Is Zemmama the new Juninho?

Is Zemmama the new Juninho?

Osvaldo Giroldo Junior grew up on the mean streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, during the 1970s and 80s as a diminutive youngster with a passion for all things football.

From this little boy emerged arguably the greatest player ever to play for Middlesbrough Football Club. The 5ft 5in creator, playmaker and fan’s favourite, Juninho Paulista.

After lighting up The Riverside Stadium with his jinking runs and Brazilian flair, the infectious South American reinvigorated Middlesbrough during three spells at the club, the last of which yielding Boro’s first major trophy.

Since his departure in 2004, Juninho has been celebrated as a Boro legend and will always hold a place in the hearts of the club’s fans, but can anyone ever live up to his heroic reputation?

Every forward-thinking midfielder – and there haven’t been many – that has been brought to the club, since his final spell on Teeside, has always had the Brazilian’s shadow cast over them.

The likes of Fabio Rochemback, Gary O’Neil and Jason Euell have come and gone with mixed amounts of success, or none at all in the case of Euell, but can the latest arrival finally take hold of that attacking central midfield mantel.

Merouane Zemmama, who was recently signed for a nominal fee from Tony Mowbray’s former club Hibernian, has been mooted by at least one over-excited journalist as the next Juninho, the next Boro hero.

But in truth a reality check might be in order.

Juninho, when he was first signed by Boro, was a 22-year-old wonder kid who was attracting huge European interest whereas Zemmama is a 27-year-old playmaker who was signed for next to nothing from Scotland.

Their creative streak may well be a comparison worth making but Juninho went on to win nearly half a century of caps and a world cup with Brazil while Zemmama hasn’t even been a regular in the Moroccan side, making only a handful of appearances.

Without trying to crush Teesiders’ daydream fantasies of the African leading us back to the promised land, fans should not be overcome by suggestions of a quick fix, not least until he’s played a few games.

Mowbray himself has played down the signing to some extent. In talking to the official site, he said: “Juninho was a superstar who came from Brazil - Merouane is from Hibs in Scotland.

"He's coming here not for a king's ransom, he's not a major signing, but it was too good an opportunity to turn down for very little money at a time when the club can't really afford to spend money.”

Despite all this Zemmama is certainly the type of player that has desperately been needed to revitalise the club’s fortunes over recent seasons as he’s a player to excite the fans and create chances.

As much as he has his own place in Boro folklore, Gareth Southgate made only futile attempts to fulfil his promise of bringing exciting, attacking football back to The Riverside with no exciting midfielders in sight by the time he had left.

As for Gordon Strachan, his frankly misguided attitude to what was needed to succeed at Boro and in the Championship itself left the club with few forward thinking players to speak of.

Even at present it seems Julio Arca, a former left-back, is our most creative midfield player, a far cry from the days when Juninho and Paul Gascoigne collectively ruled the roost for example.

Then again the unclear financial situation at Middlesbrough means that major signings aren’t going to be presented in front of the Boro faithful any time soon, so expectations must remain realistic.

Remember ‘Brazilian Goal Machine’ Afonso Alves? He was the prime example of a player who was so overcome by expectation that he never came close to making a positive impact in a Boro shirt.

As a result Zemmama, who coincidentally would engulf Juninho in height, at a comparatively massive 5ft 7in, has quite sensibly disregarded such comparisons as he tries to establish himself at the club.

In spite of this, Zemmama’s capture could well be the catalyst for a push up the table before the end of the season and more importantly a rise in attendances at The Riverside that could form the basis of future success.

Jonathan Brown

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