Mil­lion dol­lar de­but

Brazil­ian 16-year-old set to be­come the world’s most ex­pen­sive teenager

World Soccer - - The World - Tim Vick­ery

It was im­pos­si­ble not to feel sorry for Vini­cius Ju­nior as he played his first few min­utes as a se­nior pro­fes­sional.

A crowd of well over 40,000 were in Rio’s Mara­cana sta­dium to see Fla­mengo take on Atletico Mineiro in the open­ing game of the Brazil­ian cham­pi­onship, a few days be­fore a crunch Lib­er­ta­dores Cup game. Yet all this was over­shad­owed by the hope that Vini­cius, one of the stars of the re­cent South Amer­i­can Un­der-17 Cham­pi­onship, would come off the bench to make his first-team de­but.

As the teams were an­nounced, his name and photo were greeted by the loud­est roar. And, Fla­mengo goal aside, the big­gest cheer of the day came when it be­came clear that he was go­ing to be brought on.

The game was all square at 1-1, and with stop­page time there were just over 10 min­utes to go. Atletico had al­ready made all their sub­sti­tu­tions, but right­back Carlos Ce­sar – the di­rect op­po­nent of Vini­cius, who likes to cut in from the left – was down and clearly in­jured. Af­ter lengthy treat­ment he was able to re­turn to the pitch, but only to hob­ble around as an im­pro­vised cen­tre-for­ward.

The scene, then, was set for a heroic de­but, with the sort of in­stant im­pact that would make it clear why Real Madrid are happy to spend a for­tune se­cur­ing the young­ster’s ser­vices. They are so keen to avoid a re­peat of the prob­lems that saw them lose out to Barcelona for Ney­mar that they have re­port­edly con­cluded a

45mil­lion (£38m) deal with Fla­mengo to sign Vini­cius in July 2018, when he turns 18, al­though he could stay in Brazil for a fur­ther sea­son.

Such a deal would ex­ceed the £36m paid by Manch­ester United to Monaco for An­thony Mar­tial in 2015, a trans­fer which made the French striker the most ex­pen­sive teenager ever.

How on earth could a 16-year-old live up to that kind of billing?

He cer­tainly looked very im­pres­sive for Brazil’s un­der-17s, full of sinewy skill and of­fer­ing a con­sis­tent threat. But he was part of a team who were clearly bet­ter than the rest – at a level of foot­ball where many stars do not go on to shine at se­nior level.

A decade ago there was a sim­i­lar fuss sur­round­ing at­tack­ing mid­fielder Lulinha, who had just given a masterclass in fin­ish­ing at the 2007 South Amer­i­can Un­der-17s. He was in­stantly linked to all the Euro­pean giants. And hav­ing bro­ken scor­ing records in the youth ranks with Corinthi­ans, he was hur­riedly pro­moted to the first team.

Ten years later, his wan­der­ing, dis­ap­point­ing ca­reer has taken him to South Korea, where he plays for Po­hang Steel­ers, and he has not come re­motely close to ful­fill­ing any of the hopes that were built up around him.

Vini­cius, per­haps, has two ad­van­tages. The first is that Fla­mengo 2017 are much bet­ter than Corinthi­ans 2007. Lulinha was thrown in to the start­ing line-up of a strug­gling gi­ant who were fight­ing a bat­tle against rel­e­ga­tion and the young­ster was sup­posed to be the saviour. For­tu­nately, there is no need for Vini­cius to carry the Fla­mengo team.

Se­condly, Lulinha was un­able to im­pose him­self phys­i­cally on se­nior foot­ball. Those around him grew taller and stronger, and his space on the field was crowded out. As a wide at­tacker, Vini­cius should find space eas­ier to come by, and he may well de­velop into a more ath­letic player. Nev­er­the­less, he still had the look of a ball­boy who had wan­dered onto the field in those 10 min­utes in the Mara­cana. He tried some tricks, but noth­ing came off. Af­ter a mis­con­trol, a wasted cross and a mis­di­rected back­heel, the roars that greeted his early touches gave way to groans as he lost pos­ses­sion.

Noth­ing hap­pened to send the crowd home cher­ish­ing for­ever a mem­ory of his de­but. And that, surely, is as it should be.

With all the changes a young­ster at his age is go­ing through – in body, in mind, in the quest for his own iden­tity – it is surely too much to ask for him to be an in­stant se­nior sen­sa­tion.

Let him take things step by step. Real Madrid was not built in a day.

Real Madrid have re­port­edly con­cluded a €45mil­lion deal with Fla­mengo to sign Vini­cius in July 2018, when he turns 18

de­but...Vini­cius came off the bench against Atletico Mineiro

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