Juninho, The King of the Free Kick Retires

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Perhaps Juninho Pernambucano is not the most familiar of Brazilian footballers. In the rankings of general estimation (imagine a fancy auditorium packed to the rafters, with the greats sitting at the front and the others, the lesser ones, indistinguishable in the darkness at the back) he had to sit a couple of rows back from where Rivaldo, Kaka, Ronaldinho and Neymar sit. They all had more notoriety, sponsors and giant checks made out to their names than he did. Still, Juninho Pernambucano knew he had them beat at least in one area of the game: he was the free kick undisputed master.

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Antônio Augusto Ribeiro Reis Júnior, a.k.a. Juninho Pernambucano, after a solid 21-year career playing mainly for Olympique Lyonnais and Vasco da Gama, has decided to undo the shoelaces, take of the shin-guards off and call it quits. What does he leave behind? How will we remember him? He had a over forty games with the national team –he played and scored the 2006 World Cup in Germany– but his legacy is not one of triumphs in the international stage. He managed to make Olympique one of the foremost teams in France’s Ligue 1, but that is not it either. His legacy is one: the highlight reel.

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He netted an impressive 75 freekicks from the most diverse locations around the pitch. Not only could he bend it far better than Beckham ever could; like an all-star pitcher, he had different styles of free kick for every situation. He is the modern practitioner of the knuckleball style of free kicks. Nowadays, Ronaldo has made a name for himself by trying it and failing to convert most of the time.

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In the end, he did what most superstars do: he went to Qatar for two years –he must have earned enough dough to open a couple of churrasquerías and not have to worry about money. He also spent a year with the New York Red Bulls before heading back to Vasco. Juninho’s retirement is not a tragedy but the natural conclusion to a remarkable career.