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Premiership ready to rise to Juninho

BORO'S BOY FROM BRAZIL: 22-year-old has the talent and tenacity to cope with the rigours of a Teesside winter; The arrival of the Brazilian is a significant moment for English football, argues Glenn Moore
Forget Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud Gullit and Jurgen Klinsmann, even Andrea Silenzi. This is the big one, the transfer that finally signifies a shift in power from Serie A to the Premiership.

Unlike the others Juninho, the 22-year-old Brazilian midfield player who signed for Middlesbrough from Sao Paulo for pounds 4.75m over the weekend, was wanted in Italy. Most of the big names who have come to England in the last few seasons had had their stint in the sun, some without much success. While Bergkamp and Gullit came here this summer, the really big names, Hristo Stoichkov, Roberto Carlos and Roberto Baggio, either went to, or stayed in Italy.

Now the Premiership has lured one of the world's outstanding talents to these shores. As Terry Venables, the England coach, said: "He is class and English football cannot have too many class players," If he fails it will not be for lack of ability. This summer he destroyed England at Wembley before taking Brazil to the final of the Copa America.

Even more remarkable is the identity of his new employers. With apologies to Middlesbrough, they are not Manchester United or Arsenal (who were keen on him themselves), or even Newcastle. Juninho gave some clue as to his choice yesterday. "My new manager Bryan Robson has assured me that our team will not play aerial ball like most English clubs," he said. "Robson wants his team passing and dribbling Brazilian style." Juninho declined the opportunity to play a farewell game for Sao Paulo against Internacional last night, fearing an injury, and is expected to arrive in Britain on Sunday.

But what will Juninho make of Middlesbrough? Sao Paulo is not the Copacabana, and Teesside's industrial skyline may not be as big a shock to Juninho as might be imagined. But, while the area has its plusses, the winter climate is not among them.

The only precedent is an unhappy one, Mirandinha, the Brazilian striker who joined Newcastle in September 1987. He failed to last two seasons and, though he managed 20 goals in 54 games, that tally owed as much to his greed in front of goal, and his penalty-taking, as his ability. After a promising first season, in which Newcastle finished eighth, it became an unhappy relationship and he completed just 11 matches in 1988/89 as Newcastle were relegated.

Juninho, the Brazilian footballer of the year, is a better player, he is joining a club on a sounder footing and has some decent players around him, notably the infectiously enthusiastic Nick Barmby and the refreshing Jan Age Fjortoft. Middlesbrough are still short of the requisite quality in a couple of positions and lack depth generally, but judging by this transfer, neither problem is insurmountable.

Despite his waif-like build, Juninho ought to be able to cope with the physical demands of the Premiership, even if he is only 5ft 5in. David Batty's close attentions may have forced an early withdrawal at Wembley, but by then, Brazil had the game won and, in a competitive match, Batty would have been dismissed. Besides, the Brazilian championship is at least as demanding as the Premier League. It is exhaustively scheduled and often brutually disputed.

It is a hard school, and one that has raised a player who is aware of the all-round responsibilties of a modern Premiership midfielder. "He knows where to be and when it is necessary to play simple passes," Mario Zagallo, the Brazilian manager, said of his playmaker in the summer. "He can be a defender as well as a maker of openings. When we defend the World Cup in France in 1998 he will light up the Eiffel Tower."

Juninho enjoyed the English reaction to him in the Umbro Cup, and the intensive fitness programme he has undergone with Sao Paulo appears to have convinced him he is now ready. He is stronger than he appears. When Dunga, the Godfather of the Brazilian team, first came across him in May, he was shocked when Zagallo gave Juninho the prestigious No 10 shirt for the friendly with Israel.

"Who is the little boy wearing the No 10 shirt?" he asked. After the game, Dunga fell to his knees at Juninho's feet in the dressing room in mock supplication. While it was tongue-in-cheek, the tribute was meant; Juninho, so far, looks a worthy successor to Pele and Zico.

Now he has other, older heroes to emulate, notably Wilf Mannion, recently described by Tom Finney as the "most sublime inside partner you could imagine. He was sent down from heaven."

In football terms, Brazil is the nearest thing there is to celestial ancestry. Juninho looks like an angel, his appearances on these shores suggests he plays like one. The Riverside Stadium may be in the middle of a derelict dock, but it suddenly looks like the most attractive place to visit in the country.

The South American Connection

Date Player (English club) Position Country (Previous club)

1946-52 George Robledo (Barnsley/Newcastle) striker Chile

1947-52 Ted Robledo (Barnsley/N'castle/Notts Co) striker Chile

1978-80 Alex Sabella (Sheffield Utd/Leeds) midfield Argentina (River Plate)

1978-79 Alberto Tarantini (Birmingham) defender Argentina (Boca Juniors)

1978-89 Osvaldo Ardiles (Tottenham) midfield Argentina (Huracan)

1978-82 Ricardo Villa (Tottenham) midfield Argentina (Racing Club)

1979-80 Claudio Marangoni (Sunderland) midfield Argentina (San Lorenzo)

1980-81 Rafael Villazan (Wolves) defender Uruguay (Huelva)

1987-88 Mirandinha (Newcastle) striker Brazil (Palmeiras)

1990-91 Jose Perdomo (Coventry) midfield Uruguay (Genoa)

1994- Jaime Moreno (Middlesbrough) midfield Bolivia (Cindad)

1994-95 Adrian Paz (Ipswich) striker Uruguay (Penarol)

1995- Isaias (Coventry) midfield Brazil (Benfica)

1995- Mauricio Taricco (Ipswich) defender Argentina (Arg Juniors)

1995- Flavio Maestri (Birmingham, on trial)) striker Peru (Sporting Cristal)

1995- Juninho (Middlesbrough) midfield Brazil (Sao Paulo)