31st of January, is quite a special day in the life of Juninho Pernambucano, every year on this day, the Brazilian midfielder celebrates his birthday, this year around, he celebrated it by bidding us farewell as he put an end to his prosperous career by announcing his retirement from football. Due to a thigh injury suffered in November, Juninho decided to call it a day with the same club that he played for almost two decades ago, Vasco Da Gama.
He was not any random midfielder, he was one of the best free-kick takers in the history of the game, he scored 44 of them with Lyon from short and long range distances, he established himself as Lyon’s highest ever scorer in European competitions with a total of 17 goals. His had his own unique style in shooting as the ball wobbled in the air and took unpredictable directions before reaching the goal. He managed to score a free kick past Oliver Kahn, world’s best goalkeeper back then, he even scored from a distance of over 40 meters against Barcelona, Marseille, Ajaccio and Nice. The way he shot the ball was adopted by Cristiano Ronaldo and a few others later on, although he scored 76 free kicks, he wasn’t a static player at all. He was dynamic on the pitch as he moved all over the field, his passes were quite accurate and effective, during some matches, it was as if he is a team on his own.
Juninho kick-started his career with local club Sport Recife, he managed to win two regional trophies in a single season with the club and he quickly caught the attention of Vasco Da Gama and they signed him outright without any hesitation. At Vasco, Juninho quickly established himself as the team’s best player, he lead them to two League titles and a Copa Libertadores as well as a few other minor trophies in his six year stint at the club. Juninho was a fan favorite and he was worshipped by the fans. His great performances at Vasco’s stadium ‘ São Januário’ earned him the nickname ‘The Little King of São Januário’. Despite having all the fame he had, Juninho was eager for more, he did not stop there and in 2001 he pushed for a move to Europe and he eventually joined Ligue 1 side Olympique Lyonnais.
Lyon were a normal team in France, neither a big side nor a small one, they were always there present in the league and challenging for a position in the upper half of the table but they had never won the league and perhaps such as club could be a stepping stone for Juninho, he can establish himself as a starter in one the best leagues in the world. To the surprise of many, Jacques Santini, Juninho’s first manager at Lyon, discovered the brazilian’s strength and centered the team around him, eventually, Lyon won the French Ligue 1 for the first time in their history in Juninho’s first season at the club.
Following a successful first season at Lille, Paul Le Guen was appointed as the club’s new manager and he was determined to replicate the club’s success from the previous season. The Brazilian struggled to adapt to the new manager’s game and in the club’s first nine league games, Lyon managed to win only thrice. Juninho eventually adapted to the manager’s new style and the club won the league for a second consecutive season and eventually they made it four consecutive titles by 2005.
Gérard Houllier was appointed as the new manager at the club and with him Juninho also won two Ligue 1 titles but most notably he was appointed as the team captain, making it a total of 6 consecutive titles in as many seasons. Those two seasons proved to be different as Lyon managed to prove themselves as a tough team among Europe’s best. Lyon hosted Real Madrid in the group stages of the Champions League in September 2006. The Brazilian dominated in the midfield against players like David Beckhan, Emerson, Guti and Mahamoud Diarra, eventually Lyon won the game 2-0.
His performance in that game against Real Madrid made him a well known star among Europe’s best and although he received offers from Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, he decided to stay at Lyon repaying them for the faith they placed in him and finally he lead them to their seventh consecutive title under Alain Perrin. He stayed for an eighth season at Lyon where the club failed to win the league and he eventually decided to call it a day on his career in Europe as he accepted an offer Qatari side Al-Gharafa, there he won the domestic league and three domestic cups between 2009 and 2011.
Later on, he returned to Vasco Da Gama and then had a short stint with New York Red Bulls before returning again to Vasco and finally retired last month. Juninho was an exceptional player, he was perhaps the best ever free-kick taker but he definitely offered more on the pitch as he lead Lyon to a historic run of seven consecutive league titles. Farewell Juninho!