Saint-like Juninho in search of sanctuary

FA CUP FINAL: Simon Turnbull considers what the future may hold for Middlesbrough's Brazilian gem
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The Independent Online
After the tears at the twin towers, Teesside was in mourning yesterday. The bold Boro dream was dead. And the man they call "the little God" was gone.

Juninho was up in the air - en route to Rio - and so was his future. With the vultures gathering above the Riverside Stadium, though, that future will not include another appearance in the Middlesbrough No 10 shirt.

"It'll be terrible for the fans and for Teesside," Ian Wilson said. "We've had Wilf Mannion, of course, but we've never seen anything like Juninho before. This guy has lifted the club and the area with everything he's done. He really has been a saint-like figure.

"Quite apart from his talent and his skill, he has worn his heart on his sleeve and given 100 per cent in every game. There has been no blemish. It'll be terrible to see him go. But the worry, for me, is that he might miss the World Cup boat anyway. And that maybe Middlesbrough will have been responsible. I don't know."

Wilson was the man responsible for bringing Juninho to Middlesbrough, or to Middlesbrough's attention at least. He did that long before Bryan Robson sat on the England bench and beheld the bewitching sorcery the boy from Brazil produced in the Umbro Cup at Wembley two years ago.

It just so happens that the 48-year-old's lifelong passion for Boro is matched by a long-lasting love affair with Brazilian football. When Robson succeeded Lennie Lawrence as Middlesbrough manager, back in May 1994, a letter from Wilson was lying on his desk.

"I always thought the right Brazilian player would really get the Boro going," Wilson said. "I'd already written to Lennie Lawrence about Dunga, before he came to prominence, and when Bryan took over I sent him a list of several players. Everyone was raving about Ronaldo at the time but I said, `Never mind him. Have a look at Juninho.'

"The first time I saw him he came on as a substitute for Sao Paulo against AC Milan. With his first touch he killed the ball and nutmegged Baresi. It was absolutely startling."

For the price of a first class stamp, Wilson saw his dream come true: a Brazilian in a Boro shirt and life on Teesside swaying to a samba beat. But now, it seems, the Cleveland carnival is over. Middlesbrough, the club that is, can expect some compensation. If the vultures bite at Robson's pounds 16m price tag, Boro will have made a tidy profit of pounds 11.25m on the investment they made 17 months ago.

Wilson will be hoping the little genius in which he invested his faith is not spirited away from English football. "The other Boro fans at work don't want to see him play for another club in England," Wilson said. "But I'd love to see him stay here, with Manchester United or whoever.

"Atletico Madrid have been mentioned but Spanish football is way behind ours. Barcelona won the Cup-winners' Cup the other night, but they're not that good."

The lure of Spain is not so much the peseta as the window of opportunity it would re-open to Juninho's World Cup ambitions. Following Middlesbrough's relegation and Juninho's absence from the Brazilian squad chosen for the Copa America and next month's four-team international tournament in France, Brazilian television ditched plans to screen the FA Cup final.

Juninho's mother, Lucia, and sister, Gislene, who will join him on holiday in Rio this week, had to follow the action from Wembley via radio bulletins at the Giroldo family home in Sao Paulo. And while Pele arrived clutching a Middlesbrough scarf, the ticket Boro sent to Mario Zagalo remained with the national coach in Brazil.

Spanish games are shown live in Brazil and Juninho's priority now is to force his way back into Zagalo's World Cup thoughts.

"It won't be easy for him," Ian Wilson ventured. "Djalminha, the young lad from Palmeiras who has taken his place, is a great player. And there are another six or seven vying for that shirt."

But what now for Middlesbrough without their No 10? "It's going to be hard," the fan who found Boro's Brazilian gem said. "Maybe I should write another letter."