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Juninho Pernambucano: Lyon’s Free-kick Lifeline

Antônio Augusto Ribeiro Reis Júnior – more commonly known as Juninho Pernambucano – was most notably an integral part of an Olympique Lyonnais side that before his arrival had never won a Ligue 1 title and upon his departure in 2009 had won seven consecutively. That’s the solitary European league slot on his résumé, yet if you mention the name Juninho Permanbucano to most football fans they could tell you who he is, so why is he so well known?

Widely regarded as the greatest free-kick taker of all time, Juninho Pernambucano was the definition of a dead-ball specialist. Of his century of goals, whilst playing for Lyon, forty-four of them are from a free kick – a crazy percentage.

It gets crazier when you consider that he could (and would) shoot from essentially anywhere in any situation: range, tight angles, blocking players, all these factors and more were almost irrelevant when Juninho Pernambucano stepped up. This isn’t to discount any of his other qualities either, boasting seventy-seven assists as a result of his laser-accurate passes and intelligent reading of play.

How then did a relatively unknown Brazilian midfielder from Vasco da Gama propel Olympique Lyonnais to league excellence, becoming the face of the club and achieving global recognition for his talents along the way?

Vasco’s Own

Juninho Pernambucano’s journey begins in Recife, Brazil. Born on 30th January 1975, Juninho expressed interest in football from an early age and played futsal until he was 13. It was then he began to practice his free-kicks and developed his technique into adulthood.

In a 2018 interview with FourFourTwo on his technique, he commented that “(he) started by copying free-kicks taken by Marcelinho, who played for Corinthians”, and by 1993, he had begun playing for Sport Recife and was establishing himself as an up-and-coming talent due to his dead-ball speciality and general play.

In 1996 he joined Vasco da Gama, aiming his sights higher on the football ladder. This would be the first of three stints with the side and a stint in which he won several trophies: 1997 and 2000’s Brasileirão, the Copa Libertadores in 1998 and the Copa Mercosur in 2000.

Pernambucano personally won the Brazilian Silver Ball award in 2000 for achievements as one of the best Brazilian midfielders of the season alongside teammate and fellow Juninho Paulista, Ponte Preta’s Mineiro and Cruzeiro’s Ricardinho.

His achievements throughout his time at Vasco da Gama got him noticed internationally, and Juninho sought a move. In 2001, he won an injunction against Vasco which allowed him to become a free agent and finalise a move to Olympique Lyonnais.

Interestingly, Vasco fans still remember his early days at the club fondly despite the legal battle which may have soured the leave.

Olympique Free-kicks – The Knuckleball

During his first season at Olympique Lyonnais, Juninho Pernambucano rapidly cemented himself in the leadership role of the midfield through his playmaking capabilities and command of the field. He was frequently noted for his powerful and varied set pieces, often remaining accurate at almost any range.

It’s no wonder, either, Juninho himself claims that France is where he mastered his technique, and as previously mentioned he converted forty-four directly and assisted a goal from seventy-seven.

Clearly, Juninho was incredibly selfless on the ball and was a noted passer, placing team success before individual stats (which were insane anyway) 100% of the time. Gérard Houllier, Lyon’s manager at the time, saw these qualities in full and swiftly named him team captain.

On his technique, Juninho Pernambucano is widely credited for popularising a different, new style of free-kick on his arrival to France. He further credited Marcelinho as “one of (his) inspirations, and the first player (he) had ever seen hit the ball head-on and make it dance in the air.

Didi, who won the World Cup with Brazil in 1958 and 1962, was doing it back then, too.” Juninho Pernambucano was talking about his favoured dead-ball striking technique – the knuckleball.

Differing from a standard free-kick run-up – which typically has the striker off centre to the ball to generate spin, attempting to curve the ball around the wall and subsequently the keeper – the knuckleball was notable for a parallel approach to the ball with the striker attempting to hit the ball straight on with no spin during flight.

The “knuckleball” takes its name from the baseball technique of the same name, in which pitchers throw the ball with a minimum of spin. In-flight, the airflow on the ball changes from laminar to turbulent flow, causing unpredictable, erratic motions which make the baller much harder for the opposition to hit; the same can be said of the knuckleball in football.

The Goalkeepers Nightmare

Picture this: you’re standing in goal awaiting a Juninho set piece from the edge of the 18-yard box. You’re FC Metz’s goalkeeper, and you’re 1-0 up. You tell your defenders and midfield… and strikers to form a wall straight across his path.

Every outfield player for your side is currently standing 10 yards in front of Juninho Pernambucano attempting to block what is decidedly going to be a shot. You are the last line of defence and have as clear a view of him as you’re going to get. Juninho, Lyon, Metz and you are all thinking the same thing – this is probably going in.

You try to read his position relative to the ball, attempting to counter the inevitable. He steps to the ball and strikes top left. The entire wall jumps, you correctly read the direction of the shot and step toward the ball – you watch as it curls away from you and into the back of the net.

This exact scenario unfolded in front of Ludovic Butelle on 8th May 2004, a regular matchday in the grand scheme of French football but a scenario Ligue 1 sides were all too familiar with. Juninho’s strengths were aplenty, but his mastery of set pieces struck fear into the heart of any opposition.

Teams were wary of committing borderline tackles lest Lyon be awarded a foul anywhere within 25 yards because at Juninho’s feet, it was essentially a goal before he’d kicked it. If he decided to pass from a dead ball, the opposition who were often waiting so patiently for a shot would be caught off guard, allowing Lyon to break and often score.

Some evenings he was nigh-on unplayable, solely on the laurels of his set-piece ability. If we add his qualities during open play into the mix then one hundred goals and seventy-seven assists in nine years even seems a little low for someone of his abilities.

Though he enjoyed great success in the domestic league, Juninho and Lyon could never convert their successes to European football. Juninho led Lyon to three quarter-finals in the Champions League but unfortunately never further – though he did secure himself as Lyon’s top goalscorer with eighteen.

Lyon wasn’t lacking in ability by any means however, in a match vs. Real Madrid the French side made the experienced squad look like amateurs in a glorious 90 minutes which ended 3-0 to Lyon.

This was during an iconic era for Real with the likes of Roberto Carlos, Beckham, Raul and Gravesen lining the squad, so it was by no means an easy win – yet the Juninho-led Lyon made it appear as such. The club, then, clearly had the squad for the big leagues but failed to convert any opportunities into silverware.


By May 2009, Jean-Michel Aulas – Lyon’s Chairman – called a conference and announced that Lyon had accepted Juninho’s request to leave as a free agent at the season’s end, and by June he was gone – though, Juninho couldn’t leave without a parting gift for the Lyon fans; a signature long-range set-piece, 40 yards out, with a bounce to beat the keeper in his last match for the club. Sublime.

What followed was a middling end to Juninho’s career. He initially signed for Qatari side Al-Gharafa on a two-year contract, leading them to the domestic treble and finishing his first season with Player of the Year honours. He later rejoined his former club Vasco da Gama for the second time, continuing his free-kick efficacy back in Brazil.

During his second stint, his playtime began to drop as he aged, resulting in a transfer to the New York Red Bulls in December 2012, but the transfer was short-lived; he featured in 13 games before the cancellation of his contract, and he was once again a free agent.

His third and final stint with Vasco would bookend his career. Though by now his conversion rate had begun to plummet, Juninho still enjoyed moments of magic, such as a 32-metre free kick goal vs. Criciúma. He scored two goals and assisted seven before announcing his retirement in February 2014.

It can’t be understated than that Juninho Pernambucano changed the way the set piece was viewed on a global scale. One of the world’s most feared strikers, Juninho cemented himself as a free-kicking powerhouse and a foreboding presence on the field, influencing global stars such as Andrea Pirlo, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo to the power of the set-piece. Carl Anka said it best:

“Much like King Arthur had Excalibur and William Tell his crossbow, the folk hero Juninho possessed his own special weapon to save the day — his legendary free-kicks. No one hit a free-kick quite like Juninho. No one.”

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