Unsung Heroes: Juninho Pernambucano - The Brazilian Set-Piece Wizard Who Scored 77 Career Free Kicks

Jun 5, 2020, 12:37 PM GMT+1
Lyon' Brazilian midfielder Juninho jubil
Lyon' Brazilian midfielder Juninho jubil | PHILIPPE MERLE/Getty Images
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An enduring image of European football is of a floppy-haired Brazilian looking up dead-eyed from a ball prone on the grass in front of him, to the goal 30 yards away - shirt tucked in, hands on hips, one foot edged slightly in front of the other.

He steps up and pounds the football with the instep of his right adidas Predator, sending it spinning, dipping and spiralling into the back of the net. The iconic looping stands of Lyon's former Stade Gerland erupt. 

There are very few players who you would actually expect to score when they were over a set piece, but Juninho Pernambucano was one of them - a true master of the knuckleball.

Juninho moments before scoring one of the best free kicks of his career against Barcelona in 2009
Juninho moments before scoring one of the best free kicks of his career against Barcelona in 2009 | FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images

You would be hard pressed to say the midfielder was underrated given his prowess in dead-ball situations, but considering he remained loyal to Olympique Lyonnais for eight long years and spent half a decade at Vasco da Gama before that, you might say that he is under-appreciated and unsung as his career passed under the radar in Ligue 1 and Brazil's Série A, while our collective memories are punctuated by his ridiculous strikes in the ​Champions League.

Although he is synonymous with ludicrous free-kick goals, Juninho was a majestic midfielder in his own right and could have held his own at any of Europe's top clubs during the noughties.

Reizinho de São Januario

Juninho in action for Vasco in 2000
Juninho in action for Vasco in 2000 | Allsport/ALLSPORT

Having come through the ranks at his hometown club Sport Recife in 1993 aged 18, Juninho moved to Vasco da Gama two years later in a free transfer - the club where he would finish his career.

It was in his five years in Rio de Janeiro that Juninho emerged as a free-kick expert, becoming a fan favourite and Brazil international as he netted 52 goals in 295 appearances, winning two Série A titles and a Copa Libertadores. 15 of those 52 goals were direct free kicks - a taste of things to come.

European football finally beckoned in 2001 at the ripe old age of 26, and Reizinho de São Januário (The Little King of São Januário) would join Lyon in controversial circumstances, having won a preliminary injunction against his former club.

A banner at Juninho's farewell match for Lyon in 2009
A banner at Juninho's farewell match for Lyon in 2009 | PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP via Getty Images

At the time Lyon had never won the French championship, but Juninho's arrival ushered in an era of complete dominance for Les Gones as they sealed an unprecedented seven back-to-back Ligue 1 crowns. Of the 100 goals he scored for Lyon in his 344 appearances, 44 were from direct free kicks.

The midfielder left France abruptly in 2009 aged 34 and spells in Qatar, back in Brazil, MLS and a swan song at Vasco would see out his career.

5 Biggest Moments

Juninho with the Ligue 1 trophy after the seventh consecutive title win in 2008
Juninho with the Ligue 1 trophy after the seventh consecutive title win in 2008 | PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP via Getty Images

Juninho enjoyed a stellar career both in Europe with Lyon and back in Brazil.

He won 18 trophies for club and country before hanging up his boots in 2014.

Here are the moments that defined his 20 years in the game...

1. Move to Lyon - 2001

Juninho in action for Lyon in 2001
Juninho in action for Lyon in 2001 | PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP via Getty Images

The grand old age of 26 when he eventually made the move to Europe, you could say Juninho was late to the party. However, he more than made up for lost time with his trophy haul at Stade Gerland.

Seven consecutive Ligue 1 triumphs followed his arrival, as well as a Coupe de France in 2008.

Not bad.

2. First Ligue 1 Title - 2002

Juninho holds the Ligue 1 trophy aloft
Juninho holds the Ligue 1 trophy aloft | JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT/AFP via Getty Images

In his first season with Les Gones, Juninho scored five times and provided three assists as that iconic squad claimed a first ever Ligue 1 trophy.

There would, of course, be plenty more where that came from.

3. Brazil Debut - 1999

Juninho during a friendly against Jamaica in 2003
Juninho during a friendly against Jamaica in 2003 | Stu Forster/Getty Images

Juninho made his Brazil debut in a friendly against South Korea in March 1999 and would pick up 40 caps, but he wouldn't make the squad for a major tournament until the 2006 World Cup.

There he bagged a 30-yard belter against Japan in the group phase before retiring after the unsuccessful campaign.

4. Individual Display Against Real Madrid - 2005

Juninho fires home a free kick against Real in 2005
Juninho fires home a free kick against Real in 2005 | JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP via Getty

Usually when someone plays this well against Real Madrid, Los Blancos immediately set about putting plans in place to make them their next big signing. 

While that wouldn't transpire to be the case for Juninho, he absolutely dominated Real in the Champions League group stage in September 2005 as the French side raced into a three-goal lead before half time.

From one free kick, Reizinho provided the assist for John Carew's deft header to open the scoring, before rattling in another, low beyond Iker Casillas from fully 35 yards. Cue pandemonium.

Sylvain Wiltord made it 3-0 before Juninho had the chance to cap an incredible first-half performance from the penalty spot, but Casillas had his revenge. Still, an incredible individual European performance against one of the world's biggest clubs.

Granted, the Madrid club's midfield was made up of Thomas Gravesen, Pablo García and Julio Baptista...but that's besides the point.

5. Copa Libertadores Glory - 1998

Juninho landed the biggest trophy of his career when it was still in its infancy.

Aged 23, the midfielder started both legs of Vasco's 1998 Copa Libertadores triumph over the Ecuadorian iteration of Barcelona. It remains the club's one and only success in the competition.

The Brazilians won both legs on their way to winning South America's Champions League equivalent, and while Juninho didn't score in the two-legged final, he did net a stunning and crucial goal against River Plate in the semi-finals - more on that below...

3 Best Goals

Juninho celebrates a goal against Bayern Munich in 2008
Juninho celebrates a goal against Bayern Munich in 2008 | OLIVER LANG/DDP/AFP via Getty Images

Don't get it twisted; while Juninho may not have played in any of the planet's top, top leagues, the guy was a big-game player - something the likes of ​Real Madrid, ​Barcelona and ​Bayern Munich will attest to.

Honourable mentions to ​this strike against Japan in the 2006 World Cup and ​this incredible goal against Fluminense in 1996 - they would have been placed fifth and second respectively in this list if we were allowed to embed them, but alas we cannot for legal reasons.

While you'll have to follow the link to see those, feast your eyes on these...

3. Vs Bayern - 2003

2. Vs River Plate - 1998

1. Vs Barça - 2009

Legacy

Juninho (R) and former Lyon manager Sylvinho
Juninho (R) and former Lyon manager Sylvinho | JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images

Having retired in 2014, Juninho is still part of the fabric of Olympique Lyonnais, returning as sporting director in 2019 where he remains today. 

As a player, Juninho will be remembered as on of - if not the - best free-kick takers the world of football has ever seen, with a ludicrous 77 goals direct from the dead ball throughout his career. 

While he may not have played for one of the world's top clubs (with all due respect to Lyon and Vasco), he is certainly one of the best midfielders to grace Europe with his presence in the 2000s.

For more from Krishan Davis, follow him on Twitter!

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