At home with Juninho

The best footballer in Brazil is packing his bags and preparing to move to Middlesbrough. He talked exclusively to Phil Davison
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The Independent Online
T hey nicknamed him Juninho, Little Junior, immediately after he was born. At 5ft 5in and only eight and a half stone, he still lives up to the name. Had he been born around Newmarket, instead of in the world's second-biggest city, he might just have used his build and exceptional balance to become a jockey.

In a simple, lower middle-class home in the Sao Paulo suburb of Parque San Lucas, Oswaldo Giroldo Junior, alias Juninho, was packing his bags this week to emigrate to another, smaller industrial city he has trouble finding on a map and whose name he can barely pronounce. The 22-year-old Brazilian midfield sensation doesn't drink, but when he says "Meedleshbrow" he sounds for all the world like a 'Boro fan who's had a pint too many.

All he knows is that his new home will be "cold, rainy, somewhere in the North, not far from Newcastle and they play in red." He's not too worried. Sao Paulo is a far cry from the Copacabana. He grew up playing in the sidestreets off Sao Paulo's busy Oratorio Avenue, or indoors like most English kids. Not on the beaches. And Sao Paulo, at 2,500 feet or the height of Verbier's busiest ski runs, can get pretty damp and chilly of a night.

As for Middlesbrough's red jersey, that's considered the luckiest of colours here. Superstitious residents put red carpets at their doors or hang red ribbons from their car mirrors to ward off "the evil eye."

Juninho's been to London, where he first attracted the attention of Middlesbrough's manager, Bryan Robson, when he scored in Brazil's 3-1 Umbro Cup victory, to Birmingham, for another Umbro Cup match, and to Liverpool. "The national squad had a day off so we went up to visit the city that gave the world the Beatles," he told me. But he'd never heard of Middlesbrough until a determined gentleman he calls "Mr Hobson" (the Brazilian "r" comes out like our "h") came calling this summer.

He gave me a "premiere" by donning a Middlesbrough jersey given to him by Robson when he signed him up last week from Sao Paulo for a Brazilian record pounds 4.75m. I asked him him how much he himself got. "The player gets 15 per cent," came the reply. That makes him a dollar millionaire and you can make that a pound millionaire once he picks up his first pay cheque and sponsorship deals.

The amiable 22-year-old said his immediate ambition was to help get Middlesbrough into the Uefa Cup. As we chatted on a sofa in the simply furnished living room where he lives with his parents and only sister, a Brazilian O Globo TV reporter, doing a piece to camera in the corner, was describing him as "the new Pele." It's a tag that has stuck mainly because Juninho is young, skilled and wears the No 10 shirt. But he doesn't like it.

"That's a huge responsibility," he said of the comparisons with the great Brazilian. "I think I only scored nine or 10 for Sao Paulo last season. My childhood idol was Zico, when he played for Flamengo. I'd rather be compared with him.

"I used to watch him on TV, study his moves and tricks and rush out to try the same until I got it right." With his balance, vision and free- kick ability, Juninho conjures up memories of Zico. Off the pitch, he has an honesty and quiet intensity reminiscent of the young Robson himself.

Juninho never saw the former England captain play. It was Robson's belief in him, his persistence and his infectious ambitions for Middlesbrough that led him to sign, he said. "The Brazilian press kept saying Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton etc were interested in me. I'd ask my manager and he'd say there had been no approaches. Mr Hobson was the only one to make a concrete offer.

"He likes the way Brazilians play. I think he wants his team to play like that. Middlesbrough have invested a lot. They're growing and want to grow more," he said as he settled down to watch Brazil play Uruguay in a friendly.

To get to the Uefa Cup, even to get a sniff of the ball from his team- mates, Juninho is going to have to brush up his English with a private teacher organised by Robson. The O Globo TV reporter asked him what was English for the Portuguese "bolla." Just taking off the "a" must have seemed too simple.

"Bowl, bow-ool, bool. Something like that," he replied, before counting in English to 12.

Going further appeared to pose problems and it may be some time before he masters the figure 25, the shirt number Middlesbrough have set aside for him. "You is beautiful. I love you, sweet honey," he went on in lilting English. "First I learn how to talk to the girls."

That brought laughs from the assembled family members and neighbours who wandered in and out of the Giroldo family living room as if it were a station waiting room.

Perhaps it's because success is relatively new to Juninho - he has vaulted to prominence since last year's World Cup - but there's no talk of security, bodyguards or kidnappings here. I had walked through his open car port and into his living room unannounced. When a tiny young man in a T-shirt and jeans shook my hand and offered me a cup of coffee, I thought it must be Juninho's younger brother and found myself looking round the room to try to pick the player out. But the young man was the man himself. He could pass for 16.

He and his father, Oswaldo Snr, a 46-year-old sales representative at a steel manufacturers, are flying to England on Sunday for a medical. They will come back during the week to pick up his mother, 38-year-old Lucia, and return to Middlesbrough on Sunday week to pick one of four rentable houses Robson has set aside. Juninho's only sibling, 21-year- old sister Gislene will join them next February after completing her computer science studies.

"I'll go with Gislene in February but only for a couple of months," said Juninho's grandmother, 66-year-old Rosa Giroldo as she prepared a feijoada, a pork and bean casserole, Juninho's favourite dish. "I'm his biggest fan. He was my first grandchild so I helped bring him up," she said, showing me family snapshots of a three-year-old Juninho kicking a football.

"My biggest preoccupation is the food," Juninho's mother told me. "We'll be together as a family so that will make it easier. But I'll be bringing plenty of real coffee, plenty of beans."

After signing him in 1993, when he was a part-timer for the Ituano club, Tele Santana, the Sao Paulo manager, put Juninho on a special diet to help him grow and fill out. He went from 5ft 1in to his current 5ft 5in and from eight to eight and a half stone. That entailed no fewer than five or six full meals a day and it's a habit he's kept up. The nearest McDonald's to his new home can look forward to a significant boost in profits when Little Junior hits what will surely soon be dubbed Rio de Tees.

Although Zico, who played for Rio's Flamengo, was his hero, Juninho followed the Palmeiras side as a boy. While Sao Paulo Football Club has largely middle-class support, and the other local team Corinthians is mostly followed by the working class, Palmeiras has the support of the city's huge population of Italian origin, descendants of 19th century coffee workers.

Rooting for Palmeiras kept the young Juninho in conflict with schoolfriends many of whom were in the Giroldo family home this week to wish him a tearful farewell. "Saudade" (roughly translatable as "we'll miss you") was the word on everybody's lips.

Juninho wasn't packing much. But he planned to carry a ball as hand baggage "just in case". It's an old habit. "We'd give him toys, model cars, you name it, but he never touched them. All he ever played with was a ball," his mother said. "I'm so proud of him, that God gave me a son like this. He's a simple boy and humble."

Among those bidding him farewell was a dark-haired beauty called Daniela, president of the Juninho fan club, an organisation Giggs-like in its proportion of female members. Juninho is one of Brazil's most-eligible bachelors but he doesn't have a girlfriend and says he will be staying away from Middlesbrough discotheques "if there are any. No girl means one problem less," he said with a smile.