Maestro comes custom made

Stephen Brenkley finds a celebratory Teesside ready to embrace a new hero
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ALL the humiliation that was heaped on English football in European competition last week was utterly submerged yesterday by the entry into the Premier League of a little man from South America. Oswaldo Giroldo Junior, known to the world as Juninho, was everything that was expected.

For weeks on Teesside they had prepared for the Brazilian's arrival by investing in sombreros and practising elementary Portuguese. For days the vagaries of international flight times and footballing administrators had kept them wondering when (perhaps, deep down, if) he would perform. But when the moment at last came, it took Juninho fewer than 10 minutes to demonstrate that none of the publicity was overblown.

His first touch came after 84 seconds, his first of significance after nine minutes and 40 seconds when he received the ball on the left with space at his disposal. What he did next, gliding inside and unfolding a pass that combined skill, subtlety and vision was the stuff of wonder. The capacity crowd rose as one, their own dreams fulfilled in these few moments that it took the diminutive fellow before them to gather and release.

Since before breakfast they had been milling around awaiting Juninho. Wherever you went there were banners reading Bem-Vindo, the Portuguese for "welcome". There were also market researchers wandering around; to ensnare interviewees they used the opening gambit: "Would you like to win a Juninho shirt by answering a few questions?" The survey was about mobile phones and men and women who looked as though they would never dream of using one queued up to answer.

The Middlesbrough programme conducted a little research of its own. How many goals did respondents think Juninho might get for Middlesbrough this season? Twelve seemed to be the most popular estimate, but somebody had mentioned 25. Whenever his first goal arrives, it will not be the first to be scored by a Brazilian at the Riverside Stadium. Isaias of Coventry claimed that rare honour in September.

All manner of stories are circulating about the 22-year-old - for instance, that his mum has already arranged with Customs to have rice and beans for his diet specially imported from Brazil. That tale, like the story that the Middlesbrough club was founded over a tripe supper in a pub, may be apocryphal. What is not is that the young maestro is joining an unfashionable club.

But Middlesbrough is in a huge footballing area. An exhaustive survey a few years ago showed that Cleveland produced more professional footballers per head of population than anywhere in England, one in 7,200 compared to London's one in 8,500 and West Sussex's one in 122,000. There will be even more now.