When Juninho uprooted from Sao Paulo 18 months ago to become an unlikely lad at Middlesbrough, Brazil's national treasure proclaimed: "He can become the best player in the world." Not on Teesside, the world scoffed, as the talent became submerged in Boro's annus horribilis; six wins in 36 Premiership matches was just the statistical state of Middlesbrough's mess in 1996. But now the football world is clamouring to watch the Teessiders. Boro's day trip to Wembley today for the first major final in the club's 121-year history has stirred such interest beyond the boundaries of Cleveland because of the player who will be wearing the red No 10 shirt. The genius of Juninho stands out as the compelling attraction of the meeting between two of English football's historic under-achievers.
Martin O'Neill would not disagree. For three weeks the Leicester City manager has been haunted by the memory of the scarlet-shirted pimpernel's mesmerising part in Middlesbrough's 3-1 win at Filbert Street. "I just hope he doesn't turn up," was O'Neill's impish response when the spectre's name was raised at Leicester's pre-final press conference.
Asked how he might attempt to counter the threat posed by Juninho, the prolonged "erm" could clearly be interpreted as a euphemism for "with a hopefully cunning plan". Simon Grayson enjoyed some damage limitation success after being belatedly deployed to genie-bottling duty in the recent League meeting. He will probably have both hands on the stopper and both eyes on his elusive target from the moment the teams emerge from the dressing- rooms today, though O'Neill conceded: "World-class players like Juninho are so clever they get themselves out of all problems and situations. Let's just say I'm aware of the threat of Juninho. I'll be giving it some thought."
If O'Neill is still scratching his curly crop at the final whistle, he will remain in good company. Roy Evans, Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit, Jim Smith, Tony Parkes, Dave Bassett . . . all, like O'Neill, have been powerless to stop Juninho's emergence ahead of Gianfranco Zola as the most sparkling jewel in the Premiership's crown since the turn of the year and the turn of Middlesbrough's fortunes. Ian Wilson, the revenue services manager with Darlington Borough Council, has taken particular delight in beholding the glorious havoc wrought by the irresistible one-man Brazilian wave. He could see the vision three years ago.
For 41 of his 48 years his football fever has been precipitated in equal measure by Boro and Brazil. "It started when I was seven," his explanation began. "I saw Brazil lose 4-2 to England in 1956. There was something about their football, the way they controlled the ball in a flash." The rest is history, or it will be if everything works to script this afternoon. It was Wilson who brought Juninho to Bryan Robson's attention, long before the Middlesbrough manager sat on the home bench bewitched by the elusive running and masterful touch that stunned England in the Umbro Cup match at Wembley two years ago.
"I was watching AC Milan play Sao Paulo on a satellite channel sometime after midnight," Wilson recalled, "and Juninho came on as substitute. With his first touch, he killed the ball and nutmegged Baresi. It was absolutely startling. I'd already written to Lennie Lawrence [the ex-Middlesbrough manager] about Dunga before he came to prominence. I always thought the right Brazilian would really get the Boro going. When Bryan Robson took over I sent him a list of several players. Everyone was raving about Ronaldo but I said, 'Never mind him. Have a look at Juninho.'
"I'm not taking the credit for what has happened since then but I always thought Juninho would do what he has done here. The goal he scored against Blackburn - when he controlled Phil Stamp's pass with one touch and clipped the ball past the keeper - only half a dozen players in the world could do that."
Such rare skill has been noted with more than a passing interest by Valencia. They threw a spanner into Middlesbrough's Wembley preparations by faxing a pounds 7m bid for Juninho, who has settled more contentedly on Teesside than have Emerson or Fabrizio Ravanelli but who fears he may risk losing a place in Mario Zagallo's World Cup team by staying with a club that has a low profile and a low regard in Brazil. For the moment, though, Middlesbrough's pounds 4.75m bargain has Wembley tunnel vision.
"I've dreamed of this since I joined Boro," he said, in rapidly improving English. "The club has never had any success before and it makes me very happy to be part of the first Middlesbrough team to reach a big Wembley final. It is a wonderful, wonderful pitch, one of the best in the world. It will suit the way we play."
Robson knows from painful experience that Wembley suits the way his play- maker plays. Pele was under the twin towers that day too. Unlike the Brazilian No 10 who returns this afternoon, he never got the chance to grace the hallowed turf.Reuse content