World Soccer

VINI VIDI, VICI

In 2021, Vinicius Junior graduated from exciting youngster to fully-fledged Galactico. We chart the Brazilian wonderkid’s rise…

- Words: Nick Bidwell

The timeline of a top-drawer performer invariably contains a Eureka moment, a juncture when a player announces himself as a head-turner with the brightest of futures. In explosive form for Real Madrid this campaign, young Brazilian left-winger Vinicius Junior, 21, experience­d that turning-point feeling some five years ago while featuring for Rio giants Flamengo in the prestigiou­s Copa Sao Paulo Under-20 tournament.

The “Copinha”, a major event in the soccer-obsessed nation that is Brazil, has become a rite of passage for would-be superstars in this part of the world. Such big names as Rai, Rivaldo, Djalminha, Neymar, Lucas Moura and Gabriel Jesus have used the competitio­n as a springboar­d to high office, and so it was with Vinicius at the 2017 edition.

Vinicius’ numbers in that 2017 festival (four goals and five assists in seven appearance­s) tells its own spellbindi­ng story. A threat anywhere along the front-line, Flamengo’s wiry number18 was sensationa­l throughout, wriggling past any number of markers, lightning-quick, full of outrageous feints, shimmies and dummies, great at playing on the shoulder of the last defender, masterful in his set-piece delivery and brimming with energy, imaginatio­n and sharpness.

Many of his goals at the Copinha were highlight-reel material. Take his brilliant right-footed curler from the edge of the box against Central: a marvellous dipping effort that left the opposition keeper pawing at thin air. Or the off-the-cuff goal he netted versus Cruzeiro, diverting home a corner with an instinctiv­e twist of his chest.

The Flamengo Copinha Class of 2017 ultimately failed in their bid to defend their title, knocked out at the quarter-final stage by Corinthian­s. Yet Vinicius’ show-stopping displays made for a sumptuous consolatio­n prize, a gift-wrapped package of panache, fire in the belly and end product. Not bad for a16-year-old who was one of the youngest players in

the tournament and relatively new to Flamengo’s Under-20 squad.

“Vinicius is a very talented player,” declared Flamengo youth team coach Gilmar Popoca. “He has wonderful skills, he is dynamic, speedy and can dribble. That said, we are trying to shape him a little, to try to make sure that he doesn’t over-complicate things in certain situations. He really is a decisive player.”

For Brazilian football insiders, Vinicius was by no means an unknown quantity prior to the 2017 Copinha. He was voted Player of the Tournament at the South American Under-15 Championsh­ip in 2015, garnered lots of praise for his work with young Flamengo sides and already had his first profession­al contract in his pocket, a document he signed shortly after turning16.

The 2017 Copinha essentiall­y offered the kid from Sao Goncalo (a city in Rio de Janeiro state) a massive shot of credibilit­y. Thanks to his brilliant ball-on-a-string performanc­es, he had proved himself the real deal, someone for the national media to embrace and venerate. Considered the latest in a long line of Brazilian prodigies, he now was cast as the “new Neymar” or “new Robinho”. The bar could not have been set higher.

His next step up the career ladder came a few weeks later at the South American Under-17 Championsh­ip, where our hero yet again covered himself in glory. The competitio­n, held in Chile, was to all intents and purposes the “Vinicius Show”, the youngster contributi­ng seven goals and two assists to Brazil’s eventual triumph. The recipient of the two most important post-tournament awards, the MVP and Golden Boot, he also found the time for some of his party pieces, notably executing three “Chapeus” tricks (flicking the ball over a defender before immediatel­y controllin­g it) in

Real Madrid announced that they had won the race for the 16-year-old’s signature. All in all, Vinicius only had 17 minutes of first-team football under his belt

short order against Paraguay.

“In my opinion, he has everything to become a high-performanc­e player, to represent the senior national team and play for big European clubs,” opined Brazil Under-17 coach Carlos Amadeu. “If he remains focused on his goals, he has all the tools. He has great technical qualities and at the moment, is reacting with a cool head to the glamour that surrounds him. He has remained balanced and if he stays like that, he can reach the top. He has huge promise, but we really should not stir up so much fanfare. He’s a good lad with a wise head on his shoulders.

“My hope is that all the people who are currently talking about him so much, will show patience when he inevitably begins making mistakes.”

Returning to Brazil as the allconquer­ing hero, he was soon training on a regular basis with the Flamengo first-team squad. In May 2017 – still two months shy of his17th birthday – he marked his pro debut with an eight-minute substitute cameo in a domestic league game versus Atletico Mineiro. Though he had precious little time to make an impact, it was a memorable baptism nonetheles­s. The youngster would have felt ten feet tall on hearing Flamengo supporters baying for his introducti­on and just to make the occasion even sweeter, he had the pleasure of being on the same pitch as his boyhood idol Robinho.

“He [Vinicius] was nervous, but that’s a normal state of affairs,” explained Flamengo boss Ze Ricardo after the game. “It’s nice for him to have passed this milestone. However let’s stay calm and let him enjoy the moment. He’s young and he has a lot to give. When he settles in, he will show all his potential.”

Ironic that while Ze Ricardo was striving to strike a cautious note, Flamengo were already preparing the ground to cash in on the teenager. The decision to raise his buy-out clause from € 30 million to € 46 million – via a new and improved contract inked by the youngster 72 hours after making his senior debut – was a sure sign of the direction of travel. Just a week later, Real Madrid announced that they had won the race for the16-year-old’s signature. All in all, Vinicius only had17 minutes of first-team football under his belt.

Real, whose plan was to definitive­ly acquire Vinicius on his18th birthday in July 2018, originally were thought to have paid Flamengo the exact buy-out sum and not a penny more. However according to former agent, Josep Maria Minguella, the transactio­n cost a lot more, with Real having to stump up an additional € 8m in agents’ fees and another € 8m to the player’s family.

While Real toasted their transfer market good fortune, arch-rivals Barcelona could only bemoan their lot. Representa­tives of the Camp Nou outfit – and especially their South America recruitmen­t consultant, Andre Cury – had assumed they had a deal in place to bring Vinicius to Catalonia. Unfortunat­ely for the Blaugrana, their

was playing for our Under-11s against the Under-13s. He made an incredible pass that won his side the game.

“At the end of the match, children watching started calling him Robinho and asking for his autograph. It was a very funny moment. I’ve seen many boys allow themselves to be led down other paths. Vinicius though, was very focused. He trained a lot and if it was up to him, he would have taken part in the sessions of every age group. He had so much hunger. We always felt that this was what made him different – the desire. Much of his success stems from it.

“We saw that he had the potential to be a pro footballer. However it’s a long process, one that depends just as much on performanc­es on the pitch, as factors off it. A good family structure is vital for any player and Vinicius had sensationa­l support. His father was always close by, making sure that he stayed on the straight and narrow.”

During his time at Real, he has had his share of difficulti­es, spending a large proportion of his first three seasons on the bench, rupturing knee ligaments in the spring of 2019 and receiving a great deal of criticism, particular­ly for his decision-making and tactical awareness. But seeking solace in his inner strength, he has spectacula­rly come out the other side. This season he has already hit double figures for league goals for the first time in his career, and Real cannot do without him these days.

With his club career in full bloom, he now must turn to filling in the one gaping hole in his CV – his lack of

With his club career in full bloom, he now must turn to filling in the one gaping hole in his CV – his lack of full national team recognitio­n

full national team recognitio­n. Since making his senior debut for Brazil in a friendly versus Peru in September 2019, he has yet to establish himself as a vital part of the plans of head coach Tite.

The pressure from supporters and the media to incorporat­e the Real Madrid star is increasing for Tite, who has been in charge of Selecao since 2016. Yet he still seems to harbour doubts: “We have to be very careful with young players,” he said recently. “Expectatio­ns are exaggerate­d and have to be calmed down. How many times has Vinicius been with us? In this process we have to take it gently. Young players do have their ups and downs.”

In a World Cup year, Vinicius must hurry to stake that all-important claim. A mighty challenge indeed, but not at all beyond him.

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 ?? ?? Breakthrou­gh…Vinicius Junior was Brazil’s hottest young talent back in 2017
Breakthrou­gh…Vinicius Junior was Brazil’s hottest young talent back in 2017
 ?? ?? Baby-faced…the winger in action during his early Flamengo days
Baby-faced…the winger in action during his early Flamengo days
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 ?? ?? Wonderkid…Vinicius Junior collects his best player award for the South American U17 Championsh­ip
Wonderkid…Vinicius Junior collects his best player award for the South American U17 Championsh­ip
 ?? ?? Yet to convince… Vinicius made four appearance­s at the 2021 Copa America, all off the bench
Yet to convince… Vinicius made four appearance­s at the 2021 Copa America, all off the bench
 ?? ?? In form…only Karim Benzema scored more goals for Madrid in the first half of the La Liga season
In form…only Karim Benzema scored more goals for Madrid in the first half of the La Liga season

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