Juninho lay back in intensive care at a private hospital outside the Spanish capital yesterday looking half his 24 years. He moved his head vaguely and made circling movements with his hand to indicate he still felt groggy after an operation had left him with a steel plate and five screws in his left leg.
Pedro Guillen, an orthopaedic surgeon, operated on the Brazilian's fractured tibia and twisted knee ligaments yesterday. He said it would be five months before the player would kick a ball again. "He'll stay here two days, then he'll be able to walk with crutches, then it'll be six to eight weeks before he can put the foot on the ground."
Juninho will not play again this season in the Spanish league and his injury puts into serious doubt his participation in the World Cup, which starts in June.
It is a huge setback in the career of the Brazilian midfielder, who had set his heart on winning a place in his country's World Cup team. One of the major reasons he left Middlesbrough for Atletico Madrid last summer was the fact that Spanish league games are televised in Brazil: he hoped that his performances would keep him in the public eye back home.
Juninho's mother, Lucia, and his father, Osvaldo, who were with their son both before and after the operation, tried to remain optimistic. "My mother's instinct tells me he'll play in the World Cup," Lucia said. "It's what we all want and he has great powers of recovery and enormous willpower."
Juninho was conscious in the early stages of the operation yesterday afternoon, having received an epidural that anaesthetised him from the waist down. While under the knife he told the surgeons about his great disappointment at letting down Atletico - who face Aston Villa in a Uefa Cup match next month without him - and especially of his fear of missing the World Cup. But then the footballer became disturbed by the fearful cracking of bones as the operation progressed and he requested a sedative to knock him out.
After the operation the player slept for some hours, tranquillised against the pain. From time to time he gave a faint smile through the glass screen of the intensive care unit and a thumbs up sign.
Juninho suffered the injury in a tackle by Celta Vigo's Michael Salgado, who was subsequently booked and admitted he was lucky not to be sent off. However, Osvaldo said his son bore no ill will against Salgado.
Lazaro Albarraicin, Atletico's vice-president, who had come to see Juninho, told me: "Nothing like this ever happened to him in England, even though you have the reputation of being a nation of hard players. But British footballers are noble."
Osvaldo tapped me gently on the sleeve. "He won't be talking to anybody today, I'm sorry," he said as the still semi-conscious Juninho was wheeled along the corridor back to his room, encouraged by a number of other injured sportsmen who hobbled to watch his progress. But he had eyes only for his mum.
l Ciro Ferrara, a key figure in Italy's defence, is almost certain to miss the World Cup after breaking his leg playing for Juventus at Lecce on Sunday.Reuse content