FootballFootball LeagueLigue 1

Juninho’s Brazilian revolution gets Lyon off to flying start

August 24, 2019January 6th, 2022

HE had been away for 10 years and absence had only made the heart grow fonder. Lyon’s supporters had last laid eyes on Juninho Pernambucano during a game against Caen at Stade Gerland on a warm May evening in 2009. 

After tucking away a penalty left to him by Karim Benzema so he could take his tally of Lyon goals to 100, he had been substituted with 10 minutes of the game remaining. He left the field to a standing ovation from all four sides of the crumbly old ground, raising his left hand into the air to acknowledge the acclaim and using his right hand to thump the club crest on the left side of his chest.

Then aged 34, Juninho had spent eight seasons at Lyon, making 344 appearances, winning seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles and scoring an incredible 44 goals from free-kicks. Long before he left, he had already become the club’s greatest ever player.

When he returned this summer, as sporting director, he found the club much-changed. None of his old team-mates were still playing and Lyon now played at the 59,186-seater Groupama Stadium, having left Gerland in January 2016. He looked older, too, inevitably, with patches of grey in his wavy brown hair and beard and studenty horn-rimmed spectacles framing his eyes.

When he made his grand return for Lyon’s first home game of the season against Angers last Friday, he received a hero’s welcome. Before kick-off, Lyon’s Bad Gones ultras displayed a huge 30-metre high tifo of Juninho in the Virage Nord, accompanied by a banner that read: “WELCOME HOME”. To the tune of ‘Live is Life’ by Opus, they sang the song about him that they sang when he wore their colours, the song they have continued to sing during his decade away: “Ju-ni-nho! La-la la-la-la! Pernambucano! La-la la-la-la!”

Positioning himself discreetly in the press box alongside Lyon’s video analyst Fernando Lazaro, a fellow Brazilian, Juninho could not have wished for a more successful second home debut. Lyon crushed Angers 6-0, with Memphis Depay and Moussa Dembélé each scoring twice, leaving them top of the Ligue 1 standings after two matches. He may no longer confound opposition goalkeepers with devilish 35-yard free-kicks, but on this early evidence, Juninho’s winning touch does not appear to have deserted him.

After leaving Lyon, Juninho played in Qatar and the United States and had a second and a third spell at Vasco da Gama, the club he had left to join OL in 2001, before retiring in early 2014. He worked for Globo as a television pundit and commentator, but became disillusioned by life in his homeland, regularly speaking out against injustices in Brazilian football and taking to Twitter to rail against Jair Bolsonaro during the far-right politician’s ultimately successful campaign for the presidency. Last September he left Brazil and moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Renata, and two of his three daughters (his eldest daughter, Giovanna, being already resident in the city). In November he became a grandfather.

He had rejected opportunities to return to Lyon before, but this time, when president Jean-Michel Aulas came calling, he said yes. A semi-final loss to Rennes in last season’s Coupe de France had proven fatal for Lyon’s previous coach Bruno Génésio, who never succeeded in winning over a dissenting core within the club’s fan base, and Aulas wanted Juninho to lead the rebuilding project.

“Even if I’m a bit scared, I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself if I’d refused this time,” Juninho said during his introductory press conference in May. 

His first task was to appoint a new head coach and he plumped for his compatriot Sylvinho, the former Arsenal and Barcelona left-back, whose coaching experience included stints as an assistant to Roberto Mancini at Inter Milan and to Tite with the Brazil national team.

The summer upheaval in the dug-out was mirrored in the changing room as first-teamers Nabil Fekir, Tanguy Ndombélé and Ferland Mendy all left for pastures new. There has unsurprisingly been a Brazilian flavour to Lyon’s recruitment, with midfielders Thiago Mendes and Jean Lucas arriving from Lille and Flamengo respectively. Malian left-back Youssouf Koné has also come in from Lille, along with Danish centre-back Joachim Andersen from Sampdoria and French former Arsenal midfielder Jeff Reine-Adélaïde from Angers.

Serious and exacting, Sylvinho – who does not yet speak French – put his players through gruelling sprint drills during pre-season in order to prepare them for the high-energy pressing game he intended to introduce. His desire to set his team out in a 4-3-3 formation was aided by the departure of skipper Fekir, whose insistence on playing in a central playmaking role had thwarted Génésio’s attempts to do the same.

Lyon’s opener against Angers reflected Sylvinho’s influence, with Houssem Aouar surging to the edge of the box and spearing a low shot past Ludovic Butelle after an interception by Mendes in the opposition half. After Dembélé made it 2-0, Aouar released Depay for the third goal and then teed up the Dutchman again with a magnificent scooped pass for the fourth.

On a night when the Groupama Stadium welcomed home the most famous wearer of OL’s number eight shirt, it was only fitting that Aouar, the current owner of the jersey, should rise to the occasion. Dembélé added the fifth and Depay teed up Lucas for the sixth after some sublime trickery near the byline on the left-hand side of the penalty area.

“Before, we tended to ease off when we were in front. Today we didn’t ease off and we maintained our intensity,” said Aouar. “That’s the difference compared to last year. The coach really wants us to press when we lose the ball and it does us good to win the ball back so quickly.”

The French football landscape looks very different to when Juninho left Lyon, with Paris Saint-Germain now the dominant force and OL enduring a seven-year trophy drought. But with Lyon playing like the best team in the country and Juninho master of all he surveys, he could be forgiven for feeling like he has never been away.