Juninho: Samba star
With his jinking runs and mesmeric turns, Juninho consistently gave Premier League defenders nightmares during three spells at Middlesbrough, adding a touch of Brazilian samba style to one of English football's traditionally unglamorous outfits.
Possessing remarkable control, the diminutive midfielder was a dazzling dribbler, mainly thanks to the low centre of gravity of his 5' 5'' frame, with his flair and ability to entertain wowing fans of the Teessiders during a period of revolution for the club.
After winning the 1994-95 First Division title in his first season with the club, 'Boro boss Bryan Robson sought out a blockbuster signing to lead the Teessiders' charge in the top flight at the newly built Riverside Stadium. And, in what was an incredible coup, Robson convinced the then-Brazilian Player of the Year Juninho to sign for his newly promoted side, snapping the midfielder up for a club record £4.75 million and boldly stating: "I believe he can become the greatest player in the world."
The Brazilian international was courted by a number of top European sides, impressed by his silky skills and fearless approach to running at the opposition. But after watching him score a curling free-kick for the Seleção against England in the Umbro Cup in the summer of 1995, Robson's mind was made up and he sealed a deal for his new talisman in October.
Growing up in Sao Paulo, Juninho's football education came at his home town club. He signed for the Paulistas in 1993 and blossomed in a side that was accustomed to success, with Sao Paulo claiming back-to-back Copa Libertadores titles in 1992 and 1993, and winning the 1993 Intercontinental Cup with a 3-2 victory over AC Milan.
He was handed his debut for the national team by Mário Zagallo in 1995 against Slovakia and he would go on to make a further 50 appearances for his country, netting five goals and taking home a World Cup winners' medal from the 2002 finals. Juninho played less than an hour of football in the tournament, but a six minute substitute cameo in the 2-0 final against Germany was undoubtedly the crowning moment of his career.
After swapping the sunny climes of Sao Paulo for the markedly different surroundings of the north east of England in October 2005, Juninho understandably struggled to adapt to both English culture and life in a more physically demanding and fast-paced Premier League. Despite creating an equalising goal for Jan Age Fjortoft on his debut against Leeds, the fleet-footed midfielder failed to make a notable impact, though there were glimpses of the spark that would be ignited the following season.
After 'Boro consolidated their top-flight status with a respectable 12th-place finish in the Premier League, Robson bought Juventus striker Fabrizio Ravanelli and Juninho's Brazil team-mate Emerson to add further international quality and provide their No. 10 with players who could complement his stylish approach.
Teesside's own 'holy trinity' immediately hit it off and Ravanelli and 'The Little Fella' (a moniker coined by 'Boro fans) in particular forged an impressive partnership, often creating goals for each other as they plundered 26 between them in the 1996-97 season. Memorable efforts from the Brazilian maestro included a delicate chip against Derby after a bursting run, a 20-yard curler against Nottingham Forest and a superb solo effort against Sheffield Wednesday, when he picked up the ball on the right wing before dropping his shoulder to dribble through a helpless Owls defence before finishing with aplomb.
It was a rollercoaster campaign for the club as they made it two cup finals, losing to Leicester in the League Cup showpiece and Chelsea in the FA Cup. The club's achievement in reaching two finals was overshadowed by their relegation from the Premier League, a demotion that could be blamed squarely on a three-point deduction handed to the club after failing to put a team out for a match with Blackburn. Few can forget the image of Juninho lying on the Riverside turf on the final day of the season in floods of tears - a sight rarely seen in modern football - distraught at the plight of his club. This obvious passion, coupled with his astounding technique, had made him a cult hero on Teesside, and his departure from the club was made with a heavy heart.
Juninho's scintillating form throughout the 1996-97 season had not gone unnoticed and he moved onwards and upwards to Atletico Madrid in a £12 million move that remains the biggest transfer fee Middlesbrough have received. He arrived at the Vicente Calderón with Christian Vieri to add quality to a Radomir Antić side that had finished fifth in Primera Liga after failing to build on their 1995-96 La Liga and Copa Del Rey double. While Vieri flourished, netting 24 goals in 24 league appearances for Atlético, Juninho struggled to make a similar impact, though he did score six times in 23 games in his debut season. Injuries hampered his progress during his time at Atletico and, after Claudio Ranieri arrived as manager in 1999, it quickly became apparent that the Brazil international was not in his plans.
The midfield maestro then made a sensational return to Middlesbrough on loan and the club's fans gave him a standing ovation on his return to the Riverside, welcoming home their cult hero. His influence was not as obvious as during his first spell with the club, but the fans were delighted to have him back and his arrival certainly eased the pressure on under-fire boss Bryan Robson. The Teessiders were given first refusal on the midfielder at the end of the 1999-00 season but they baulked at the £6 million asking price and to the dismay of the fans, he returned to Atletico.
Loan spells followed at Flamengo and Vasco de Gama, and his performances were enough to prompt a recall to the national side under Luiz Felipe Scolari. After tasting World Cup glory with Brazil in 2002, he made a remarkable second return to Middlesbrough. Steve McLaren stated at the time: "Ever since we came here I've known about how much he's adored by the 'Boro fans. We've followed his progress with Brazil throughout the year. He's back to full fitness and we decided he would be a tremendous asset to this football club. "
His third spell brought more injury woe as he ruptured his knee ligaments in pre-season, but he made a triumphant return, coming off the bench to score an equaliser against Everton. The playmaker continued to improve after returning and in the following season, earned personal redemption for the despair of the double final defeat in 1997 - playing the full ninety minutes as Middlesbrough lifted the first major trophy in their history with a 2-1 victory over Bolton in the League Cup final.
Juninho left the club for a third and final time in 2004 in an ill-fated move to Celtic, where the Brazilian experienced Champions League football for the first time in his career but was unable to force his way into Martin O'Neill's permanent plans. He returned to Brazil with Palmeiras and Flamengo, and spent a short time as Sydney FC's marquee player in the A-League, before finally calling time on his career.
He may not have reached the lofty heights of "the greatest player in the world" but Juninho was certainly one of the finest footballers to grace the Premier League, lighting up a city and earning legendary status on Teesside. He was voted by fans as Middlesbrough's greatest ever player in a 2007 PFA poll and the World Cup winner and born entertainer, who played the game with a smile on his face, can certainly be marked out as a true Premier League hero.