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A small wonder among the bungs

A little Brazilian's arrival lifted the slur of sleaze from British football, says Jim White
It was football's annus horribilis - 12 months of bungs and backhanders, head-butting and kung fu kicking, coke addiction and taxi demolition. Yet the year's most significant moment came one day at the end of October when, out of the tunnel of a stadium opened only weeks previously, trotted a 5ft 3in lad with a Stephen Hendry-sized skin problem, surrounded by minders, photographers and bemused policemen. The day Juninho, the small and perfectly talented Brazilian international, signed for Middlesbrough Football Club, the new era of English league football had finally begun.

Middlesbrough made quite a performance of the signing. Juninho played keepy-uppy on the pitch with his new manager, Bryan Robson; 3,000 fans filed into the main stand of the new Cellnet Riverside Stadium (many wearing sombreros); the world's press was invited along (and kept corralled in a pen a safe distance from the main attraction). And the club was right to put on such a show; to snap up the world's best young player was a coup worth making a song and samba about.

Since the Premier League was formed in 1993, concentrating the new money coming into the game into its upper tiers, the leading clubs in England have increasingly been able to afford fancy foreign players. Journeymen foreigners, cloggers and leather-lunged trundlers from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe had been a staple for a number of years; they were useful players who came cheap. But the Premier League chairmen have started to shop around, picking up some of the sharper continental talents, such as Jurgen Klinsmann.

Klinsmann was a godsend for Alan Sugar, Tottenham's chairman. The fans knew him as a class act, and his public relations skills would help the chairman to win over those dismayed by the recent power struggle between Sugar and Terry Venables, the former manager. Klinsmann, too, was grateful for the opportunity. Jaded by his time in Italy, he was delighted to rehabilitate himself against less sophisticated defences in England. Besides, these Englishmen, who remembered him for his heroics in the World Cups of 1990 and 1994 rather than his barren years at Internazionale, were prepared to bolster his pension fund enormously. So he came to England, spent a year filling his boots with goals and money, and went home to Germany happy.

Over the summer of 1995, the Klinsmann route was followed by two major Dutch stars - Ruud Gullit and Dennis Bergkamp. Neither was quite the player he had been and neither was in the first flush of youth, but both served an important purpose for their clubs: they would sell expensive season tickets by the truckload. And, as it happened, both (until recent injuries) have given accomplished performances.

Juninho is different. He is young, he is still learning his game and, unlike Klinsmann, Gullit and Bergkamp, he is a stranger to Britain, its language and its ways. Generally, players of his ilk go to Italian league clubs, tempted there by lorryloads of lire. But Juninho chose England. Not only that; he signed for a club without an international reputation, only just promoted to the top division.

The story of how Bryan Robson came to circumvent precedent is as quaint as it is intriguing. He was alerted to the player long before anyone else in England by a Boro fan who, travelling in Brazil, happened to see him play and wrote to Robson to enthuse. Robson watched Juninho demolish England in a summer tournament, and then flew to Sao Paulo to talk to him. So thrilled was the young Brazilian by the interest shown by such a renowned figure as Robson, the former Manchester United and England captain, that he decided to sign for him on the spot. No one else, he said, as he was interviewed poring over an atlas looking for the English town with the funny name, had shown such interest.

It was not simply Robson's attentiveness. The money he brought with him - supplied by Steve Gibson, Boro chairman and a man happy to use his personal fortune to help his club gate-crash the big time - matched anything that might have been offered by Milan or Juventus. In the end, though, the package of transfer fee and salary that landed Juninho worked out at less than Manchester United forked out for Andy Cole. Few would argue over who got the better value.

It was typical of the recalcitrant insularity of some parts of the English footballing establishment that many predicted the slight youngster would not flower in Middlesbrough as he might have done in Italy. Too cold, too industrial, opposing defenders too hard was the consensus. As if it is warm in Turin in January, as if Sao Paulo is a bucolic paradise, as if Paulo Maldini is a softie.

But as Juninho struts his stuff in front of full houses in the grand new stadiums of the Premiership, it should not be taken as a metaphor for the overall health of the professional game. In the lower leagues, clubs such as Brighton and Hull face extinction. In football, as in the boardroom, 1995 was the year the rich got happy.