When discussing Lyon’s successes in the 2000s, it is difficult not to mention the talents of Brazilian midfielder Antônio Augusto Ribeiro Reis Junior, better known as Juninho Pernambucano. The midfielder certainly played a big part in the successes of the club, participating in eight seasons with the French giants and winning the league title in seven of those seasons. Overall he would play over 300 matches for OL, scoring 100 goals in all competitions in the process.
Juninho began his career playing for his hometown team Sport Recife before being snapped up by Vasco da Gama. There, he won the Campeonato Brasileiro de Clubes da Série A twice as well as the Copa Libertadores. It was whilst playing for Vasco da Gama that he started to fine-tune his set piece ability, something which he would later become renowned for. It was also here that he received his first of 40 call ups for the Brazilian national team.
In making the move to Europe with Olympique Lyonnais, Juninho would certainly play his part in the stranglehold Lyon were to adopt on the Ligue 1 title. Juninho’s impressive passing was one ingredient in a recipe for success with the club however he would, without any doubt, make a name for himself due to his ability with free kicks. His ability to produce moments of magic from dead-ball situations with pace and power but, more importantly, accuracy on the ball would make him a hero amongst Lyon fans and have him feared by opponents. Juninho was first made regular club captain by Gérard Houllier, something which was to continue until his departure from the club. His ability to pick an important pass was also something valued by the fans of the club.
A memorable moment occurred in his final Champions League campaign against Barcelona where he scored a free-kick from a relatively tight angle, deceiving goalkeeper Victor Valdes into expecting a cross before floating the ball perfectly into the top corner. Lyon were to be eliminated from the competition by Barcelona and Juninho, in an end not befitting of the club legend, was to be sent off in his final Champions League appearance.
Unfortunately, “Juni” (as he was affectionately known to Lyon fans) was to leave the club one year earlier than his contract stated, fuelling rumours of a rift with manager Claude Puel, even having denied any rift with previous manager Alain Perrin. Any rift with Puel was denied by Juninho who said:
“I did not leave because of him, it’s not fair to say that. In January 2009 when I told him I was leaving, he told me I had to stay for another year!”
It could be said, however, that Juninho was not a fan of Puel’s style of management and his less-direct way of dealing with the players under his control.
In a press conference sitting alongside the owner of Olympique Lyonnais, Jean-Michel Aulas, it was announced that there had been a mutual agreement to free the player from his contract. Juninho was tearful throughout the announcement of his departure but left the conference without answering any questions from the media.
Juninho was to receive a hero’s send-off in his final match for Olympique Lyonnais, scoring his 100th goal for the club against Stade Malherbe de Caen from the penalty spot whilst the fans sang his praises from the stands. For his efforts with the club, he would also receive a special plaque whilst giving a personal goodbye in front of the “Bad Gones” section of fans in the stadium. The atmosphere created was so touching that Bernard Lacombe was brought to tears in front of the packed Stade de Gerland.
The midfield maestro would move to the Middle East to play for Al-Gharafa Sports Club in Qatar before moving back home to Brazil once again with Vasco da Gama. At international level, Juninho was never part of any famous World Cup-winning Brazil squad but he did win a Confederations Cup with his home nation in 2005.
In the confusion surrounding Claude Puel’s managerial future with Olympique Lyonnais, Juninho was actually linked with a move back to the club as a member of the coaching staff. Juninho was not officially offered any role but did not rule out a move back to Lyon in the future.
“I want to lead OL. One day I want to coach OL, that’s for sure, but only if I’m capable. If I prepare, I think I can do it.”
This will certainly please fans of OL, who have just witnessed another relative fan favourite, Rémi Garde, appointed in the managerial hot-seat. If Juninho does decide to turn to management or coaching once his career is over, Lyon would be the most natural destination given his relationship with the club and the fans. It would be foolish to completely rule out a return to Lyon as a member of the coaching staff at some point in the future.
It is a great pleasure to induct Juninho Pernambucano into the French Football Weekly Hall of Fame. He certainly brought a new wave of intrigued fans to the league and there was definitely a buzz around the stadium whenever Lyon were presented with a set-piece in a dangerous area with Lyon’s #8 on the field. One of the great members of Lyon’s legendary dominant spell in the 2000s, his legendary status will live on in the hearts of Lyon fans. Even though only winning the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award on one occasion, he made his mark on the league game in France. Replacing a free-kick master was always a difficult task for Lyon and many believe there is still work to be done in finding a player with the complete midfield talent Juninho brought to the table. In his prime, Juninho was arguably the best free-kick taker in the world.