Goal.com's countdown to the greatest player of 2008 continues with free-kick specialist Juninho Pernambucano, captain of Olympique Lyonnais, he has led les Gones to a seventh consecutive Ligue 1 title this year and a historical league and cup double.
49 - Javier Zanetti - Internazionale, Serie A - Score: 1104
48 - Daniel Guiza - Fenerbahçe, Super Lig - Score: 1089
47 – Juninho Pernambucano – Olympique Lyonnais, Ligue 1 - Score: 1083
Not since Garrincha’s ‘banana-kick’ revolutionised the way free-kicks were taken nearly half a century ago has there been such an innovator over a deadball as Juninho Pernambucano. Widely acclaimed as the best free-kick taker in the contemporary game, the diminutive Brazilian’s ‘knuckleball’ efforts have yielded numerous goals and have attracted the sincerest form of flattery – imitation – from stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo.
Even the Ballon d’Or winner has failed to attract the kind of success from striking a static ball that Juninho enjoys. No other player in world football can strike fear into goalkeepers from 40 yards, for example. Juninho enjoys this reputation quite simply because it is deserved.
He has admitted in the past that he would like to score 50 free-kicks for Lyon. Presently, Juninho is on 40, having achieved the unlikely feat of scoring two free-kicks in an individual game three times.
It was free-kick number ten for les Gones that first burst him into the world’s consciousness as a swerving, dipping effort from over 30 yards beat Oliver Khan, then the world’s best goalkeeper, gave his side a sixth minute lead against Bayern Munich.
This is perhaps not even his best goal. Away to Ajaccio in Ligue 1 in March 2006, Juninho placed the ball down only a few inches shy of 45 yards from goal and took a few steps purposefully backwards so that he was standing well inside the centre circle. A brief jog, a jab of the right boot and a few brief moments later, Sébastien Porato’s net was shuddering as he was beaten by one of the most incredible free-kicks of recent times.
Critics have argued that Juninho’s potency has lessened over the last two years and, to an extent, there may be some basis to their arguments but the soon-to-be 34 year-old remains a vital component of Lyon’s side.
This was underlined as a superb performance in a key Champions League match against Fiorentina in November helped Claude Puel’s team to a fantastic 3-1 victory in Florence. He may not have scored but Juninho was the schemer behinds Lyon’s success that evening and twice came close to adding to his collection of classic goals as Sébastien Frey’s framework reverberated twice with the sound of the ball colliding heavily against it following strikes from the Brazilian’s boot.
A History Of Success
Raised on the traditional futsal style of play in Recife, a port city in the eastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco (hence the ‘Pernambucano’ moniker), Antônio Augusto Ribeiro Reis Junior was born the youngest of five children.
At the age of 17, Juninho would join local club Sport Recife, where he would win the state championship and enjoy sufficient success to be courted by traditional powerhouses of the Brazilian game, Vasco de Gama.
A move several hundred miles down the coast to the Rio de Janeiro club proved the catalyst for the then 20 year-old to really begin to make waves. Nicknamed ‘The Little King of São Januário’ by the affectionate Vasco fans, Juninho led the club to Copa Libertadores (the South American equivalent of the Champions League) in 1998, scoring a particularly important goal (yes, it was a free-kick) against Argentine giants River Plate in the semi-final.
Having made his international debut in 1999 and having won the Brazilian championship for a second time in 2000, Juninho had achieved everything he could in his native land and angled for a move to Europe. The split with Vasco was messy, ending in court as the player traded the Copacabana beach for the Rhône Valley.
It quickly became apparent why Vasco had fought so hard to keep their little gem as it was Juninho’s arrival at the Stade Gerland that helped act as a spark that allowed Lyon to win an unprecedented seven consecutive titles. Along with Sidney Govou and Grégory Coupet (who has since left for Atlético Madrid), Juninho was the only player on les Gones’ books to have been present in all of these years.
While with Lyon, Juninho has displayed that there is far more to his game than simply from set-play situations. A perceptive passer and technically gifted attacking player, Juninho is a tenacious competitor and a fiery leader.
Aside from prodigious youngster, Karim Benzema, Juninho remains Lyon’s most important offensive player after seven and a half years in France. With well over 200 Ligue 1 appearances behind him, he has mustered an impressive total of 71 goals in addition to a formidable number of assists.
There can be little doubt that the intelligent midfielder, whose range of passing and other ‘open-play’ skills are understandably, if a little unfairly, eclipsed by his talent for striking a free-kick, is starting to slow a little. Recognising this, Juninho has dropped hints about retirement, however, should he choose, he could remain an important player for Lyon until his contract expires in 18 months time.
Ligue 1 Winner 2007/08
Coupe de France Winner 2007/08
Robin Bairner, Goal.com