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Is future Real Madrid forward Vinicius Jr worth the hype?

Even in today’s petrodollar-guzzling, post-Neymar-to-PSG transfer market, €46 million can still get you quite a lot of footballer, if invested wisely.

Last summer, for example, Bernardo Silva went to Manchester City for around that sum. Davinson Sanchez, one of the signings of the Premier League season, arrived at Tottenham for a similar price.
In January, you could have had one Olivier Giroud, a Sandro Wagner and a whole Yerry Mina and still been left with enough change for a couple of packets of World Cup album stickers.

It is a stupendous amount, then, to spend on a 16-year-old who has played just eight minutes of first-team football. That, however, is exactly what Real Madrid decided to do when they signed Vinicius Jr. from Brazilian giants Flamengo in May 2017.

Those eight minutes had come 10 days before his signing was announced, in a league game against Atletico Mineiro. The Flamengo fans had been calling for Vinicius Jr.’s introduction since the start of the second half. But when manager Ze Ricardo finally decided to put him into the thick of it, he failed to make a mark.

The debutant miscontrolled the first pass he received, put a cross two metres over the head of his centre-forward and gave the ball away a couple of times before the referee put the whistle to his lips for the final time.

As he found out that evening, it is an immense step up from the academy teams to the professional ranks.

It was his performances at the age-group level, however, that convinced Real to take such a big gamble. Vinicius Jr., who grew up in Sao Goncalo, one of the roughest areas of Rio de Janeiro state, excelled in the Flamengo youth teams, often playing a year or two ahead of his actual age.

Then, in January 2017, during the Copa Sao Paulo de Futebol Junior, the Flamengo winger came to the attention of the nation. The Copinha, as the U20 tournament is affectionately known, is a showcase for the finest talent in Brazil and has been the stage for players like Kaka, Neymar and Gabriel Jesus to launch their careers.

Vinicius put in some scintillating displays, including one against Cruzeiro which I was lucky enough to watch from the terraces. There were thousands of Flamenguistas in attendance and they knew they were witnessing a special player. Every time he received the ball the crowd held its breath in anticipation, and at the end of the game fans flocked to him, begging for selfies.

Those exhibitions of skill, ability and blistering speed earned him a place in the squad for the South American U17 Championship and it was there that he proved beyond doubt that he was Brazilian football’s hottest prospect. Seven goals in nine games made him the competition’s top scorer, earned him the award for the best player and sent Europe’s top clubs into overdrive in the race for his signature.

Last time this happened to the same extent was for Neymar, and on that occasion Real Madrid lost out to bitter rivals Barcelona. They would not let that happen again. In came the astronomical offer and Vinicius Jr.’s future was written.

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FIFA rules prevent any international transfer before a player turns 18 so, until July at the very least, Vinicius Jr. remains at the club he joined at the age of 10, gaining experience in the Copa Libertadores and Brazilian national league, which kicks off this Saturday.

Last year, after that unsuccessful professional debut, Vinicius Jr. went on to make a further 24 appearances in the Brasileirao, 20 of which came from the substitutes bench.

He often struggled to make an impact, with his baggy shorts and protruding braces giving him the look of a child thrown into a man’s game. There were some flashy touches and fleeting moments of brilliance – like the match against Atletico Goianiense when he scored his first two professional goals – but they were few and far between.

Now, though, he appears to be coming of age. This year, he has bulked up and added a new objectiveness to his game. He notched 4 goals in the Campeonato Carioca, the Rio de Janeiro state league, and made a spectacular debut in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club competition.

That game, away in Ecuador against Emelec, felt like a watershed moment in Vincius Jr.’s senior career. Again, he started on the sidelines, but after his introduction in the 67th minute – with his team 1-0 down – he played like a man possessed and single-handedly turned the game on its head.

Flamengo v Botafogo - Copa do Brasil Semi-Finals 2017

With 12 minutes left on the clock, he received the ball in an inside left position, took on three defenders and smashed a deflected shot into the roof of the net. Then, seven minutes later, he led a lightning-fast counter attack, playing a one-two on the edge of the area before curling a delightful effort beyond the outstretched frame of the Emelec keeper.

Away trips in the Libertadores are notoriously difficult, with long journeys and hostile crowds, but Vinicius Jr. handled it with aplomb and announced himself on the international stage in resounding fashion.

The next step is his move to the Spanish capital. Media reports in Brazil say that it is Vinicius himself who will have the final say on exactly when he goes.

Madrid are desperate for him to move as soon as possible, mostly in order to protect their investment from the physical dangers of South American club football. The young player has other ideas, though, and wants to help his boyhood club in their quest for domestic and continental glory before finally flying over in January.

Whatever the eventual outcome, it will be a tough task for the Brazilian to establish himself at the biggest club on the planet. It is another enormous leap in quality and competitiveness and there is no guarantee he will get minutes in the first team.

He will need to avoid the temptations of the glamourous surroundings in which he’ll find himself and focus on becoming the best player he possibly can. If he does that, though, you can expect to see Vinicius Jr. at the top of the world game sooner rather than later.

Topics:
Brazil Football
Real Madrid
La Liga
Football

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