho about his transfer, “so I sought legal recourse to win my rights.” Having not played in over five months, a Brazilian court upheld the severing of his contract, leaving him free to move to Europe for the first – and only – time in his career.

He left by the same means eight years later.

After two years at the club, Juninho returned to his adopted home – once more on a free transfer. He’d spend 18 months in his second stint there, before moving on again. A short spell in New York beckoned, where he lined up alongside Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, before he returned to Vasco for the third and final time to see out his playing days.

Throughout his career, Juninho, one of the greatest Brazilians to ever play the game, and one of the best free kick takers in history, never commanded a transfer fee. Not once. Not only was he fiercely loyal in his love affair with Vasco, but he was extremely principled.

Undoubtedly it was already there, but Juninho, by his own admission, developed a strong moral and ethical code when in France.

“What struck me most for politics is the human side of the French,” the creative midfielder said in a 2018 interview in El Pais. “I thought the Brazilian was supportive, but it’s a lie. The French are supportive for real! There are extremists, the part that despises Muslims, the racist part. But the majority of the French people have a very developed humanity.”

Juninho’s interview was set against the backdrop of the Brazilian elections, and once more he stood aside from his compatriots. Ronaldinho, who had once said Juninho “could make the ball dance,” was now at odds with him.

“The people must stop with this way of thinking that all crimes are equal,” Juninho firmly stated. “Assassination is one thing, theft is another. I cannot put an 18-year-old who has stolen in prison, because when the guy gets out of prison, he wants to take revenge on society. That’s why I get angry when I see a former football player vote for the extreme right.”

Nobody was in any doubt as to whom he was taking aim at. Since Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign had got underway, he had received backing from Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and Lucas Moura, to name the most vociferous.

“We come from below, we were raised among the people. How do we forget it? How are you on his side? Are you really going to support Bolsonaro, my brother?”

Once more, it seemed that Juninho was on the outside looking in. Twelve years on from his tears of pride during the Brazilian national anthem, in the build-up to their World Cup quarter-final tie with France in 2006, he was crying again for his country. Overwhelmed with the joy he felt at representing his people than had been replaced with dismay over how they turned their backs on them now.

“Parreira will not tinker with his favoured formula,” The Guardian’s Amy Lawrence said in the build-up to the 2006 World Cup. “Brazil’s manager is a conservative sort, loyal to his favourites. How else to explain that Juninho’s polished performances for Lyon are not convincing enough for a first-team run? Or that his outstanding team-mate at Lyon, Cris, has not nailed a spot in defence?”

Juninho made that World Cup squad, but it was his exclusion four years previous, as well as in the 2004 Copa America – both ending in victory for Brazil – that will forever be in search of a logical explanation.

It took until March 31st 1999 for Juninho to make his Brazil debut. By this point, he had already won the Campeonato and Copa Libertadores, alongside a spate of regional competitions. A reasonable parallel would be if David Beckham won the Premier League and Champions League two years before earning his first England cap. Beckham and Manchester United won the Champions League in 1999, two-and-a-half years after he had first pulled on the Three Lions.

His first cap came in a 2-0 win over Japan in Tokyo. Alongside him in midfield was Emerson, Flavio Conceicao and Rivaldo. It was Vanderlei Luxemburgo who handed him his debut, but his spell as Brazil manager came to an end the following year and the Selecao’s Copa America 2001 ended disastrously under Luiz Felipe Scolari, losing 2-0 to Honduras in the quarter-finals. Scolari survived the tournament post-mortem, but Juninho didn’t and it wasn’t until October 12th 2003 that he next played for his country. In the interim, they won the 2002 World Cup.

Brazil’s midfield contingent that summer was Ricardinho, Gilberto Silva, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Kleberson, Vampeta, Kaka, and Juninho Paulista. Ricardinho was a late call-up to replace the injured Emerson, which resulted in Juninho Paulista starting the tournament in central midfield alongside Gilberto Silva. Later in the tournament, including the final, Kleberson would start as Gilberto Silva’s partner. There was undeniably a space in that squad for Juninho.

If European pedigree was what was missing from Juninho’s arsenal, he certainly had it by the time the Copa America 2004 came around. Three seasons and three Ligue 1 titles into his time in France, the international squad surely had a place for him; but instead, Carlos Alberto Parreira, having started Juninho in four of the first five games of 2004, left him out entirely.

“Obviously I’m going to give some players some time off, some of them have had a very intense season in Europe and they deserve to rest,” Parreira said in the build-up to the tournament. Given he had started Juninho in two pointless friendlies in April and May, and two World Cup qualification matches just a month prior to the Copa America, it seemed as if this would not apply to Juninho. However it did, and yet again he missed his chance of major international success.

It was under Parreira that Juninho received the majority of his international caps, making 24 appearances during his reign. In this time, they won the Confederations Cup in 2005 and reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2006. It also marked the end of his international career though, as he announced his retirement in the wake of their 1-0 exit to France in the World Cup.

Juninho continued a trophy-laden spell at Lyon, following his international retirement, winning Ligue 1 in the 2006/07 and 2007/08 season, as well as the Coupe de France in the latter. His individual reputation remained unharmed, despite the international snubs that dotted his 20 years in the professional game, and he is remembered as a model captain, tremendous set-piece taker, and a master passer. His command of the ball was universally recognised, and his professionalism was admired by all. Juninho was a thinker, a man of principle, loyal, the people’s choice, and supremely talented. Ultimately, Brazil won enough major trophies during his career to not have to ask ‘what if?’ but looking back, we can still ask ‘why?’

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About the author

Jordan Florit

Jordan is an insatiable reader, as well as a writer. Books on Latin America, politics, psychology, sociology and psychology take up the space left on his shelf after those on football have had their pride of place. It is these topics that influence his writing, where he likes to skirt the main topic of football with culture, demography, and trends. His favourite author is British sports journalist Jonathan Wilson.