Torino Club Focus: The Granata’s greatest ever straniero – Leo Junior
Do not say that we here at Forza Italian Football do not treat you to some classic calcio history and none more so than here at Torino Club Focus where we delve back in time to examine the club’s best foreign player of all time – Leo Junior.
Those are the words not merely of myself, choosing to award that prestigious honour myself to Leovegildo Lins da Gama Junior (or Leo Junior) but those of many Toro fans lucky enough to have watched the Brazilian master weave his wizardry around the city during his time there in the ’80s.
“He was simply the greatest foreign player that Torino ever had,” was how he was described by Torino historian and author of the only English account of the club’s history, Andrea Rosselli.
Torino is a club that traditionally, have not often muddied the waters of international transfer dealings and while they have recruited some top class talent from abroad (and some not such successful stories) with even more regularity in recent seasons, often it was left to the bigger clubs to bring the stranieri, or foreigners, to the peninsula’s shores.
Much of this comes down to the fact that Italy for a time in the 1970s and 1980s was prohibited from having more than three foreign players in a squad and thus giving less players from exotic regions a chance to prove themselves while the financial aspect also plays a part as it is not cheap to scout and then sign players from around the globe.
Yet one man who did come to Turin to ply his trade for the Granata during the ’80s was the versatile Brazilian full-back/midfielder Leo Junior who would go on to spend three magical seasons at the club and became an instant fan favourite.
Surprisingly for a man who would go on to achieve such fame and adulation, the same cannot be said for the man who brought him to the club.
He was signed by ‘Lucky’ Luciano Moggi, who was working with the club at the time (and who would go on to achieve infamy across the city with the Calciopoli scandal of the noughties) and signed for the club at the age of 30 having spent 10 years with Flamengo where he was equally idolised and with whom he had just won the Brazilian championship.
Junior would remain a regular too with the Selecao even during his time in Italy and would actually feature for Brazil as a Torino player at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Possessing immense talent, he was one of the league’s most graceful and skillful players of that time, something which was no mean feat, but it was his attitude to the club and playing for Torino that made him a real hero to fans.
Although the word granata is used as a nickname to signify the colour that they wear on their jerseys, in Turin it is used as a word in itself meaning to feel the passion for Torino and perhaps no foreigner has ever understood what it means to be granata more than the Brazilian star.
“I knew that this was a special club because the feeling hit me as soon as I arrived here for the very first time. The fans are so special too because they are fired up and extremely passionate like the fans in Brazil,” he said of his time at Torino.
“I even knew that when Moggi came to Rio de Janeiro to finalise my transfer that the memory of the Grande Torino is and always will be very much alive.”
Words like these showed the class that the player exuded and the players around him got a lift from his arrival, such was the skill that he brought to the field too with a reading of the game that was second to none.
He led the team to a title charge in his first season at the club and they looked like they would do it when they went to leaders Hellas Verona away from home and inflicted on the Mastini their only home league loss that year, but ultimately a series of draws would cost them dear as Verona won the most unlikeliest of Scudetto titles while Toro had to settle for second place.
However, his following years would not be quite so successful as the club struggled to find players with the ability to finish off the chances that he would create and although they did not possess the strongest squad, having lost top scorer Aldo Serena to Juventus, they still managed an unbelievable fifth placed finish by relying on a lot of Primavera youngsters but especially the conductor of their orchestra, Leo Junior.
The next year, Leo would continue to thrill fans with his displays of defensive desire and offensive ability in equal measure but sadly it would prove to be his last with the club.
He no longer was eye to eye with coach Gigi Radice, the man who last led the club to the title, and as a result was sold at the end of the season to Pescara at the age of 33-years-old with the club citing a decline in his performances due to his age as the reasons for his departure.
That proved to be entirely false as his displays with the Delfini would go on to prove where he continued to play at a very high level for his two years there before returning to Flamengo where he was welcomed back like a returning hero.
Eighty-six appearances during his time in Turin yielded three goals but it was his spirit as well as skill that will make him the foreigner Granata fans will always remember with a smile.
For that was how he liked to play the game himself as his success with Brazil in the Beach Soccer World Cups would later show, picking up numerous titles and countless Player of the Tournament and Top Scorer awards.
If Napoli have Maradona and Parma have Crespo, then Torino have the irreplaceable Leo Junior.