Football: Heartened by the joy of Juninho

FA CUP FINAL COUNTDOWN: Ken Jones is not the only observer to be impressed by Middlesbrough's diminutive, tireless midfield magician
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The Independent Online
It is safe to assume that a gathering of League managers and coaches in Essex this week will not pass without enthusiastic references to Juninho cropping up in conversation.

More than electrifying technique puts the little Brazilian ahead of all but a handful of players in the Premier League; also there is the commitment - "his courage to play and the courage to want the ball all the time" is how the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, put it last week to Hugh McIlvanney of the Sunday Times - that speaks of a model professional.

As Middlesbrough's relegation makes it unlikely that Juninho will remain with them after the FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday there is bound to be speculation that he will be seen in Manchester United's colours next season.

Ferguson expressed his admiration for Juninho publicly following the 3-3 draw Middlesbrough gained last week at Old Trafford, a match I watched on television in the company of the former Chelsea and Manchester United manager, Dave Sexton, who is now employed as a member of England's coaching and scouting staff. The constraints imposed on Sexton by a serious heart operation from which he is making a rapid recovery could not prevent the excitement he felt whenever Juninho got on the ball.

It is not only true aficionados who drool over the Brazilian. "Juninho is a brilliant footballer," Sexton said, "but unlike many of his type it isn't necessary to allow for shortcomings. Just a little guy, frail by comparison with most of today's players, but brave and resilient, into everything and with such energy that he goes as hard at the end of a game as he does at the beginning. He tackles back, challenges for the ball against much bigger men and is very responsible."

Fears that Juninho would be brushed aside in the Premier League did not account for the violent tackling that sorts out the men from the boys in Brazilian football. "Learn to look after yourself," the 17-year-old Pele was told. "There are bad people out there and you won't always be able to rely on referees for protection."

Even so, Juninho's puny presence startled Dunga when he was recalled to play against Israel in Tel Aviv after a spell in Japan. Unaware of the little man's rapid development, he asked Brazil's coach, Mario Zagallo, if it was now the policy to select schoolboys. The game over, Dunga knelt at Juninho's feet.

Seeing Juninho run out to play for Brazil against Sweden at Villa Park two years ago, Dunga's first impression was understandable. You had to wonder whether he had got on the wrong bus. Was he really the mascot? Then the marvellous sleight of foot, his decisive running with the ball and imaginative passing.

Since the turn of the year Juninho has been outstanding and in the context of Middlesbrough's struggles, ahead, I think, of Zola who beat him to Footballer of the Year. That view is endorsed by Ferguson, who says: "Against us he's been superb, the best player I've seen in the Premier this season."

Comparisons are blurred by differences in deployment but when assessing the Wembley potential of both players for our sister paper last week, the Football Association's technical director, Howard Wilkinson, emphasised the extent of Juninho's involvement. In one of the matches Wilkinson watched Juninho participated once a minute. "On nine out of 10 occasions what he did with the ball had a positive outcome," he said.

Character, courage and similar goodies are shorthand for relentless aggressiveness, for being the tough competitor Juninho unquestionably is.

It was this, as much as gifts from the womb that impressed Tele Santana while he was the coach at Sao Paulo, after his close rivals, Portuguesa, dumped Juninho from their coaching scheme on the grounds that he was too small for the professional game. The coach elect of Palmeiras, if diabetes does not force his retirement, Santana would probably have led Brazil to victory in the 1982 World Cup finals but for the loss of a gifted centre- forward, Reinaldo. He said: "It does not surprise me that Juninho has made a big success in English football, because he has a big heart and an excellent temperament. I can't imagine that there is a player in the world who can intimidate him. And he was always a joy to work with, a really nice boy who never gave us any trouble."

It is not difficult to come up with glowing tributes, the consoling arms that Leeds players draped around Juninho's shoulder after his unflagging effort against them last Monday that failed to bring about survival, testimony to widespread admiration. At the match was the former Leeds and Republic of Ireland stalwart, John Giles, who said: "Probably because he didn't have Ravanelli to take up attacking positions Juninho attempted too much on his own today but there is no denying that his attitude is an object lesson to most of the players in England. The back-pass rule has been good for the game but it has made it more difficult for midfield players to get into positions where they can be given the ball. It isn't a problem for Juninho and I think his shape - long legs, short body - is a big advantage because he always looks well balanced."

Through friendship with a Birmingham-based Italian who represents Juninho in this country (Juninho is of Italian stock), Sexton has twice visited the Brazilian's temporary home near Middlesbrough. "I think that having his parents over here has been a big help because they are obviously a close-knit family," he said. "The father is a real football man and he went on about the tabelinhas [wall passes] Pele and Coutinho would put together in one move when they were playing for Santos. I enjoyed their company and Juninho sets such a good example on and off the field that it will be a big loss to English football if he goes away."

Concerned about his place in the national team (Brazil recently trounced Mexico 4-0 without him) Juninho has invited Pele and his boyhood idol, Zico, to the Cup final in the hope that they will carry back a favourable impression.

He takes nothing for granted. "Brazil can again call on many great players," he told Sexton. "It is my ambition to play in the World Cup but nothing is for certain."

It suggests that Saturday will see Juninho in Middlesbrough's colours for the last time and that only Manchester United have the clout to keep him in English football.