Brazil's next big thing, or cautionary tale? Vinicius Junior enters familiar spotlight

0:48 | Planet Futbol
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Friday May 19th, 2017

It was a hot, mid-March evening in Rancagua, a city south of Santiago, Chile, and Brazil’s Under-17 team was facing Colombia in the penultimate match of the South American championship.

Including the Colombia game, manager Carlos Amadeu’s squad had two remaining matches in order to qualify for the 2017 U-17 World Cup in India and a chance to win South America’s qualifying group for the 12th time–the most by any nation on the continent.

Colombia, strong and resilient, was holding on against the might of the Seleção until the 24th minute, when Evander delivered a delicious pass from his own half to Vinicius Junior, a 16-year-old forward from Flamengo.

The forward allowed the ball to drop just in front him, and with no hesitation while seeing that the keeper had left his line, lobbed him from outside the box. It was a marvelous goal, and one that becomes even more magnificent when you remember that this was scored by someone who is not even old enough to remember his country’s last World Cup trophy.

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Brazil went on to win the match and eventually the tournament, and even though Vinicius Junior failed to score in the last match against Chile, which Brazil won 5-0, he ended up as top scorer and best player.

"He's a promise, but we shouldn't go overboard," Amadeu said at a press conference after the tournament. "He's a good kid, but he has a lot of mistakes to make, and I just hope people are patient with him. If he stays focused despite all the glamour surrounding him, he can get to a really high level."

Amadeu’s comments were not just about silencing the hype about a teenage talent in order to develop and sustain the work ethic of his star player, but they were also about protecting him, especially at a time when his every move will now be microscopically reported, both on and off the field.

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Earlier this month, Vinicius Junior took a medical at Samaritano Hospital in Barra da Tijuca, west of Rio de Janeiro, because Real Madrid and Flamengo had reportedly reached a preliminary agreement for a deal that would take the prodigy to the Bernabeu in the summer of 2018, when he turns 18 and is eligible to move. According to Globo Esporte, the contract could reach as high as $49 million, which at the time was $16.5 million more than his release clause on his original contract.

Just this week, however, Flamengo announced a contract renewal with the young star, which included a significant pay raise and a higher release clause–around the same amount Real Madrid is said to be offering.

This is a monumental amount for a player who hasn’t even played a full professional match, so, needless to say, the soccer world is beginning to pay more attention to this quiet, bashful kid.

Born and raised in São Gonçalo, located in Rio de Janeiro, Vinicius Junior (who was known as Fominho at the Flamengo Academy) has been playing with Flamengo since the age of 10. When he was 13, he the caught the eye of the then-head coach of Brazil’s U-15 team, Cacapa, and that same year he made his first appearance for the youth national side.

His entire career with Flamengo has taken him up the ranks, where he has always played for teams older than he, helping him mature more quickly as a player and as a student of the game.

His grounded personality will be put to an even bigger test, now that he has been promoted to the senior team, playing alongside Peruvian star Paolo Guerrero and Diego, who was recently called up to join the Brazilian national side for World Cup qualifiers.

On May 14, with 10 minutes remaining in the second half against Atletico Mineiro, Vinicius Junior came off the bench to make his professional debut. The crowd went wild, recognizing that here was one of their own–born in Rio, nurtured by Flamengo–ready to come on and represent the only club he has ever known. The performance was anything but inspiring, and you could clearly sense that the magnitude of the occasion completely rattled his focus.

But, it was one match. Ten minutes. A single step from the thousands of miles of his career.

The Brazilian export is not exactly a new story, and successes are too many to mention. From Sonny Anderson (the top-scoring Brazilian in all UEFA club competitions) to Roberto Carlos (most appearances by a Brazilian in UEFA club competitions) Brazilian fans have plenty to boast in the modern era.

There is also, however, the other side to that coin.

This week, World Soccer's Tim Vickery compared him to Lulinha, a player who took a similar path a decade ago. After impressing for Corinthians youth academy in 2007, the attacking midfielder was also rushed to the senior team. Now he plays in South Korea, for Pohang Steelers, failing to live up to the expectations set by so many.

There is also the question of timing. Is moving to Real Madrid at this age a mistake? Would he be heading to Europe too early? Should he wait and stay in Brazil in order to develop his undoubted talent?

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“I think Neymar was really smart in that sense,” says Andrew Downie, a journalist and author based in Brazil and whose latest book, Doctor Socrates, is a biography of the legendary Brazilian captain of the 1982 World Cup. “When he left Santos for Barcelona, he was no longer a teenager. He was 21. He was already an established player in the first team, having won Copa Libertadores in 2011 and three league titles, he had already developed to a higher level.

“I think when young players go to big clubs, it tends to be a big mistake, unless they have already shown themselves to be exceptional. Neymar and Robinho, for example, proved themselves domestically before moving on to a bigger club. They were ready. Vinicius still has an awfully long way to go."

The truth is, nobody will be able to predict the outcome of his career, let alone a potential move to Real Madrid or how he will deliver on the promise of such a hefty price tag, no matter where he is situated. The only hope is that he is given time and patience in order to develop the enormous potential he so clearly possesses.

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