Juninho Pernambucano, the ultimate master of the free kick

Juninho Pernambucano will forever be associated with the art of the free kick. There have been a host of players before and since with wonderful ability from dead balls, but they haven’t mastered the skill quite like the Brazilian.

Within the confines of a team sport, his individual genius ensured a truly lasting legacy, a not-so-secret weapon that was both praised and feared.

Juninho was more than a fabulous free-kick taker, he was a controlling midfielder and a leader in a Lyon side that dominated the landscape in France for nearly a decade, but the everlasting memories of his magic are his signature, spectacular set-pieces.

His journey to prominence began with local side Sport Recife, where he won two regional titles before signing for Vasco da Gama in 1995.

The emerging midfielder was surrounded by top talent during his time with the Brazilian side, with national team figures in Romario, Edmilson and Juninho Paulista among his teammates during his six seasons with the club.

It was a successful period for Juninho and Vasco, winning the Brasileirão twice and impressing as the club won a first Copa Libertadores in 1998, scoring in the semi-final win over Argentine side River Plate.

While many of Brazil’s brightest talents are quickly recruited across the Atlantic, Juninho stayed with Vasco for six seasons and it wasn’t until the age of 25 that he moved to Europe.

The move came following a court ruling in favor of the midfielder, allowing him to sign for Lyon as a free agent. Despite the manner of his exit, it did not diminish his status as a fan favourite, with two subsequent spells at Vasco to maintain his bond with the club’s supporters.

Juninho’s arrival in Ligue 1 opened the eyes of European football to mastering his technique, with the Brazilian becoming the best exponent of the ‘knuckleball’ technique now commonly used at elite level.

It is a striking technique that sends the ball on an unpredictable trajectory, deflecting and diving in a chaotic manner until it hits its target. None has improved like Juninho.

“I started by copying the free-kicks taken by Marcelinho, who was playing for Corinthians,” he said. FourFourTwo on his free kicks.

“He was one of my inspirations, and the first player I ever saw hitting the ball head on and making it dance through the air. Didi, who won the World Cup with Brazil in 1958 and 1962, Was doing it back in the day too, and since then everyone’s been just tweaking the formula.

Lyon were beginning to emerge strong in Ligue 1 when Juninho arrived, a solid finish to the previous season – including a run of seven consecutive wins to conclude the campaign – seeing Jacques Santini’s side finish second to Nantes.

Sonny Anderson’s goals had sparked their charge and the addition of his creative compatriot to the club’s midfield took Lyon to a new level, as a maiden Ligue 1 title was won in 2001/02.

Having taken more than a century to claim their first top-flight crown, few could have imagined the period of dominance that was to follow.

Despite Santini leaving to become coach of the France team, Lyon went from strength to strength and it was Juninho who pulled the strings from the centre.

He scored 13 league goals – including a hat-trick against Auxerre – as Lyon retained the title the following season and was instrumental as the club won Ligue 1 again and again and again.

Lyon won seven consecutive league titles to become France’s top football team but were unable to turn their domestic dominance into continental success despite Juninho often shining in the Champions League.

His first free-kick in Europe’s biggest competition came against Bayern Munich in 2003/04, a marvelous effort that left one of the world’s greatest goalkeepers, Oliver Kahn, crumpled in the side netting as his desperate dive proved futile.

Rewatch the replay and there’s a visible moment in which Kahn – and the ball boy moving in the background – realize late on that Juninho’s effort is falling back to the top corner.

It was a goal and a win that gave Lyon a declaration of intent, but their run ended in the quarter-finals with a charismatic coach named José Mourinho and a little-known Porto side who would go on to be crowned champions. from Europe at the end of the season.

Juninho’s reputation continued to improve as his collection of free-kicks grew, with anxiety and anticipation sweeping the stadiums as he placed the ball, depending on which side your allegiances fell on.

Had another player aimed for Juninho’s distances and angles, there would undoubtedly be groans among the masses. But not Juninho, he was a man capable of the unthinkable.

The knuckleball technique has proven increasingly popular in the modern game, a method in which the ball does not spin as it flies through the air and its stability provides an upside-down trajectory that makes its path nearly impossible to read.

Juninho’s free-kicks moved in a way that often saw them as if heading all over but the goal, before deflecting beyond the goalkeeper and into the post.

His most productive season came in 2005/06 when he scored seven free-kicks in all competitions, including three in the Champions League group stage and a subsequent streak of three free-kicks in three games over a spell. only eight days.

PSV Eindhoven, Ajaccio and Le Mans were all on the wrong end of the midfield set-piece specials, with the second of those arguably his best.

Such is the distance, Juninho’s run begins at the edge of the center circle as he lines up from an inconceivable distance.

Without hesitation and with a single flick of his magic right foot, he shot, sending the ball on his own out-of-body experience as he veered venomously towards the goal.

It was the kind of goal that defies belief, but Juninho’s teammates had gotten somewhat used to it.

Juninho ended the season as Ligue 1 Player of the Year, the second of four consecutive Lyon awards as Michael Essien, Florent Malouda and Karim Benzema all won the award.

While those names eventually left for Europe’s elite clubs, Juninho remained a constant in the squad during the most successful era in Les Gones’ history.

He remained with Lyon until the 2008/09 season, his final campaign including another classic effort in a Champions League clash with Barcelona.

Pep Guardiola’s side were on course for a treble but found awkward opposition in Lyon in the round of 16 after being held 1-1 in France.

The hosts’ goal came from a predictable source, as a Juninho free-kick near the boundary line trumped Victor Valdes who – suitably pissed off – comically stumbled backwards into his own goal.

He ended his career with Lyon as the winner of seven league titles and the Coupe de France, with a record 100 goals in 343 appearances – including an incredible 36 from free-kicks.

His impact was unquestionable and his mastery of one of the great arts of football proved a lucky charm for Lyon, who never once lost in a game where Juninho converted a set-piece special .

Juninho then signed for Al-Gharafa in Qatar as his career wound down, later having two spells with Vasco’s former club on either side of a short spell in MLS at New York Red Bulls.

He earned 40 caps for Brazil and lifted the Confederations Cup in 2005, but failed to make enough of an impact at international level to cement his status with the Selecao, having been overlooked for the victorious U.S. national team. 2002 World Cups in Japan and South Korea.

The legend of Juninho is at Lyon, while in the eyes of many football fans there has perhaps never been a better free-kick taker than the brilliant Brazilian who bent the ball to his liking.

David Beckham might be the first name that comes to mind for a casual fan who talks about free-kicks, but for those who’ve watched Juninho’s best football in France, there’s only one contender. as the best free kick taker of his generation.

He might just be the best of any generation.

Read – Midfield Wizards: The Architect, Andrea Pirlo

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Brian L. Hartfield