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By ESPN Staff
Jul 13, 2007

Sydney's little big man

During five seasons at Middlesbrough, he was affectionately known as The Little Fella. In Sydney, he could well be The Next Big Thing.

The signing of Osvaldo Giroldo Júnior - better known as Juninho - as Sydney FC's marquee player is a shrewd bit of business that promises to help ensure the success of the A-League's third season.

Even at age 34, and with his best days clearly behind him, Juninho still provides excellent value for Sydney FC, both on and off the pitch. And his three successful spells on Teesside give a strong indication that the Brazilian World Cup winner will quickly adapt in another English-speaking community.

Middlesbrough and Sydney may seem like worlds apart, but they have more than just Mark Schwarzer, Brad Jones and - until recently - Mark Viduka in common.

Captain James Cook, who sailed the Endeavour into Sydney's Botany Bay in 1770, was born in the Middlesbrough suburb of Marton. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was constructed by Middlesbrough company Dorman Long in 1932 after they'd built the similar Tyne Bridge in nearby Newcastle just four years earlier.

Juninho spurned offers from more glamorous clubs to join Middlesbrough in October 1995 after Boro officials had flown to Sao Paolo and negotiated a contract in his family's kitchen. Helping swing the deal was the fact that player-manager Bryan Robson - a long-time former England skipper - was one of his heroes.

Then just 22-years-old and a newly-capped international player, Juninho was quick to impose himself despite initial doubts how his small frame and light stature (he's just 5'5") would stand up to the physical nature of the Premier League.

The attacking midfielder didn't only survive; he thrived as he bounced off tackles, skirted around danger and made thuggish centre-backs look silly. And he gave as good as he got: Boro fans still talk about his premeditated tackle from behind in his first season that clattered West Ham's shaven-head defender Julian Dicks.

Living with his parents in the executive housing estate of Ingleby Barwick, southwest of the city, Juninho threw himself into his new life, showing an excellent work ethic while taking daily English lessons. He'd also patiently sign autographs and have kick-arounds with the neighbourhood kids who'd knock on his door almost daily. Fellow Brazilian imports Branco and Emerson lived in the same estate.

The highlight of his first two season spell at the club was making the FA Cup and League Cup finals in the 1996-97 season. But Boro lost both and were relegated from the Premier League after drawing 1-1 at Leeds United - Juninho in tears at Elland Road became one of enduring images of an ultimately ill-fated campaign.

Facing life in the second tier, Juninho was promptly sold to Atletico Madrid for a club record £12 million in 1997. But after suffering a badly dislocated ankle, he was limited to just 55 appearances in two years in Spain and noticeably lost some of his speed.

He returned to the Riverside for a second stint on loan in the 1999-2000 season - scoring 4 goals in 24 appearances - but it was his third spell at the club from 2002 to 2004 that would prove the most memorable.

Now a World Cup winner, Juninho was instrumental as Middlesbrough claimed the first major trophy in its history - the 2003-2004 League Cup - by beating Bolton 2-1 in the final at Cardiff's Millenium Stadium, earning a place in European competition for the first of what would turn out to be two consecutive seasons. It further endeared Juninho to the Boro fans who voted him the club's second greatest player behind Wilf Mannion, England international of the 1940's and 50s.

Despite an ongoing campaign from London-centric British press to put down the unfashionable city and the club, Juninho had never given up hope that Middlesbrough would one day match it with the big boys.

A song about Juninho - The Little Fella - even made the pop charts on Teesside, based loosely around the chant from the fans on the terraces and to the tune of the 1980's disco hit, Hot Hot Hot. Juninho endorsed the single and its marketing because he believed it was good for his image.

Since leaving Boro in the English summer of 2004, Juninho has had unhappy spells at Celtic and his former team Flamengo where he didn't see eye to eye with different managers.

But the omens are good at Sydney FC where the experienced Branko Culina will make sure that Juninho feels right at home. Already his arrival has boosted memberships with the club describing him as an even bigger attraction than previous marquee player Dwight Yorke, the former Manchester United striker.

Last season, the signing of Samba legend Romario by Adelaide United for a 20-day guest stint was branded as a blatant commercial exercise that did little to help the team. But there's a good chance that Juninho will make as positive an impact for Sydney FC as another Brazilian playmaker Fred did for defending A-League champions, Melbourne Victory.

Interestingly, he will wear the number-22 at Sydney FC with veteran midfielder Steve Corica holding onto the prized number-10 shirt. At Middlesbrough, Juninho had the number-25 on his back but was number-10 for Brazil.

Such matters won't worry Juninho too much. For a reported A$1 million for the season, The Little Fella has a big job to do and a proud reputation to protect in the sparkling harbour city.

Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is a host of Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter on ESPN.


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