By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Another veteran in the 2013 Campeonato Brasileiro is the 38-year-old playmaker Juninho Pernambucano, a former Seleção star who last month signed a short-term contract with Carioca club Vasco da Gama for the third time. Struggling prior to his arrival with problems both on and off the pitch, Juninho’s return has coincided with an upturn in fortunes.
Juninho made his name at Vasco during the late 1990s before eight successful years in Europe at French club Lyon, where he excelled on Europe’s greatest footballing stage, the UEFA Champions League, despite playing in what some might term a ‘weaker’ national championship.
His eight years at the club were the most successful in Lyon’s history. He helped the side to seven successive Ligue 1 titles and cemented his reputation as one of the finest creative midfielders in the world.
Juninho was also an important player for the Seleção, the Brazilian national team, for seven years making forty appearances. He played in three international tournaments for Brazil, the 2001 Copa America, the 2005 Confederations Cup which the side won and the 2006 World Cup, after which he announced his retirement from international football.
Competing amongst some of the most talented playmakers of the era, such as Rivaldo, Ronaldinho Gaúcho and Kaká, Juninho often found himself shifted out of position into a deeper, more withdrawn role. His consistency in dead-ball situations however is his strongest credential and helped him force his way into the national side.
He rejoined Vasco da Gama in 2011 and helped them to runners-up in that year’s Brasileirão, finishing just two points behind champions Corinthians. As the club’s financial difficulties increased he left in December 2012 to join MLS side New York Red Bulls.
However an unhappy stint in the U.S. saw him reunited with Vasco for a third time. On his third debut last month he scored the opener against Fluminense, leading the side to a 3-1 victory in the first domestic game at the renovated Maracanã. He had done the same on his second debut in July 2011, although on that occasion Vasco went on to lose the match, 2-1 to Corinthians.
Nothing can compare with his first six years at the club between 1995 and 2001 however. Arguably Vasco’s best side ever, the club won two Brasileirão titles, the Copa Libertadores and the now defunct Copa Mercosul. Alongside Romário he is the club’s biggest idol of the last fifteen years.
Ramon Leite, a 24-year-old Vasco fan in Niterói, said: “Juninho is the face of Vasco. Twice in three years he has come back and instantly improved the team. There is a definite reasons Vascaínos call him the Reizinho [Little King].”
Since the beginning of the year there is no doubt Vasco have struggled, and their only hope in this year’s Brasileirão is to survive to fight another day. Although now with the Reizinho back at the heart of their creativity, there is room to dream of better times at the club, even at his tender age of 38.