A wand-like right foot, a cool head on his shoulders and an exemplar work ethic are just three of the ingredients that made former Brazil international Juninho Pernambucano a model professional. Lethal from set-pieces and with a fine eye for a pass, the midfielder made an indelible mark at both Rio de Janeiro outfit Vasco da Gama, whom he helped to their first and so far only Copa Libertadores triumph in 1998, and Ligue 1 giants Lyon, where he was a key figure in all seven of Les Gones’ league title successes.
His intelligence and strong character have made him a leader and captain wherever he has been, from his early days at Sport Recife in his home state of Pernambuco through to his current employers: Qatari heavyweights Al Gharrafa. With the possibility of once again pulling on a Vasco shirt still on the cards, and having stated his ambition to one day take on an off-the-field role at OL, the 36-year-old’s time at the top of the game is clearly far from over. A few days after the end of the Qatari league season, the player capped 52 times by Brazil and who helped A Seleção lift the 2005 edition of the FIFA Confederations Cup gave a full and frank interview to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Juninho, it’s two years now since you arrived in Qatar. How have you settled in?
Juninho Pernambucano: I’ve got a very nice life here. After spending eight years in France, I didn’t find it particularly difficult to adapt. It’s true that there are cultural differences, but I went through the same thing when I left Brazil for France. I’m the one who’s come here, so it’s down to me to put in the effort and adapt as quickly as possible. And because the standard of living here in Doha is so good, it makes it easier to fit in. In fact, I’ve experienced more changes at a professional level. Qatari football has improved a great deal in terms of quality of play, but in organisational terms there’s a huge difference compared to Europe. Over there, right from the start of the championship you know exactly how the season is going to pan out in detail, whereas here there’s still a lot of delay when it comes to organising the working week or away trips. That’s the biggest change. But, everything’s going very well so far. It’s a lovely adventure.
In your first season you won the league title, the Qatar Crown Prince Cup and the Qatari Stars Cup. Did you expect such a successful start?
I love competing and I love winning! I’ve been like that since I was very small. I didn’t sign for Al Gharrafa so I could gently wind down my career or to treat it like a holiday. I wanted to keep playing well, while I knew there’d be fewer matches over the course of the season and so it would be easier to handle. Of course I didn’t expect so much success so quickly, but I knew that I was joining a good team who’d won the previous two league titles. We won a treble last term, and we also reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League. It was the best season in the club’s history. It means just as much to me as everything I won with Lyon and in Brazil. Unfortunately this season we weren’t able to defend our title and we had to settle for second place. But there are still the two cups left and we’ll try to win at least one of them.
You’ve played in the Copa Libertadores, the UEFA Champions League and its AFC equivalent. Do these three competitions stir the same level of passion among players and supporters?
Every team wherever you go has the same goal: taking part in the competition which features the best sides. Every team wants to be part of a competition like that. In Brazil, it’s almost more difficult to clinch one of the qualifying places for the Libertadores than it is to actually play in it. The European Champions League is by far the best club competition in the world, all it’s missing are Brazilian teams! And in Asia, I’ve discovered a tournament that’s treated with the same level of passion and which is of a very high standard. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to win the European title with Lyon, and I was also knocked out of last year’s Asian competition with Al Gharrafa. But I was fortunate enough to lift the Libertadores with Vasco da Gama. It was magnificent. These are the kind of great competitions which every player dreams about.
You were voted the league’s best player last season, but no description of your style of play would be complete without mention of your set-piece ability. Is that something you continue to work on, even at the age of 36?
Perhaps it’s a gift. It’s true I’ve got the ability to strike a ball well, but more than anything it’s something I’ve really worked on. It’s only through repetition that we improve. My success is down to a mixture of hard work, determination and the pleasure I get from training. Over the course of my entire career, I’ve always put a lot of emphasis on doing dead-ball work in training. It’s become the strongest part of my game. I still get the same enjoyment from working hard as I always did, and that’s something I try to pass on to my younger team-mates. The best example I can give them is that, even now at the age of 36, I’m still getting offers to play at the highest level! Putting your heart into everything you do, that’s the key.
What was your view on the decision to award Qatar the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup™?
I wasn’t surprised by the decision, because Qatar put in a lot of effort and presented a very nice project. It’s the first Gulf nation chosen by FIFA to host the World Cup, which will open doors for all the others. Every country in the world has the right to bid to welcome a World Cup. It’ll be a very good competition, which will give supporters the chance to see several games because everything will be quite close together. Of course, the heat will be a very important factor, but Qatar has all the ingredients for putting on one of the best World Cups of all time.
Lyon have not won Ligue 1 since you left, so what do you think they need to get back on the trophy trail? Would you agree that they are yet to find someone to adequately fill the gap you left both on and off the pitch?
There’ll never be just one team that always wins everything. We pulled off an exceptional run by winning seven league titles in a row. Winning is hard, and it’s even harder to keep winning. But Lyon have kept a competitive side together, one which reached the semi-finals of the Champions League (in 2009/10) - something that I was never able to do. In terms of me leaving the club, I genuinely think that nobody is irreplaceable, except perhaps the likes of Pele and Ronaldo when they hung up their boots, or Lionel Messi in the future. I’m not irreplaceable and Lyon have already moved on since my exit. But I did manage to leave my own stamp on the club’s history. Lyon will always have a place in my heart and my head and, inevitably, I’d like to go back there one day to take up a role with them and use my experience to help the club.
Do you think you may have left the club a year too soon?
Things have gone so well for me at Al Gharrafa that I’ve got no right to regret anything. But of course, I left a bit too soon. I could have played on for two further seasons at Lyon, but it had a bit to do with how things are in France. I was a foreign player who’d won a lot, and mentally I was quite tired of being the target of all the criticism when the team stopped winning, as well as hearing that the team simply revolved around me. I would have liked to stay but, more than anything else, I would have appreciated a bit more support from everybody involved. I can take criticism but that was starting to make life uncomfortable off the pitch. I didn’t have a choice anymore so I decided to leave, but I think that I could have played on for another two seasons.
There’s been a recent wave of Brazilian internationals heading home to play in the domestic league, while you’ve been strongly linked with a return to Vasco. Is there any truth to the rumours?
The truth is that the day I left I promised that one day I’d come back and play for Vasco again. And that’s why their supporters are always asking me when I’m coming back. I know that the doors are open to me over there. My contract’s coming to an end with Al Gharrafa and I’ve received an offer from Vasco. We’re having discussions and there’s a chance that I’ll sign for them. Unfortunately, even if I were to sign now I wouldn’t be registered in time for the start of the [Brasileirao] season. That’d mean that I wouldn’t be able to play until August, and then there’d only be four months left. But I’ll make a decision over the next few weeks.
Do you ever regret the fact your international career wasn’t as glory-laden as your time at club level?
To be honest, I’ve got no right to wish for anything in my career to have gone differently. I’ve had a wonderful career thus far, I’ve never had any injury problems, I’ve played over 700 games and won more than 20 trophies. It’s true I’ve not tasted the same level of success with the national team, but even so I’ve played at a World Cup and won a Confederations Cup. But you can’t win everything in life. I prefer to look towards the future, I only look to the past to try and learn from it. The way I see it, I’ve made history at one club in Brazil and another in France, which gives me real pleasure. Maybe that's just the way my story was meant to go.