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Monday, Feb. 7, 2011

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Not going anywhere: Juninho (10) is determined to see Kawasaki Frontale finally achieve their goal of winning the J. League title in the near future. KYODO PHOTO

Striker Juninho making lasting impression with Frontale

Staff writer

KAWASAKI — A lot of things have changed at Kawasaki Frontale over the past six months, but Brazilian striker Juninho's desire to help the club win its first J. League title is not one of them.

With goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima and striker Chong Tese departing for Europe after the World Cup, Frontale's bid to improve on successive runnerup finishes fizzled out into fifth place last season, with manager Tsutomu Takahata making way for former player Naoki Soma after a frustratingly inconsistent campaign.

But Juninho has been at the club far too long to dwell on such disappointment. The 33-year-old has been a mainstay since arriving in 2003, sharing in heartbreak after heartbreak as a string of lost finals and silver medals firmly established Frontale as the J. League's perennial bridesmaid.

With every setback, however, comes a renewed challenge. This year, Juninho is determined to make it count.

"We have a lot of motivation for the new season," he said at the club's training ground over the weekend. "We have some new players, a new manager, and we're going for the title.

"Soma has come in as the manager, but he used to be a player here. I played with him and a lot of the players know him, and he in turn understands the players. He is trying to get the best out of us, and I think we can have a good season with him in charge."

With Juninho as one of his chief weapons, Soma certainly stands a chance. Only five players have scored more first-division goals than the 174-cm attacker's haul of 101, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he also sits fourth in the J2 all-time scoring list with 65.

Other Brazilians have thrived after settling in the J. League, but few have shown such loyalty. Juninho admits he never saw himself as a one-club man when he arrived from Palmeiras, but he insists that his environment has been crucial to his success.

"When I first arrived, I didn't think I would be here for so long," he said. "I first came here on loan, and then two years later it became a full transfer. But even then I couldn't have imagined myself still being here now.

"From my point of view, Frontale is like another family — my family in Japan. They have given me a lot of support and a lot of people have helped me and given me strength. Because of that, every time I'm at the training ground or the stadium it feels like I'm at home.

"I've thought about moving to a different country but never to a different J. League club."

In 2008, Juninho's affection for his adopted country took on new significance when he announced his intention to apply for Japanese citizenship and stake his claim for a place in Takeshi Okada's national team.

"At that time I'd been in Japan for some years, and I'd achieved a lot here," he said. "Japan has given me a lot. The things I have achieved have been made possible by the support of the Japanese people, and I wanted to do something to repay them. Because of this, I thought about changing nationality. I wanted to play international football and I also wanted to show my appreciation to the Japanese people."

The plan, however, floundered on legal and sporting grounds, with the player unable to fulfill the naturalization requirements and rendered ineligible by appearances at age level for Brazil. National teams as diverse as Poland, Qatar and Turkey have all offered refuge for Brazilians crowded out of the international picture at home, but Juninho found no such second chance in Japan.

"It's different for each player," he said. "I had already played for Brazil so I couldn't play for Japan, but in other countries there are lots of examples of Brazilians changing nationalities and playing for different countries. It's only possible to play for Brazil if they have 10 national teams."

Fortunately for Juninho, his club career has been successful enough to soften the blow. And with fellow Brazilian J. League grandees Zico and Ueslei setting the standard by plundering goals into their late 30s and beyond, Frontale's talisman has no intention of hanging up his boots any time soon.

"I want to keep playing for another three or four years," he said. "Of course it depends on my body, but I think I can do it. I don't smoke, I don't drink and I look after my health.

"The thing that gives me the most happiness is that I came from Brazil and was able to make some history in the J. League. A lot of Brazilians come to Japan to play, and there have been a lot of famous names from big clubs who have come here and failed. That I have been able to make my mark gives me a lot of satisfaction."

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