FourFourTwo's 100 best foreign Premier League players ever: 30-21
Words: Huw Davies, Alex Hess, Jon Spurling, Seb Stafford-Bloor, Andrew Murray, Richard Edwards.
The cliché that every Brazilian plays beautiful, carefree football hasn’t been accurate for 30 years, but in England at least, its continuing popularity owes a lot to Juninho.
It was impossible not to be charmed by the effervescent way in which he lit up Teesside after choosing newly promoted Middlesbrough over myriad European suitors, all eager to sign this 22-year-old midfielder who’d already won the Copa Libertadores, Intercontinental Cup and Brazilian league title.
What made ‘The Little Fella’ special wasn’t his delectable first touch, nor his unique (and necessary) ability to hurdle a tackle, nor his hip-wiggling forward runs, baggy shirt billowing in the wind – though special they certainly were. It was his love for the game and his adopted home, palpable in his joyful kickabouts with local children and his painful tears upon Boro’s relegation.
This was a world-class footballer, capped 49 times by Brazil, yet he signed for Middlesbrough three times until they finally won the club’s first silverware in the 2004 League Cup. He was one of a kind. HD
29. Xabi Alonso
Some players strike the ball with venom. Alonso passed it with venom. And with profound intelligence, too – his ice-cool awareness was vital in the Liverpool side that soared for a few seasons under Rafa Benitez before the effects of ruinous ownership took hold.
Few Anfield regulars were in much doubt about what their club was losing when Alonso left in 2009, but one senses that English football's wider world only came to appreciate the midfielder's resplendency after he'd started to assemble a clean sweep of football's major trophies with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Spain. That any discussion on these shores about Alonso inevitably turns to his contentious departure from Liverpool is testament to his influence while he was here.
It's no coincidence that both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres enjoyed their best form – and by a country mile – alongside the Basque playmaker, nor that the side fell off a cliff as soon as he left. "By some distance, the best midfielder I ever played alongside," said his former captain. AH
28. Robert Pires
He may not have been the quickest winger that ever graced Highbury, but Pires had a style and elegance to his game that granted him hero status in N5. Some lukewarm displays in his first season were quickly forgotten when he dispatched the winner against Tottenham in the 2001 FA Cup Semi-Final, and the Frenchman retained his happy knack of scoring in north London derbies throughout his six-year Arsenal career.
In 2001/02 he was devastatingly effective, the highlight being his lobbed goal over a bewildered Peter Schmeichel at Villa Park in 2002 as Arsenal closed in on the Double. Although a knee injury ruled him out of the end-of-season celebrations, Pires was as potent as ever in the ‘Invincibles’ season. His Arsenal career ended in the 2006 Champions League Final in Paris, when he was controversially substituted following goalkeeper Jens Lehmann’s sending off.
He had a brief spell with Aston Villa in the 2010/11 season, but it is for (and at) Arsenal that he will forever be remembered. JS
27. Nemanja Vidic
Arguably the best British-style centre-half of the last two decades was a Serbian who arrived from Russia. Nemanja Vidic bore all the hallmarks of a defender schooled in the blood-and-thunder traditions of the English game: a towering leap, a complete absence of frills, a Terminator-like inability to sense physical pain.
Even so, Vidic’s introduction to England was anything but smooth; in his first few months, he struggled badly with the pace and fury of the Premier League. But he refined his focus, adapting and growing stronger – literally. "Every time I walked past the gym, I would see Nemanja in there lifting weights,” said Paul Scholes, recalling the defender’s response to that tricky early period.
Improvement came quickly and alongside Rio Ferdinand, Vidic became one half of the best centre-back partnership of the Premier League era. United’s 2008/09 side is remembered for a sparkling forward line of Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo and Berbatov, but perhaps even more impressive was the defence which kept a frankly ludicrous 14 successive clean sheets that autumn. AH