The big interview: Juninho – "When I got to Boro it was so cold that I put pieces of newspaper inside my boots to help warm them up"
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…
- 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
I was at the stage where I was a member of the first team and the reserves, so I was switching between the sides
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 [laughs].
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!
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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 44 games (2 goals)
- 1995-97 Middlesbrough 69 (15)
- 1997-2002 Atletico Madrid 75 (22)
- 1999-2000 Middlesbrough (loan) 35 (5)
- 2000-01 Vasco da Gama (loan) 37 (8)
- 2002 Flamengo (loan) 14 (2)
- 2002-04 Middlesbrough 48 (12)
- 2004-05 Celtic 22 (1)
- 2005-06 Palmeiras 63 (20)
- 2007 Flamengo 6 (0)
- 2007-08 Sydney FC 14 (0)
- Brazil 50 (5)
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
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
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 [laughs]. 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.