It takes a special player to make yourself unforgettable on the basis of just a few appearances for a club, the turnover of Premier League players being so high that many come and go without making the slightest impact. But Roque Junior was a special player.
A World Cup winner with Brazil in 2002, he helped provide the defensive stability that allowed Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho to thrive in Japan and South Korea. A Champions League winner with Milan, he featured in the tense 2003 goalless draw with Juventus at Old Trafford that the Rossoneri won on penalties.
A special player was what Leeds United needed in September 2003 - the club were struggling under an Everest of debt and entering a relegation dogfight - but the flamboyant Brazilian centre-back unveiled by manager Peter Reid seemed to fit the bill. Many Whites fans were impressed the club could still lure players of such pedigree despite its perilous financial state, especially one with such a cool haircut.
Forty-eight hours after arriving in Yorkshire, the 27-year-old slotted straight into Reid’s defence for an away match at Leicester. Like all Roque’s appearances in England, it would be one that Leeds fans never forgot.
The match itself went past in a blur. Especially, one suspects, for Roque, who looked very much like a man who had just stepped off a plane and found himself in a strange place as the Foxes raced into a 2-0 lead. After the match, which ended 4-0, Reid conceded that his new star stopper may have been jet-lagged.
The problem was that when Leeds took on Birmingham the following week, Roque still looked like a man who had just stepped off a plane and found himself in a strange place. And this time, he seemed angry about it - conceding a penalty and getting sent off for lashing out at Mikael Forssell as the Whites slumped to another loss.
A twist in the narrative would be nice here, such as Roque rediscovering his form or Leeds escaping relegation. But, alas, that’s not what Roque Junior was about. This is simply a tale of unrelenting woe.
Roque’s nadir came in a memorable tussle against a man who was in every way his footballing opposite: Everton’s uncompromising, unreconstructed, quintessentially Scottish target man Duncan Ferguson. The hard-man striker had the elegant defender for breakfast, at one point literally ripping off Roque’s shirt as the Toffees romped to a 4-0 win. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the image of Roque looking bewildered and hopelessly dishevelled after his bruising encounter with Ferguson - his strip and self-esteem in tatters - nicely encapsulates the South American’s Leeds career in one moment.
“Roque was symptomatic of the abyss that the club was heading for,” said one fan on the Dirty Leeds site, while another lamented, “We sold off quality for very little - Dacourt, Lennon, Milner etc. - and brought in utter clowns like Roque Junior on big wages.”
Most tragic was the misplaced optimism that greeted Roque’s arrival.
“Everyone’s mouths were watering when he signed - we thought we had struck gold,” recalled a supporter on the Marching on Together site, with another surmising, “We believed we had acquired a world class defender, but we got a world class chump.”
Other recollections of the Brazilian included “porous”, “useless” “as much use as a bucket of steam” and most poignantly: “big wages, big hair, big crock of s***”.
Roque Junior played seven games for Leeds, in which the team conceded an impressively calamitous 24 goals. His signing was an unmitigated disaster, and yet there was almost one moment of redemption.
It came in a Worthington Cup match against Manchester United on a stormy night in late October. The centre-back inexplicably scored twice, including a 114th-minute equaliser that prompted a joyous celebration in front of the Elland Road faithful. If Leeds had won that match against their bitterest rivals, Roque might now be revered as a cult hero instead of a porous crock of excrement, but Eric Djemba-Djemba’s 117th-minute Man Utd winner confirmed that the latter legacy would endure.
Two weeks later, Leeds were thumped 6-1 at Portsmouth and Reid was sacked. Roque was never seen in Yorkshire again, and the Whites haven’t been seen in the Premier League since that season. All that remains of the sorry episode is a mangled Leeds away shirt somewhere in a dustbin near Goodison Park. At least it’s in Brazil colours.
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