The man to lead romantic revival

Ken Jones sizes up the Brazilian who bears the brunt of his coach's hopes for a stirring future
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The Independent Online
Juninho, the Sao Paulo midfielder who has shone for Brazil in the Umbro Cup, in training at St Albans this week Photograph: Peter Jay

Glancing across at the small, slight figure who had been chosen to play against Israel in Tel Aviv three weeks ago, Brazil's captain, Dunga, wondered whether Mario Zagalo had lost touch with reality. "Why have you included a schoolboy?" he whispered.

In Brazil's dressing-room after the game, Dunga fell in salaam at Juninho's feet. Zagalo smiled. "Now you know," he said.

The England footballers who face Brazil at Wembley tomorrow may be more wary of the exciting surges launched by a brilliant new left-back, Roberto Carlos, and emerging attackers like Edmundo and Ronaldo, but in Zagalo's mind Juninho is the player who will orchestrate the revival of a romantic ideal.

The influence Zagalo exerted as technical consultant to Carlos Alberto Parreira last year when Brazil adopted a conservative policy in winning their fourth World Cup was so much in character it seemed unlikely his second term as coach (he had the teams of 1970 and 1974) would coincide with another explosion of flair.

However, at 63, an age when men are usually fixed in their ways, Zagalo is encouraging a fresh wave of talent to emulate the style made famous by such notables as Pele, Didi, Garrincha, Gerson, Tostao, Rivelino, Zico and Socrates. "I think now is the time," he said last week. "Because a number of our players have moved abroad to Europe and Japan, there have been opportunities for younger ones who encourage me to believe we can expand our game. Of course it would be foolish to suppose that Brazil will ever have a team to compare with the one of 1970, but I am encouraged enough to believe that we can fully regain our reputation for exciting football. Because we had not won the World Cup for 24 years it was important not to take chances last year. But now I must think about the future."

If Brazil's defensive organisation looked shaky against Sweden last Sunday and again at Goodison Park on Tuesday, their brilliant passing and powerful shooting must have alarmed the England coach, Terry Venables.

Brought off after an hour against Japan to rest his tiny frame, Juninho is fulfilling the promise that persuades Zagalo to think of him as a potential genius. A 22-year-old from a middle-class district of Sao Paulo, he is not a product of the barrios and beaches but of the soccer clinics that have grown up in Brazil. Barely out of school when the Sao Paulo coach and former national manager, Tele Santana, signed him for less than pounds 200,000, Juninho is now undergoing a concentrated regime of diet and body-building similar to that which strengthened his great hero, Zico.

For the moment, at 5ft 5in and 9st 10lb, he looks very much like the schoolboy Dunga imagined. For all his apparent frailty, Juninho is tenacious, game and determined, with a sense of responsibility to go with his remarkable confidence. "He knows where to be and when it is necessary to play simple passes," Zagalo said.

A popular misconception is that Brazilian players come through naturally, uninhibited by coaching and strategy. In fact they are invariably alert to practical considerations and grow up in leagues that are among the hardest in world football. For example, it is no exaggeration that Brazil would have won the 1982 World Cup under Santana but for the absence through terrible injuries of another Sao Paulo hero, the marvellous centre-forward, Reinaldo.

That Juninho has so far been able to withstand such savage buffeting is not only a tribute to his nimbleness and determination but the lessons implanted in him by Santana and more recently, Zagalo. "I have a lot to thank them for," he said this week after a training session at Everton. A pleasant, courteous young man with hollow cheeks narrowing to a long chin, his eyes brown and lively beneath a mop of curly hair, he smiles easily. "I'd like to thank everyone who has said and written good things about me," he said, "and the English supporters for their appreciation of the way Brazil try to play."

Juninho's form for a Brazil Select XI against Milan last year excited agents in Italy, but for the time being he intends to remain with Sao Paulo and will renew his contract in December. "I would like to play in Europe," he said, "but first I must grow stronger and improve my football." Physical development is in the hands of nutritionists and doctors, but Zagalo is so confident that Juninho has hidden reserves of stamina that he imagines him taking on a workload that even Pele might have baulked at.

"Pele and Zico were great scorers who dropped back when Brazil were defending, but they were not expected to win the ball in our half of the field," Zagalo said. "I think Juninho can be a defender as well as a maker of openings."

If Juninho was not as prominent against Japan as he was against Sweden, tidily efficient rather than spectacular, he looks immensely promising. Together with Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo and two gifted attackers, Amaroso and Savio, who were not available for this tournament, he represents the future of Brazilian football. "When we defend the World Cup in France in 1998 they will light up the Eiffel Tower," Zagalo said.