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The big interview: Juninho – "When I got to Boro it was so cold I put newspaper inside my boots to help warm them up"

Juninho

Portrait: Jonne Roriz

It will come as no surprise when a whole host of exotic superstars from all corners of the globe descend on the Premier League this summer. But when Brazilian international Juninho arrived at Middlesbrough in 1995, he really set tongues wagging. ‘The Little Fella’ quickly became a cult hero on Teesside – and beyond – and fell so deeply in love with the north-east outfit that he joined them on further two occasions later in his career.

One of English football’s most popular imports is now president of his local club, Ituano FC – but, as he tells FourFourTwo, he’s still thinking of Boro…

FACT FILE

Full name: Osvaldo Giroldo Junior

Date of birth: 22/02/1973

Place of birth: Sao Paulo, Brazil

Height: 5ft 5in

Position: Attacking midfielder

You’re known for being particularly small, but was your size a help or a hindrance to you as a footballer?
Becky Scarrott, Surbiton

At the beginning of my career it was a disadvantage, for sure. I had to work extra hard to prove I was ready for the first team. I thought about giving up a few times because of resistance from the coaches, who never trusted me because of my size. After I became a professional, it totally changed: I looked flimsy, but I had strong muscles. If you look over my career, I had just one or two muscle injuries – I used to play every game. I was small, but I wasn’t weak.

Is it true you played two matches in one night at Sao Paulo? How?!
Sean Anderson, via email

Well, the Brazilian calendar was crazy in the ’90s, so to be able to fight for all the titles, the big sides pretty much had two teams. I was at the stage where I was a member of the first team and the reserves, so I was switching between the sides, getting lots of games.

This insane fixture calendar was why Sao Paulo had two games on the same night. We faced Sporting Cristal at 8pm for the CONMEBOL Cup [a precursor to today’s Copa Sudamericana, South America’s equivalent of the Europa League] – I scored and we won 3-1. Then at full-time I went to the dressing room, changed clothes and was straight back out at 10pm for a league game against Gremio. We won 3-1 again. I spoke to the Guinness Book of Records people about it, but I didn’t make it.

How did you get the nickname ‘Chucky’ at Sao Paulo?
Marcia, via Twitter

How did you find out about this?! It was the clownery of Cafu! He enjoyed creating nicknames for everyone – he still calls me Chucky to this day. He thought I looked like the doll from the Child’s Play movies, but I think I’m more beautiful than him!

It seemed unusual and unlikely for a Brazilian player of your type to go to the Premier League back in 1995. What made you choose England? Had you heard of Middlesbrough before you moved there? Did you have offers from any other clubs?
Christian Ionica, via Facebook

I heard that there had been talks with Arsenal, but I didn’t ever get an offer from them. I was still under contract at Sao Paulo, but it was running out and there was a big difference between what I wanted and what they were willing to offer me. That’s when Middlesbrough got in contact and Bryan Robson and the chief executive, Keith Lamb, came to Sao Paulo.

The Premier League wasn’t broadcast in Brazil back then and we had very little knowledge of it; of course I was aware how big the name Bryan Robson was in England, and I’d heard about Middlesbrough, but that was all. Before the deal was sealed, I started to watch matches and I remember being a bit frightened by all the long passes and the physical game! But I had never run away from anything before, and I certainly wasn’t going to run from this.

CLUBS AND INTERNATIONAL

1993-95 Sao Paulo 

1995-97 Middlesbrough 

1997-2002 Atletico Madrid

1999-2000 Middlesbrough (loan)

2000-01 Vasco da Gama (loan) 

2002 Flamengo (loan) 

2002-04 Middlesbrough

2004-05 Celtic

2005-06 Palmeiras

2007 Flamengo

2007-08 Sydney FC

Brazil 50 caps (5 goals)

It took me a few months to fit in. I arrived in October and it was so freezing cold that I couldn’t feel my feet – I had to put pieces of newspaper inside my boots to help warm them up. I also had to wear one of those ninja caps that leave just the eyes showing.

Were you surprised to see more than 6,000 locals turn up for your unveiling at Boro?
Simon, via Twitter

Let’s say it was an unusual way of welcoming a new player! We’re used now to seeing fans gathering for a player’s unveiling, but it wasn’t so common back in the ’90s. I had played in England for Brazil at the Umbro Cup a few months before arriving at Middlesbrough, and I think people started to hear about me during the tournament. I certainly didn’t expect such a warm welcome. In fact, I remember there was a Brazilian family waiting at the airport. We became friends and we’re still in touch 20 years later.

What was it like for you to arrive, not being able to speak a single word in English?
Anna Watson, Birmingham

Actually, that Brazilian family I met at the airport really had to help me out on this, because I quickly realised that the interpreter the club had employed didn’t understand a word I was saying and he was translating everything from his own mind. The Brazilian family asked me who he was and told me that he was not translating anything the right way. His name was Palladino and he did things like ask for faisao [pheasant] instead of feijao [beans].

Everybody remembers seeing you square up to Newcastle’s Philippe Albert. He was twice the size of you – what were you thinking?! Were you terrified, deep down?
Guy Maxwell, Gateshead

The Belgian guy, right? I was a little nervous but I was competitive – I always had been through my career. I was tough on the pitch because they couldn’t beat me up in front of the referee. I wasn’t scared of anyone – I thought he had been disrespectful and I came to ask him why he did that and told him not to do it again. It happened all the time in matches, but if it had been out on the street I think I’d call him names, punch him and run like I was running away from death.

What was Nigel Pearson like when you played with him at Boro? Terrifying? 
Joel Bruno, via email

We could see even back then that he had it all to become a great manager. He was our centre-back and captain, and he owned our dressing room – he was fierce. But away from the pitch he was super nice, and always made sure everything was OK between his team-mates. It didn't surprise me to see him doing so well at Leicester. As a manager, he reminds me a little bit of Dunga.

You looked inconsolable when Boro were relegated at Leeds in 1997. Was that the only time football made you cry?
Si Hammond, via Twitter

Football has made me cry in moments of joy many times, but that was the only time I cried because of sadness. It was a big frustration for everyone – we had put so much faith and energy into that project, reaching two finals at Wembley and overcoming so many problems.

We used to send out one team in the Premier League and another in the cups because we were confident we’d be able to recover our league position nearer the end of the season. When we finally got to the last few games, we realised we were in big trouble. We had to win the last game away against Leeds United and it didn’t happen.

Was there ever any chance of you staying at Middlesbrough after their relegation in 1997? Imagine the damage you would have done in Division One! Was Atletico Madrid your only option?
Jon Bradley, Middlesbrough

It was difficult for me because I was also playing for Brazil, and I knew it would be impossible for me to stay and play in Division One and still keep my place with the national team. I was really upset because I had enjoyed playing for Middlesbrough so much and had fitted into English football so well. Now you begin to understand why I cried!

If I could go back in time and change one thing about my career, I wouldn’t have left England at this moment. Maybe I wouldn’t stay at Middlesbrough, but I’d move to another Premier League side. I had an offer from Liverpool – their coach even phoned my dad. The problem was that the numbers were much lower than those Atletico Madrid had sent us. Manchester United also thought I was too expensive and didn’t make a move.

Do you bear any grudges towards Michel Salgado after he broke your leg with a pretty nasty challenge during a game between Atletico and Celta Vigo, ruling you out of the France 98 World Cup? Did he ever apologise? Was that your worst injury?
Chris Hudson, Leeds

My first six months with Atletico were amazing. I had done the pre-season with them, I was very happy in Madrid, I was doing really well on the field, and I got called up again for the national team and won the Confederations Cup in Saudi Arabia. Everything was going well and I was very happy.

Then in a game against Celta Vigo: this challenge from Salgado. The doctors expected me to recover in five months but I did it in three. Despite my incredible recovery, [Mario] Zagallo still left me out of the squad for the 1998 World Cup. I’m sure he wanted me to be in the squad, but I think his staff told him I wouldn’t be fully recovered for the tournament.

I don’t hold anything against Salgado. He wanted to go to the hospital to apologise, and went to the dressing room to say he didn’t intend to hurt me, but it’s complicated – the way he hit me, the ball wasn’t even close. He went for my leg. It took me nearly two years to get back to my best after that. But the thing that pissed me off the most was that he didn’t even receive a red card!

HONOURS

Copa Libertadores 1993

Intercontinental Cup 1993

CONMEBOL Cup 1994

Confederations Cup 1997

World Cup 2002

League Cup 2004

You and Christian Vieri linked up brilliantly in 1997/98. Was your excellent relationship the same off the pitch? Was he as much of a party animal as his reputation suggests?
Juan Hidalgo, via Facebook

Actually, he was a pretty reserved person; he didn’t talk that much with the rest of the team. But we did get along very well, including outside of the dressing room. He was really into the fashion world, attending all these shows, going out with people involved in the industry. I was never interested in that kind of scene. We were very different people, but we understood each other.

I remember you claimed after winning the League Cup with Boro that it was a better feeling than winning the World Cup with Brazil. Do you still feel the same?
Rob Archer, via Facebook

Maybe not better, but the same feeling. Of course winning the World Cup is seen as a much bigger thing, but winning the League Cup meant a lot to me because we were reaching the goal we had dreamed about when the project started nine years before. It was special to me – really special. I had that feeling back then and I still have it with me: we had finally got Middlesbrough into Europe.

Didn’t you make your Celtic debut in an Old Firm game against Rangers? How did that derby compare to the others you played in? Which was the fiercest: Madrid, Tyne-Tees, one in Brazil...?
Jim Greer, via Twitter

The Old Firm involves religion; when you think about this, it is something totally different to any other match. We used to see people carrying some anger, but once you’re on the pitch it’s just like Flamengo-Vasco, Sao Paulo-Palmeiras or Middlesbrough-Newcastle. They were all great rivalries.

Why didn’t things work out for you in Scotland? Is it true you didn’t enjoy playing for Martin O’Neill?
Ciaran, via email

It was an awkward situation, and an especially frustrating one for me. I had won the League Cup with Boro, but then the next season Steve McClaren suddenly seemed to change his mind about me and kind of forced me out of Middlesbrough. I ended up accepting it, but maybe I should have been stronger because I’m sure I would still have played in most of the games.

I ended up in Scotland, but things didn’t really work out for me. I had this issue with Martin O’Neill and his tactics. I still can’t understand why he wanted me at Celtic. He used to play with a 4-4-2 and he asked me to play out wide with defensive responsibilities, but this was never my style. It didn’t suit me and he knew it.

Maybe inside his head he wasn’t looking for the Juninho of the ’90s, and maybe I’m to blame for that, but a manager should know a player’s style – you have to use them in the right way. It was a shame it didn’t work for me there, because Celtic is such a great club.

You were brilliant to watch during your time in the A-League with Sydney FC, but is it true that you had to take painkillers before each match?
Deano, via Twitter

It was a very good time for me. It could have been better if I had not picked up a shoulder injury in my second game. If I had decided to have surgery I would have lost the rest of the season, and I had only signed a one-year contract, so I decided to play despite the broken tendon.

I wasn’t at the same level, of course – I played with my arm in a sling – but I loved the experience. Football was growing in Australia and there was a lot of excitement around the A-League.

You played with some massive names during your three spells with Boro, but which player do you think was the most underrated?
Matthew Bage, via Twitter

If you’re talking in football terms, then Craig Hignett. He was technically above par – the English media even recognised it – but he didn’t make the national team. Maybe he was a different player to what the national coach was looking for at the time.

What’s the story behind everyone in Brazil’s 1997 Confederations Cup-winning team choosing to go bald?
Antony Figueroa, via Facebook

I arrived in Saudi Arabia one day later than the rest of the squad and they were already doing it when I got there. I’m not sure who started it, but Junior Baiano was leading it. He came to me and said: “Don’t worry – we’ll give you a grade three.”

Then they put the razor on the grade zero setting and shaved it all off! I let it go, but some guys got mad. Leo [Leonardo] was really pissed off, and so was Bebeto – he loved that hair. There was some awkwardness, but we came to an understanding in the end. Everything was OK.

PAL'S POSER - CRAIG HIGNETT

Did Ronaldinho ever admit that his goal against England in 2002 was actually a cross rather than a shot?
Dave Leech, via Facebook

He has never admitted it – at least not to me – but I’m sure he didn’t intend to shoot. It was one of those balls that we used to throw at the goalkeeper during the training sessions, so everyone could jump in front of him. He definitely wanted to cross it. Ronaldinho once said I was the worst Brazilian player when it came to samba.

Were the five minutes you played at the end of the 2002 World Cup Final the best of your life? Do you wish you could have played more, having started the first four games of the tournament?
Jake Taylor, Stockton-on-Tees

No doubt about it. I also got to play in my favoured position against Germany for the first time in the World Cup. [Luiz Felipe] Scolari asked me to do a different role as a defensive midfielder alongside Gilberto Silva, then he rewarded me in the final. It was a very special moment for me. I started four games and then left the team against England.

In 1998, I had a place secured in the first XI – much more secured. In 2002, Emerson suffered an accident during a training session and Big Phil thought I could fill that space. He asked me if I could do that role and I answered him that of course I’d be available to help.

The media heavily criticised me because they were expecting to see Juninho the playmaker; they weren’t analysing me as a holding midfielder. I had tactical responsibilities, such as covering Cafu when he went on the attack. I didn’t expect to be in the first team because I was training with the reserves until the day before of our first game against Turkey.

During your time on loan at Vasco da Gama, you played with the other Juninho – did it ever get confusing?
Martin Farley, via Facebook

We had to discuss it in the dressing room pretty early because it could have been confusing. We decided I would be Juninho Paulista, as I was from Sao Paulo, and he would be Juninho Pernambucano, as he was from Recife in the state of Pernambuco.

What was it like sharing a dressing room with Romario at Vasco? There were rumours he complained to coach Oswaldo de Oliveira because he thought Oswaldo felt you were more important than him…
Alan Blake, via Twitter

It’s funny, because I discussed this with Oswaldo just yesterday. He asked me: “You didn’t know about that story?” and I said no. Romario never treated me badly; on the contrary, he was always cheering me up and complimenting me. I had never noticed that this situation caused some discomfort with him. As a professional, he was excellent, and always did everything he was asked to do by the coach. We had such a good relationship, though he kept himself to himself outside of the team – he had his own friends.

I heard that you are chairman of Ituano in Sao Paulo now. Does it feel weird to be the man at the top? And how do you think the link that the team has with Middlesbrough will benefit the two clubs?
Lewis Pittman, via email

I have been here for six years now and my life has totally changed. As a footballer, you have an idea what it’s like to organise this stuff, but it’s far from easy. As a player, I took for granted that I would get to the dressing room and find my kit. I now realise that for this kit to be in the right place for every game, so many things need to be done!

My relationship with Middlesbrough is still very strong. Steve Gibson, the owner, is a brilliant person, with everything he’s done for the club – and everything he promised to me back in the ’90s was honoured.

We are trying to take this partnership to another level and have an exchange programme where we would be able to send some of our youngsters to Boro to get some experience of football in Europe. We had some talks regarding a possible friendly between the two teams, but the costs are too high at this moment. But in the future, who knows? Maybe if I lose a little bit of weight I could get some minutes myself!

This feature originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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