There has never been a player quite like Juninho Pernambucano. Sure, there may have been players more talented, more skilful and more successful. But none of them were like Juninho. None had the ability to have a ball bend to their will quite like him. In a world that is dominated by the art of finding the tiniest advantages in order to win a game or a title, having Juninho Pernambucano meant a few things.
Firstly, you were getting a player who knew how to win league titles. Secondly, you were acquiring somebody who was deadly from anywhere on the pitch. Very few players have that effect, fewer still are able to become so instantly recognisable by one skill. Free-kicks are one of the most incredible things to witness in this sport. When a free-kick is hit perfectly, it’s something that sticks in your mind forever, given the right circumstances. Cristiano Ronaldo against Portsmouth, Roberto Carlos against France; both amazing free-kicks in relatively low stake games.
But when you mention the name Juninho, you don’t need to mention a particular free-kick or a particular game because every free-kick was, and still is, so memorable. Still, there was more to the Brazilian than just free-kicks – a lot more that emphasises his legend than just dead balls. Juninho had an illustrious career that many seemingly forget.
Juninho was born in Recife, Brazil in 1975, and soon joined the local team, Sport Recife. He quickly started his rise to prominence with two titles, the Campeonato Pernambucano and the Copa do Nordeste, a competition for clubs in the north-east of the country. With two trophies under his belt before he turned 20, he was looking, from very early on, to be a prodigious talent.
Juninho was subsequently snapped up by Vasco and became a fan favourite, playing alongside the likes of Romário and Edmundo, also joined by his namesake, Juninho Paulista. Another club and another successful stint followed, rewarding him with two Brasileiros, the Campeonato Carioca, Torneio Rio-São Paulo, Copa Libertadores and Copa Mercosur, all within six golden years.
Juninho’s career was on an upward trajectory, but while he was making a name for himself as one of Brazil’s brightest young midfield talents, he was still a relative unknown across the globe. But, in 2001, that was all about to change and Europe was about to see one of the most influential players of the 2000s descend onto their shores. European football, and the fine art of free-kick taking, was never going to be the same.
Before Juninho, Lyon had never won the Ligue 1 title. They had come close but were made to sit in the shadows, watching as arch-rivals Saint-Étienne rose to legend. Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain also had fleeting spells of success prior to their 21st-century status as the big boys of French football, but Lyon had to stand by and settle for winning the odd Coupe de France.
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With the signing of Juninho, though, supplemented by stars like Grégory Coupet, Edmílson, Sonny Anderson and Sidney Govou, Lyon won their maiden Ligue 1 title under future France and Tottenham manager Jacques Santini. Juninho was instrumental in this success and, within a year, had endeared himself to the Lyon fans. His skill was abundant and his leadership qualities – something that often remains underrated when Juninho is mentioned – alongside his free-kicks caught the eye.
To really get the range of Juninho’s dead-ball brilliance, there are three particular free-kicks that demand review. The first is one that will be atop every Champions League viewer’s list of favourites, because it is not only nostalgia-filled but also supremely executed. Lyon, with their famous Umbro shirts emblazoned with the Renault Trucks sponsor, arrived at the Olympiastadion knowing that, in the 2003/04 Champions League group stage, a win away at a force like Bayern Munich would send a statement.
With Oliver Kahn in goal, it looked like a daunting task for Juninho to lift his effort up and over the wall. As he took the shot, a ballboy behind the goal began to move, readying himself to pick up the stray ball. Why? Because Juninho’s shot looked likely to blaze over the bar. But just as the ball boy got into position, and just as Kahn dipped down, waiting for the ball to go over, Juninho’s free-kick dipped and dipped, just dipping enough to smack the right-hand post and hit the back of the net.
It fooled everyone, from ball boy to the best goalkeeper in Germany. It was powerful yet precise. It was smashed but still caressed. It was graceful and beautiful. It was, in some ways, the perfect free-kick. And while this particular effort helped Lyon to a wonderful win in Munich, it wasn’t anywhere close to his effort against Barcelona in 2009.
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were on their way to regaining the Champions League but, in the last-16, had to pass a Lyon side that was coming to the end of its imperious run in France. They had dominated France for so long but longed to finally be a success in the Champions League. Juninho wasn’t going to be around forever, so he had to produce a big moment to show that they meant business.
With the ball down by the byline – around 12 yards away from the left-hand side of the box, closer to the corner flag – there didn’t appear to be many options available. For most human beings, the sane thing to do would be the whip the ball into the box and hope that someone gets a flick on, to cause some havoc in the danger zone and pray for the best. But this was Juninho.
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With remarkable skill, Juninho clipped the ball over everyone, with the ball dipping just below the crossbar and bamboozling everyone. Víctor Valdés in the Barcelona goal nearly tripped over thin air just trying to read the flight of the ball. He had his eyes fixated on it, but he couldn’t do anything to repel it. He was rendered powerless by Juninho’s manipulation.
While that goal against Barcelona was probably the most technically brilliant in the art gallery of goals that Juninho produced, the one that may just exceed it came in Ligue 1 in 2007 against Ajaccio. The circumstances of the goal pale in comparison to the glamour of one against Bayern Munich or Barcelona, but the strike itself is likely Juninho’s finest.
Forty yards. Most players don’t even think about shooting from that far out, dead ball or not. It barely crosses a player’s mind. When Juninho placed the ball down, he didn’t see a cross or a dink into the box. He saw a goal and he went for goal. The way the ball moved completely fooled the goalkeeper, and demands you see the movement from behind the strike to truly appreciate it.
What makes the goal even more appreciable is seeing a young Karim Benzema walking away from the goal, unable to comprehend what he had just seen. It’s one thing to see Juninho score a free-kick on television, or on a highlight reel, but it’s something completely different to see it in person. This was the honour Juninho bestowed upon so many of his teammates.
The final thought on the Brazilian’s virtuosity must go to Andrea Pirlo, taken from his autobiography, in which he touches upon the technique of Juninho. “During his time at Lyon, that man made the ball do some quite extraordinary things. He’d lay it on the ground, twist his body into a few strange shapes, take his run-up and score. He never got it wrong. Never. I checked out his stats and realised it couldn’t just be chance. I studied him intently, collecting DVDs, even old photographs of games he’d played. And eventually I understood. It wasn’t an immediate discovery; it took patience and perseverance. From the start, I could tell he struck the ball in an unusual way. I could see the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’.”
To have a legend of the game in Pirlo pore over footage in order to study and attempt to replicate your masterful technique is to be a truly timeless architect of the beautiful game. Try as they might, however; studying his game as they will, nobody will ever strike it like Juninho. Nobody.
By Tom Scholes @_TomScholes