By Adam Szreter
There was only one Juninho, and for many years the fans of Middlesbrough FC hailed his name. But in a career full of challenges that would have demoralised less determined players, Juninho Paulista even has to put up with another Brazilian bearing his nickname.
Having severed his ties with Middlesbrough after three spells, Juninho is now at Celtic FC, and while Juninho Pernambucano has been lighting up the UEFA Champions League with Olympique Lyonnais over the past three seasons, his older namesake, a FIFA World Cup winner two years ago, finally made his debut in the competition against FC Barcelona last week.
The game did not go according to plan for Juninho, substituted at half-time and overshadowed by Henrik Larsson, whose mantle of Celtic Park folk-hero Juninho knows he must emulate now that the Swedish striker has switched to Barcelona.
"You can see the difference between playing a league game and a UEFA Champions League match," Juninho told uefa.com the morning after the Barcelona defeat. "The atmosphere, the excitement. It was great for me to start playing in the most important competition in the world, but at the same time disappointing as I got off on the wrong foot."
At 1.65m, Juninho had a battle just to get into the professional game when he started in Brazil, but one broken ankle and a torn cruciate ligament later, at 31 he is still not finished. Assimilating his silky skills into a traditionally more robust team such as Celtic, as well as bearing the weight of their famous No7 shirt, are not tasks that will intimidate him.
It was only when I arrived here that I realised the No7 was the most important number at the club," he said. "It's been worn by some great players, but I don't want to be compared with Larsson. I know what he means here, and what he did for this club, but I'm a different kind of player and I just want to be remembered as a great player for Celtic."
World Cup ambition
Having missed France '98 with the first of his two serious injuries, before playing in Brazil's early games in Japan and Korea and coming on as late substitute in the final, Juninho makes no bones about his ambition to play in the next World Cup. "Playing in the final was a wonderful experience, not many players get that," he said. "Germany 2006 is a target for all Brazilian players, and my challenge is no different."
As far as this season is concerned, Juninho knows it will be tough to qualify from a Champions League group that includes AC Milan as well as Barcelona. "We have two favourites in our group," he said, before considering the merits of two other strong contenders.
"I'm not sure about Arsenal [FC]," he said. "They are a great team, everyone knows, but in the Champions League maybe the other teams don't give them the same respect they get in the Premiership, and maybe they feel more pressure because they don't play as relaxed as they do normally.
"Real Madrid [CF] also have to be one of the favourites, because of the experience they have," he added. "They play so easily in the Champions League, and they've added some good defenders this season. They just need a bit of time to adapt to each other." The same could be said for Celtic and the original Juninho.
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