FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan takes a walk down memory lane in an exclusive interview with Premier League legend and 2002 FIFA World Cup winner Juninho Paulista.
For a competition that has in recent times been graced by a plethora of samba-skilled exponents of the game, it is curious that the Premier League did not have a single import from South America’s most-successful footballing nation in its first three years.
That changed in October 1995 when a pint-sized midfielder by the name Osvaldo Giroldo Junior – or Juninho – blessed with sublime technique and excellent vision joined newly-promoted Middlesbrough to become the first Brazilian to play in the Premier League, paving the way that the likes of Gilberto Silva, Robinho and presently Roberto Firmino and Lucas Moura have since followed (Mirandinha was the first Brazilian to play in English football when he joined Newcastle in 1987 but this was in the pre-Premier League era).
Juninho immediately became a fan favourite not just on Teesside but with many neutrals all across the country, combining his silky skills with a combative style of play, and he won the Premier League Player of the Year award even though Middlesbrough were relegated in the 1996/97 season.
Following his pioneering ways, over 70 of his compatriots have since followed in his footsteps and many have been huge successes, highlighting just how he blazed a trail for Brazil.
“It [playing in the Premier League] was one of the best times of my career,” recalled the now 46-year-old. “I was so happy there.
“My style of play matches the style of the games in the Premier League and, when I see Coutinho, Firmino, [Gabriel] Jesus, Richarlison playing and doing well now, it makes me happy to think I was the first [Brazilian] to play in the Premier League.
“It’s something I’m proud of, I still follow Middlesbrough and the English games, and I’ve always said it’s like my second home.”
“Back then, we couldn’t watch a lot of the games in Brazil but now more people are looking at the Premier League.
“When I look and compare it to 20 years ago, of course it has improved with all the various big teams… players now have more interest to go to England than before.
Following their relegation, Juninho left Middlesbrough with their blessing and joined Atletico Madrid but returned to the Riverside Stadium for two more spells, before winding down his career back in his homeland albeit with stints in Scotland and Australia too.
After his days delighting fans in the Premier League, the Sao Paulo native’s biggest moment arguably came in 2002 when he was part of the Brazil team that won a fifth FIFA World Cup – which remains Selecao’s most-recent triumph since.
Just making the squad could easily be viewed as an achievement in itself considering the competition for places during such a talent-laden generation, with Brazil boasting talents such as Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Denilson and even a 20-year-old Kaka.
“To Brazilians, it [playing in and winning a World Cup] means a lot,” explained Juninho. “There’s a lot of competition here in Brazil.
“At any one time you have players like Neymar, Coutinho, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo… it’s so hard to be involved in the best team that Brazil has, to wear the shirt and be involved in the big competitions.
“When you win the World Cup, it was unbelievable and I think it was only after my career that I realised what an important achievement it was. Now we see how difficult it is to win a title, let alone be five-time champions of the world.
“There’s always a lot of pressure to win with Brazil and I remember in 2002 we had a difficult qualifying campaign and only qualified in the last game. There was a lot of criticism but this encouraged us to do better.
“I remember all the games were tough and even early on we had a few difficult games but, closer to the end when we got past Belgium [in the Round of 16], that’s when we got more confident.
“From there, whenever we looked at each other on the field, we could all see that is was possible and what we could achieve.
“Because of all the difficulties we had in the past, that group was able to concentrate and it made us stronger.”
Neymar, Coutinho, Firmino, Gabriel Jesus… 🤤🤤🤤
— FOX Sports Asia (@FOXSportsAsia) October 4, 2019
Juninho was speaking to FOX Sports Asia in an exclusive phone interview in his current role as national team coordinator with Brazil, ahead of Selecao’s upcoming visit to Singapore to take on Senegal and Nigeria on October 10 and 13 respectively as part of the Brasil Global Tour.
Brazil’s sights are firmly set on the next World Cup in 2022 but one man he is very familiar with nearly went all the way in the previous edition last year as England made a inspirational charge to the semi-finals under Gareth Southgate, Juninho’s former captain at Middlesbrough.
“First of all, he’s an excellent person,” revealed Juninho. “He was a gentleman with all the team-mates.
“We could see it then on the field – as the captain – he was giving out all the instructions to all the players.
“He was already a manager on the field and that is why I’m not surprised by the success he has had. He was already like this even when he was playing.
“I’m very happy to see all his success as a manager because he’s deserved it.”
Tickets for the Brasil Global Tour 2019 in Singapore are on sale at SportsHub: https://www.sportshub.com.sg.
Tickets can also be purchased via phone bookings by calling +65 3158 7888, and in person at the following box office locations: Singapore Indoor Stadium Box Office, The Star Performing Arts Centre Box office, Scotts Square Concierge and all Singpost outlets.
A single game ticket starts from $29*. A bundle ticket for the two games starts from $49*. (*Booking and transaction fees apply.)
Superfans may also choose to opt for the SuperFan Package, priced at $299* which includes VIP lanyard and pass, access to a dedicated VIP lounge (with air conditioning), Centreline platinum tickets with padded seat and drink holder, as well as refreshments.
All fans who have purchased tickets to the Singapore v Uzbekistan World Cup Qualifier on October 15 at the National Stadium will be entitled to a 30% discount on either one of the Brasil Global Tour 2019 games in Singapore.