Supporters of Vasco da Gama filed away sadly -- some of them angrily -- on Sunday after their team suffered a defeat on penalties in a Rio championship final against great local rivals Flamengo. But along with the sorrow, the last few days also brought the fans a reason to be cheerful. One of their favorite players is returning to the club, and the story has an uplifting twist.
With the currency strong and the economy making progress, a number of big Brazilian stars have made their way home, enticed by the higher salaries that the clubs can now pay. From last year's World Cup side, Elano is back at Santos, and Luis Fabiano has returned to Sao Paulo. Ronaldinho, of course, is also back in Brazilian soccer. And now one of the great names in the recent history of Vasco da Gama is also about to take the road home -- but with a difference. At his own insistence, Juninho Pernambucano will be receiving Brazil's minimum salary, usually paid to domestic servants and office boys, which works out at less than $350 a month.
Juninho was the king of Sao Januario, Vasco's caldron of a stadium, in the last successful spell this great old club enjoyed. He joined in 1995, when Vasco's fortunes were at a low ebb. In 1997 Vasco won the Brazilian Championship. The following year it claimed the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League, and also won the Rio State title. In 2000 it came second in an experimental version of the FIFA Club World Cup, and at the end of that year it added another Brazilian Championship plus the Copa Mercosul, a short lived Europa League equivalent.
Juninho was a key part of this run of success. His midfield quality, his superb free kicks and his obvious commitment to the cause made him a firm favorite with the fans. He clearly loved the club. Others might speed off as soon as training was done, but Juninho and his wife were often seen around the stadium, talking to supporters and breathing in the atmosphere of the place.
What makes his identification with Vasco even more striking is the fact that he is not a local lad. Indeed, he became known as Pernambucano when another Juninho, once of Middlesbrough, joined up with him at Vasco. To avoid confusion this latter became Juninho Paulista -- from Sao Paulo, while he added the suffix Pernambucano -- from the state of Pernambuco, thousands of miles away in Brazil's Northeast.
Indeed, he came through the ranks with Sport in his hometown of Recife. Back in 1994 in one of my first games in Brazil I saw him play for the club against Flamengo. Although Sport lost 3-0, there was something in the elegance of the teenage midfielder which made him stand out.
Wherever he has been since, he has stood out as much for his professionalism as for his abundant ability. And this professionalism goes beyond the attention to detail of the committed athlete. Juninho is one of those players who seems most aware that the importance of a soccer player lies in the people that he represents. Wrapped up in their celebrity world, some stars are unable to make the connection. Juninho, meanwhile, has always found it easy to identify with the shirt that he pulls on every week.
Sometimes this identification might even be too strong. One of the abiding memories of the 2006 World Cup is his tears as the national anthems were played before the quarterfinal between Brazil and France. The suspicion at the time was that the occasion might prove too big, too important for him to give his best -- and nothing happened in the next 90 minutes to disprove the theory. Zinedine Zidane pulled all the strings in midfield as Brazil were outplayed and eliminated, and Juninho never played for his country again.
France was his adopted country. He had joined Lyon five years earlier, where he had quickly made himself as important, as popular and as successful as he had been at Vasco. Between 2002 and 2008 Juninho was the outstanding inspirational force as Lyon won seven French titles in a row.
In 2009 he left France and went to Qatar to join Al Gharrafa. By now he was in his mid-30s, and the move smacked of a player looking to wind down his career. But always there was the nagging temptation to have a last hurrah back in Rio with Vasco.
On one hand, a return might take away any bitter taste left over from the way he left in 2001, when he ended up in a legal dispute with the controversial regime then in charge of the club. Now that Vasco's president is Roberto Dinamite, one of the club's all-time idols, any problems were well in the past. The thought of ending his playing days on a different note with Vasco was obviously attractive.
On the other hand, the fear existed that, at 36, he could no longer live up to the memories that the fans had from his golden era over a decade before. The player find a way round the impasse.
"When the club came to talk to me," he recalls, "they thought they would have to pay a high salary, like the one I'm earning in Qatar. I didn't want this."
The idea of the token, minimum salary came from Juninho. "That way I have a clean conscience because I'm not going to harm the interests of the club. It's fair to the institution and the fans. If I help the club to win titles, the Copa Sul-Americana [the current Europa League equivalent], if we finish in the top four in the Brazilian Championship [and thus qualify for next year's Libertadores] or if we win the title, then in that case I get paid a bonus."
This is a tall order. It is years -- since Juninho was last at the club -- that Vasco have achieved these objectives. As this is an international transfer, he will have to wait until August to take the field. For the time being he is still in Qatar. But he is already readying himself for the challenge. Aware that the demands of Brazilian soccer are higher than those in Qatar, he has been exchanging e-mails with Vasco's physical preparation staff in a bid to ensure that he arrives in top condition.
And, as club president Roberto Dinamite revealed, "he asked me to take him two of the balls used in the Brazilian Championship so he could start training with them and get used to them early. Who else in Brazil does this?"
Juninho's contract runs up to December, after which time he will decide whether he wants to play on. When he does hang up his boots, one of his options is to work on Vasco's coaching staff. The club would surely be mad to let him slip away.