Late last night I checked in by accident to the C5 coverage of this week’s exhibition match between Sydney FC and LA Galaxy played in front of 80,000 fans at Telstra Stadium. It ended up 5-3, a bit of a cracker despite the ‘friendly’ status of the match. David Beckham , who the bulk of the crowd had turned up to see, scored an absolute cracker of a free kick to bring the scores back to 3-2 at one point. He really does have incredible world-wide appeal. But the star of the show was probably Juninho who had a first half blinder, laying on two goals which gave Sydney a 3-0 half time lead.
I don’t know if you caught much of the ‘original’ Juninho during his spells with Middlesbrough but I did through Cellnet’s sponsorship association for which I was responsible. He epitomised the fantasy football phase which Boro went through at that time; first large scale brand new stadium in England, the transfer in of exotic players like Ravanelli and Emerson, the cup finals etc. It really was a heady time for such a gritty club and Juninho became the inspirational signing. The first (and only?) Brazilian to really make a mark on the English game. On his first appearance at the Cellnet Riverside we flew the world’s largest football shirt over the stadium from this helicopter. Created for us by Knapp Goodwin to act as a photographic backdrop when we launched the sponsorship association at the old less-than-photogenic Ayresome Park, we emblazoned it with Bem vindo (welcome) Juninho. It was a quite a coup capturing the TV news and MoTD coverage. A fantastic salsa band whipped the crowd into a fervent of excitement and he had a decent game. But he went on to become the real star of a team of big names. Such a gifted little player. I’d suggest he was the best player ever to grace the Boro shirt though fans of Clough and my friend Lawrie’s favourite, Wilf Mannion, may care to differ.
Whatever, he was such a beautiful player of the beautiful game. Though tiny he had a huge heart but the physicality of the Premiership was too much for him at times. He left at the end of his first spell when the club were relegated and came back for a second spell but it wasn’t quite the same. They say never go back and I no longer thought his heart was in the rugged kind of football Robson was by then demanding from his players.
I thought he’d drifted back into Brazilian football but there he was last night playing for Sydney FC and the tempo and nature of the game was perfect for him. He looked like the player from 10 years ago, sensacional! Beckham left the pitch at half-time with his arm around the little fella and they swapped shirts at the end of the match. Two rare talents, albeit in the twilight stage, but still capable of thrilling a packed stadium of fans. Fantastico. The sooner we run a WC for the over 30’s hosted at Wembley, the better I say.
Anyway it got me thinking. I’m an advocate now for restrictions on the number of overseas players in our game (if we can overcome the EU employment restrictions) but I am the first to admit that having a foreign influence has been healthy for the game in many ways. Some of the greatest players to grace the Premiership have been from overseas and I’m glad they came and showed us their talents. My top 10?
1 Juninho – the little fella was simply my favourite
2 Cantona – I loved his confidence (arrogance?) on the ball. Some sublime goals and a real talisman for Man U.
3 Zola – my favourite other little fella and the best to grace the Chelsea shirt surely. Played with great spirit and technique.
4 Schmeichel – is there any doubt he was the greatest goalkeeper to play in the Prem. Just awesome and irreplaceable…
5 Bergkamp – always liked his attitude and scorer of at least 2 of the best ever Prem goals in my view
6 Henry – never liked his preening, sulking and me,me,me-ness but what a talent. Glad he’s gone.
7 Ronaldo – very much an unfinished body of work as yet but just such an exciting player who you’d pay to go and see.
8 Fabregas – ditto. Outstanding young talent.
9 van Nistelrooy – goal machine; no more no less
10 Giggs – an indulgence I know but surely the one player who has graced the Prem throughout its term who we’d most wish had been born in England.
Let me know if you’d have different names. I could have picked Ardiles for his early impact and Drogba for his power and goals, Viera for his authority or maybe Kinkladze for his precocious skills but I can live with the list.