Juninho Paulista was the first big-name Brazilian to arrive in the Premier League, and to this day is one of the competition’s most popular signings in its 25-year history.
‘The little fella’ landed on Teesside in 1995 with plenty of expectation on his shoulders as a crowd of 5,000 came to watch his Riverside Stadium presentation. Samba fever had hit the town.
At 5”6, the Brazilian looked an easy target for top flight defenders, but Juninho used his sleight figure to his advantage, causing chaos for the opposition by weaving and winding through the pitch with skill and pace, before applying an end-product that rarely disappointed.
Juninho had three spells with Boro between 1995 to 2004 and helped the club to lift their only ever major trophy, the 2004 Carling Cup, in which he scored a crucial away goal at Highbury in the semi-final.
It was only last season that Juninho’s record of being Brazil’s highest Premier League scorer was beaten by another fellow countryman who also dazzles defences and creates magic, Philippe Coutinho. The Liverpool playmaker scored his 30th Premier League goal in April 2017, overtaking Juninho’s 29 in his three spells on Teesside.
With the goalscoring talent that has graced the Premier League – Robinho, Willian, Oscar and Julio Baptista included – it is a surprise that Juninho’s record has only just been beaten, and also proves what a player he was.
“My connection with Middlesbrough grew from the first time I stepped in the city and I think the supporters felt that. I don’t think I have any other relationship as I had with Middlesbrough – that’s why they are still in my heart forever.”
Juninho is regarded as one of Middlesbrough’s best ever players and even to this day says he has a strong connection with the club. His passion for Boro was on display as the club were relegated at Elland Road on the final day of the 1996/97 season – he knew this would mean he would have to leave in order to make the 1998 Brazil World Cup squad.
Bryan Robson had put together an astounding team of attacking and creative flair with a rock-solid defence in the mid-90s. Fabrizio Ravanelli joined the club fresh from scoring in the Champions League final for Juventus in 1996, Brazilian duo Emerson and Juninho ran the midfield and Nigel Pearson captained the team from the back.
Even with this incredible team Boro were relegated in an obscure 1996/97 season, in which they reached (and lost) the FA Cup and League Cup finals, and were deducted points for postponing a game against Blackburn which subsequently got them relegated. Ironically, Juninho sees it as his best season.
“My best moment was the 1996-97 season. We got to two cup finals in the same year and got relegated. But if you ask supporters I think they will say it was the best season ever. My dream with Middlesbrough was to play in Europe and to help Middlesbrough reach a better stage. In that time it was a very low point. I cried (on the pitch at Leeds) because I was very emotional about the club. I saw all of the people working to make Middlesbrough a better club and I felt all of that in that moment. Even now I remember this moment. It was very sad for us.”
The little magician has since stated that he regrets leaving English football. Upon reflecting on his time in the North East, Juninho now admits that the fast and open English game suited his Samba style, and that he wishes he had stayed in England – potentially with Liverpool – instead of choosing to opt for Atletico Madrid in 1997; a move he made to enhance his chances of making the World Cup squad.
“If l could go back to the past, l would never leave English football when I did. I had the chance to go to Liverpool in 1997. The manager [Roy Evans] spoke to my father but I had already given my word to Atletico Madrid. When Middlesbrough finally got into Europe [in 2004] I left because of Steve McClaren. Perhaps I could have stuck it out. And the first time , I had adapted well to English football. If you have an intelligence to your game you can find the space on the pitch and because the game in England is so fast that means a lot of the time it is also very open.”
During his time in England one thing became clear; he earned a place in his heart for Middlesbrough Football Club and the people of Teesside. Even though he has little time from his job in Brazil, where he is president of Ituano FC, he still watches out for the Teessiders’ results.