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