Juninho’s magical talent will be missed by Lyon
It was February 24 2009, six minutes into the Champions League clash between Lyon and the most feared outfit in Europe, Barcelona.
The French side had won a free kick to the left of Victor Valdes’ penalty area. An acute angle confronted one talented Brazilian.
A packed Stade Gerland was brimming with fans in buoyant mood. They were celebrating their 20th anniversary in the top flight of French football.
Les Gones have stormed to seven consecutive league titles. Their impressive domestic record spans almost a decade since an inaugural Ligue 1 success in 2002.
The club’s almost flawless record this decade has one significant blemish. A poor record which is often denoted by pundits, ex-professionals and fans across Europe.
Their unimpressive European record separates them from great sides like Real Madrid in the 50’s; Benfica and Inter in the 60’s; Ajax and Bayern Munich in the 70’s; Liverpool in the 80’s; AC Milan in the 90’s and Manchester United at the turn of the century.
In 2001, the arrival of a relatively unknown Brazilian midfielder at Lyon sparked a revolution at the club. Until then, Lyon had made little impact on world football.
Marseille, Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain were the feared names of French football. Olympique Lyonnais hid under a mask of obscurity.
Juninho Pernambucano propelled the club to the summit of domestic football in France. He soon became synonymous with Lyon. He was the iconic figure behind the unstoppable force in Ligue 1.
His free kicks earned him cult status. The Brazilian’s gifted right foot was capable of guiding the ball into the net from the most impossible angles or imposing distances.
Juninho’s collection boasts a varied assortment of shots from blasts to curlers to loopers. Keepers left bamboozled, frustrated and utterly helpless. Just ask Oliver Kahn.
The outrageous shots the player was capable of producing soon saw him rightfully crowned as one of the deadliest set piece takers in Europe.
The Brazilian bears many similarities with a left footer from Guernsey. Both Matt Le Tissier and Juninho defied the laws of physics.
Shooting from any distance, no matter how far or difficult the angle became enshrined in their respective mantras. Both were irrefutable set piece specialists.
‘Le God’ scored 47 times from the penalty spot. He missed one penalty in his entire career. Juninho held an enviable record of 45 goals from the dead ball situations.
In open play both were just as destructive. Juninho had a locker full of flair which he unleashed on unfortunate opponents. The same can be said for Le Tissier.
Audacious but never ostentatious Juninho will forever be etched in the hearts of all those associated with Lyon. The 34-year-old left for fresh pastures at the end of the 2008-09 campaign.
But as the player surveyed his options on that cold night in February, every member of the 39,000 strong crowd knew there was only one thought on the mind of Juninho.
The captain nonchalantly brushed back his hair. He began his approach, four brisk steps before his wizardly right foot floated the ball over the head of the despairing Valdes in goal.
A piece of magic left the home fans in ecstasy. The away fans were dumbfounded. It was the crowning moment of the player’s final season at Stade Gerland.
On the May 26 2009, the elder statesman of Lyon announced his decision to draw the curtains on a glittering career which was polished off with a final pulsating free kick in his final home game against Caen.
Juninho Pernambucano departed French football as magnanimously as he had entered it.
Lyon may have failed to leave an eternal mark on European football but Juninho will forever be remembered by all who have been left astounded by the tremendous talent he was blessed with.