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It’s the morning after Brazil beat Peru in the Copa América final to lift their first major trophy in 12 years. In an airy, well-lit office at the headquarters of the CBF, Brazil’s football association, Juninho sits behind a grand, expensive-looking wooden desk. The man who left such an impression on English football during his time at Middlesbrough has been working here since April, when CBF president Rogério Caboclo recruited him to lead a newly created department in charge of developing the domestic game in Brazil. Yet, by the end of the day, Juninho will be packing up and moving on.

Despite Brazil’s triumph at the Maracanã the previous night, there are issues to be resolved at the CBF. National team co-ordinator Edu is on his way to Arsenal and the morning’s papers are speculating that Juninho will replace him. A few hours after we leave, his new role will be confirmed, but for now Juninho remains tight-lipped: “Things are not decided,” he says.

It is widely agreed that Edu succeeded in his spell with the Seleção and Juninho is complimentary about the man he will soon succeed. “Edu has been doing well. He started at Corinthians and I think his onfield experience [helps]. On the pitch he already had that captain’s vision. So, his profile as a player was already one of managing people. That’s his greatest quality. He knows how to deal with the players. He knows what they need.”

Edu worked closely with Tite for some time, both at Corinthians and during their three years with the national team. He will not be easy to replace, but Juninho is also experienced. After returning to Brazil in 2009, he spent a fruitful decade as a director at Ituano FC, a modest club from the city of Itu in São Paulo state.

“In 2008, I was at Sydney FC in Australia finishing my career and I wanted to stay involved in football. I wasn’t thinking about being a coach or director at a big club, or a pundit. I wanted to have a club to administer to implant everything I learned during my 22-year career.”

He planned to prepare himself, take management courses and then look for a job but Ituano, the club where he began his playing career as a teenage, needed help. “If it wasn’t Ituano, I might not have accepted. I accepted the challenge because I had that link. The financial part, branding, marketing, administration – I learned that on the job. You learn from your mistakes and I made a few.”

In his first season he played too, scoring on the final day of the campaign to save the club from relegation. And over the next few years, Juninho started implementing the vision that has convinced Caboclo he is the right man to fill the hole left by Edu. Ituano had struggled under previous directors. Their first team lacked facilities and they had done away with youth teams to cut costs. “There’s a lot of amateurism in football but it’s changing now,” says Juninho. “I see Brazil in five to seven years having very professional management [at clubs].”

Juninho was determined to blaze the trail at Ituano. “At first it was the Under-15s and Under-17s, then three years later we made an Under-20 team. So we were working with those three groups and the professionals. Ituano had never worried about working conditions. They trained on a rented pitch. Coming from England, seeing all that organisation, I started to implement that.”

The results were dramatic. Ituano won the São Paulo state title in 2014, beating giants Palmeiras and Santos along the way. The following year, they reached the last-16 of the Copa do Brasil. The focus on youth has proved a success too, with 18-year-old academy graduate Gui Mendes currently firing Ituano towards promotion from the fourth tier of the national league and, more notably, Edu Gaspar taking Mendes’ former teammate Gabriel Martinelli to Arsenal with him as the first signing of the new era.

“He’s a very focused boy, despite his age,” says Juninho. “He’s had this attitude since he was 14 or 15. Everything he has achieved is a result of his professionalism and talent. Martinelli will do well. He has the qualities of English football: directness, speed. He’ll need time to adapt first and I think Arsenal already have a plan for that – so he can go step by step. I don’t believe Martinelli speaks English, but today everything is very globalised. The infrastructure is very good and, if Edu is there, a Brazilian who already has that experience, he can help him.”

Juninho expects Martinelli’s adaptation “will be quicker” than his own. Juninho was only 22 when he left São Paulo FC, one of the biggest clubs in one of the world’s largest cities, for Middlesborough. “The move was really big. There were a lot of differences. The thing I adapted to quickest was the football. I found a lot of freedom to play. Space between the lines. The game is really fast so at certain moments there was a lot of space for you to play. You can’t see that from the outside, because there is so much movement. But when you are there, you can find the spaces.”

Other aspects of life were less accommodating. “The food was very different to Brazil. It’s the seasoning. The chicken, for example, was very pale. The pasta wasn’t seasoned. Those sweet beans,” he says, still sounding traumatised. Baked Beans? “Yes, I ended up adoring them and always ordered them.”

“I took my family with me and in the first few months we stayed in hotels. When we moved to a house, then we could cook things. I remember we took [Brazilian] beans. The cold was difficult for me too. I think I arrived in one of the worst winters in recent years. It snowed, my feet were frozen, I had to train all wrapped up. I didn’t know how to speak a word of English. I had an interpreter. Then I started picking up the football words, the commands. Bryan Robson helped me a lot. He showed me on the [tactics] board what he wanted.”

Robson was the biggest reason he chose Boro over other suitors. “I worried a lot about what the coach thinks. Bryan Robson demonstrated interest, came to Brazil, showed me the project and told me that he wanted a different [type of] football, less physical. I believed in it.”

Juninho set England alight in his first two seasons, including a “crazy” season in 1996-97, when Boro lost two cup finals and were relegated. He believes he was instrumental in increasing the popularity of the Premier League back home and breaking barriers for others. “When I went, only the Italian and Spanish leagues were shown on television here, not the English,” he says.

“People in Brazil didn’t really know the Premier League but, when I arrived, I could feel the size of the championship. I told all the guys back here it was the best league in Europe. Over time this started to consolidate and the Premier League started to open the market. Interest here began to increase with television partnerships. I think that I opened the door.”

Still, with a view to being picked for France 98, he left England for Atlético Madrid in 1997 despite “concrete offers” from Liverpool and Tottenham. “When I became a director, I managed to see a lot of things that happened to me in my career. If I had the head I have today and could go back, maybe I wouldn’t have done a few things. Not that I have regrets. It’s a process, I had to go through this and learn.

“But one of the things is that maybe I wouldn’t have left England at that moment. I worried about the Seleção, that the championship wasn’t seen much [in Brazil] then. At that moment, and with what I represented for English football, I shouldn’t have left. If I had the conscience I have today and could go back, maybe I would have continued. At another club, but still in English football.”

After picking up a cruel injury in Madrid, Juninho missed out on France 98. Yet, four years later, he played his part as Brazil won their fifth star in Yokohama. Now, working alongside Tite for the Seleção, he aims to lift another World Cup in Asia, two decades on from the last.

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