By Andrew Haslam
Brazilian playmaker and 2002 FIFA World Cup winner Juninho Paulista is set to make his return to first-team football after more than six months out of action through injury.
The 30-year-old signed for English side Middlesbrough FC for the third time in July 2002, but sustained a cruciate ligament injury in a pre-season friendly and has been on the sidelines ever since. However, Tuesday night marked his first competitive football since he appeared as a substitute in the World Cup final, as he played 70 minutes of Middlesbrough’s reserve-team game with Bradford City FC, and made an instant impact, scoring one goal and creating two in a 9-0 victory.
The match also proved that the Middlesbrough public have lost none of their affection for the Brazilian, as 19,450 spectators turned out to see the returning hero. Juninho's love affair with the region stretches back to October 1995, when a player who was then regarded as one of the most promising in South America first arrived from Brazilian side São Paulo FC.
Juninho's stylish play made him an instant hit with the fans, but what really won over Teesside was his evident attachment to the club and the area. At a time when the commitment shown by other highly paid foreign stars was questioned, Juninho's dedication stood out like a beacon.
Nowhere was this better shown than on the final day of the 1996/97 season - a campaign where, despite reaching both domestic cup finals, Middlesbrough struggled in the Premiership. As the final whistle blew on a 1-1 draw at Leeds United AFC that condemned the club to relegation, Juninho sank to his knees and remained motionless and crying, clearly devastated.
Such devotion meant the fans did not object when Juninho moved to Club Atlético de Madrid for €17.5m, recognising that he needed to be playing at the highest level in order to challenge for a place in his country's 1998 World Cup squad. However, a broken leg ended his dreams and further bad news was to follow as Juninho fell out of favour at Atlético.
He had not been forgotten on Teesside, however, and returned for a lengthy loan spell in 1999/00. He was still held in awe by the fans, but then Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson declined to make the transfer permanent and Juninho subsequently returned home, joining CR Vasco da Gama, where he recaptured his best form.
But when Middlesbrough's present manager, Steve McClaren, was looking for a player to inject some creativity into his side, however, there was only ever one option. Juninho was evidently delighted to be back. "It is very exciting," he said upon re-signing in July. "I'm going back because Middlesbrough are ambitious, like me."
'A difficult time'
The long-term injury he sustained during a game with Modena FC temporarily halted those ambitions but, with a return to first-team action now finally in sight - he may be on the bench for Saturday's fixture with Everton FC - the player could not be happier. "I'm fully prepared to play but we'll see what the manager decides," he said. "The important thing is I am able to be in the squad after six months. I must take it step by step – I’ve had a difficult time but my head never went down."
Juninho was also amazed about the hold he continues to exert over the Boro fans, and appeared overwhelmed by the welcoming committee that greeted him at the Bradford game. "It's difficult to explain my relationship with the supporters," he told the club's website. "It's been wonderful since my first time here. That's why I made the decision to come back, and that's why I have the ambition to win something for Middlesbrough to remember for the rest of my life." Some 20,000 Riverside regulars will concur with that.
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