Juninho: Felipão has a different kind of challenge

When coming to the end of a club career that had spanned five countries, there was to be no ‘transitional phase’ for former Brazil international Juninho, as he moved seamlessly into the next stage of his professional life on the administrative side of the beautiful game. Indeed, during the last few months before hanging up his boots, the 2002 FIFA World Cup™-winning midfielder was combining on-the-pitch duties with being general manager at Ituano, the club where he took his first steps towards stardom.

Now 40 and armed with a better understanding of the nuances of his role, with his club also beginning to reap tangible rewards for the work he has put in, Oswaldo Giroldo Junior has certainly gained a more in-depth perspective on football. As a result, FIFA.com were able to enjoy a full and fruitful conversation with the ex-Middlesbrough legend, on issues as wide-ranging as club administration, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s job as the Seleção helm, the dark side of youth football and the evolution of the English game.

FIFA.com: When did you decide you wanted to be the general manager of a club, taking charge of all footballing matters?

Juninho: The idea of being a coach or administrator at a big club, once my playing days were over, would’ve forced me to stay in a routine of constant travelling, which is something I really didn’t want. So I thought it’d be best to go to work at a smaller club, where I could set things up my way.

And, how have results been so far?
Well, I found the club was essentially in the same situation it had been 20 years ago, when I’d first played there: without suitable training pitches and without a clearly defined project in place. Now though, the situation we’re in is much more acceptable. We’ve got three pitches and a set-up at the [Estadio] Novelli Junior that’s already been visited by three national sides as a possible [2014] World Cup training base, and they all seemed to like it. When I started here, the youth teams had been disbanded. Now we’ve got teams at every age level. Things are now starting to happen for us.

The esteem in which you’re held at both Boro and Ituano has led to a partnership between the clubs, isn’t that right?
It’s a relationship that’s been on the go for some time now, while we’ve gone about restructuring our youth ranks. For Middlesbrough too, it’s not easy to simply go out and buy a player who's already the finished article. It’s a partnership that doesn’t involve fixed costs: they will only release funds if they’re interested in a player. And it goes the other way too: they can send lads over from England for a stay in Brazil.

So, right now, where is Juninho a bigger icon, in Itu or in Middlesbrough?
(Laughs) Listen, I think in Middlesbrough still. Here you can really come under fire, largely because when I was part of the club’s management and playing at the same time it was an unusual situation. I only remember seeing that before with Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough and, more recently, Rivaldo at Mogi Mirim.

The way football is perceived in Europe is evolving, whereas it’s going backwards in Brazil.
Juninho, Brazil legend.

You first went to England in 1995 and returned almost a decade later, by which time the Premier League’s profile had significantly changed. In technical terms, did you notice the difference?
I noticed it a lot. I only ended up going to English football in the first place because Bryan Robson was determined to try and play a more technical style. When we were in negotiations, they sent me a video of some of Middlesbrough’s matches. I watched it and all I thought was: “My God! How am I going to play there?” The ball was just being booted from one end to another. Then Robson said to me: “Right, did you see the video? That’s exactly why I want to bring you here, to try and change that.” He wanted more technical, more skilful players – he wanted to keep the ball on the ground. In fact, when I first arrived there were one or two whose technical ability wouldn’t even have got them into Sao Paulo’s youth team. Everything was based around brawn and discipline. But, gradually, those players began falling out of favour. To the extent that, when I went back in 2004, I found myself in a league which was very different, particularly when it came to the leading clubs.

It’s interesting that, given how Brazilian players have historically struggled to adapt to the English game’s physicality, a small, slim guy like you thrived over there. Did your slight stature make it harder for you to succeed?
I do have a slim frame, but out on the pitch I had a characteristic that really fitted well with English football: I knew how to find the space to exploit my speed. I did have problems right at the start of my career, when I was trying to turn pro, because nobody believed I could make it. But being short or skinny doesn’t mean your muscles are weak. You just have to look at guys like [Lionel] Messi, Xaxi or [Andres] Iniesta, who very rarely get injured.

Speaking of that trio, what’s your view on the success of a Barcelona team that have a host of players under 1.70m (approx. 5’7)? Is this a sign of a wide-reaching change or an isolated case?
What I think is that the way football is perceived in Europe is evolving, whereas it’s going backwards in Brazil. Here, from youth football upwards, people only think about getting results. And it’s a fact that teams which are physically stronger tend to have the edge at U-15 and U-17 level. But, if they’ve not got the quality, their progression stops there. Nowadays, it’s not just Spain who base their game on technique. Germany, for example, do so too, and they always used to exemplify the physical side of the game. What’s the point of developing a full-back who can get up and down, but doesn’t know how to cross? Or having a huge centre-back who can’t drop the shoulder and bring the ball out? Or a defensive midfielder who gives the ball away all the time? Do you remember that position I used to play, the ‘1’ in a 4-3-1-2 system, connecting midfield and attack? That doesn’t exist anymore here. I understand that, of course, physical developments change the way the game is played, but it can’t get to the point where technique and the fundamentals are shoved to one side, which is what I think has happened at youth level in Brazil.

You’ve played under both Tele Santana and Luiz Felipe Scolari, two very well-respected coaches known for their diverse man-management approaches. Can you compare the two of them?
Well, Tele had extraordinary vision. He could see exactly what our qualities were and he’d really focus on bringing the best out of us. His knack of getting the best out of every individual player was incredible. What the two of them do share, in fact, is their handling of the group. In that World Cup in 2002, Felipão [Scolari] managed to make all of us, the players and the coaching staff, feel that we were all equally important. From Ronaldo right through to the third-choice keeper, he treated everyone exactly the same. That’s why the squad stuck together. Felipão was really good at building up people’s confidence. If I remember rightly, shortly after he came into the job in 2001, Rivaldo was going through a tough time and had been getting a lot of stick. There were ten games to go until the World Cup and Felipão went over to Rivaldo and said: “You’ll be playing all ten.” And that was that. He got his confidence back, played those games, went to the World Cup and was decisive for Brazil. He [Scolari] has such a good feel for those things.

Do you think Felipão will be able to use that gift to good effect with A Seleção in time for Brazil 2014?
It’s difficult, because A Seleção are going through a transitional phase. That generation of players that had won things has moved on, and we don’t yet know whether the up-and-coming talents can handle the pressure. The team had been starting to gain an identity under Mano Menezes, which had taken a while to happen, but we still don’t know how almost all of that squad will cope in a World Cup situation. It’s another kind of challenge for Felipão to deal with.