It’s been a dire season for Real Madrid but in among the dark clouds there has been a light on the horizon of next season.
The appointment of Zidane Zidane as first team coach for a second spell has helped lift the gloom, but the biggest bright light has come from Vinicius Junior – the 18-year-old who the club’s supporters believe will end up eclipsing everything Neymar achieved at Barcelona, make missing out on signing Neymar a footnote in the club’s history, and certainly make signing him now unnecessary.
Real Madrid tried to sign Neymar when he was 14 years old. The fact that he ended up at Barcelona, winning the Champions League before being sold for £198million made missing out even worse.
It was at the height of Neymar’s powers at the Nou Camp when Real Madrid president Florentino Perez set about making sure the next big thing to come out of Brazil would end up at Real Madrid.
Spanish-born Brazilian Juni Calafat headed up a new international scouting and recruitment operation and as a result, Vinicius would end up arriving at the club for £38m.
It was an incredible move for a player who first started showing talent as a five-year-old in the Sao Goncalo neighbourhood of Rio on the banks of the highly polluted Guanabara Bay. He had to wait until he was 10 before he could join Flamengo’s youth academy.
When he joined the club it was as a left back. But with one of his idols Robinho’s playing position very much in mind, he soon evolved and began playing in his hero’s left-wing berth.
Vinicius stayed at Flamengo for a year after Madrid signed him but he finally left Brazil last summer to spend the pre-season with his new club in Spain.
There was an emotional goodbye first. A solitary tear rolled down his cheek as he gave a pitchside interview at the end of his final game for the club. The show of sadness was provoked by supporters singing his name as he answered questions about his future.
‘It’s a difficult moment,’ he said, ‘because I am where I want to be. I never imagined being a professional so young and to be only 17 and on my way to Real Madrid.’
There were no tears days later when turned 18 and celebrated in style with a party thrown for all his friends. The high-class venue at the Rio Beach Clube hosted 600 party-goers. It was a themed affair with pictures of his career at Flamengo all around the club, which was decked out in black and red.
It was a birthday celebration and a farewell party too because five days later he was taking part in Julen Lopetegui’s first training session in Madrid.
The debate at the time was what to do with him – no one believed he could form a part of the first team in his first season, least of all Lopetegui.
It was an even an option to send him back to Flamengo for a few more months on loan, but that possibility was discarded because the club wanted him close by. They wanted to monitor his development in the B-team ‘Real Madrid Castilla’, who play in Spain’s third tier.
It didn’t take long for Vinicius to catch the eye. Summer sports news bulletins can be hard to fill in Spain – his every backheel and flick were replayed over and again to expectant supporters who couldn’t wait for his debut.
Those summer shows were not enough to convince first-team coach Lopetegui, who passed him on to Santiago Solari, the then B-team coach.
In his first five games, he scored four times and there was pressure on Lopetegui to play him in the first Clasico of the season at the Nou Camp. The decision was ultimately taken away from the first-team coach because a ban picked up in the B-team had to be served across all levels.
Madrid lost the game 5-1 and the next day Lopetegui was sacked and replaced by Solari, who had none of his predecessor’s doubts when it came to blooding the teenager in the first XI.
Solari loved what he had seen on the pitch and on the training ground. But he also believed in the player’s level-headed maturity.
That party for Vinicius’s 18th birthday last July was a rare letting loose. There are no signs that he will follow in the footsteps of another one of his heroes – Ronaldinho. The former Barcelona star – like Robinho – had a reputation for enjoying the high life too much in Spain.
The next time Vinicius threw a party came last October – but it was for his mum, Tatiana, to celebrate her 37th birthday. He puts his success down to her – for putting up with him banging the ball against the side of their house until he was old enough to join Flamengo’s youth set-up. She brought him his first pair of boots.
The club likes the way he is respectful to opponents, team-mates and coaching staff – not so respectful to rivals that he won’t bamboozle them with rainbow flicks and step-overs but most of his technical artistry is designed to serve the team and not for online compilation videos, although he did flick the ball over an opponent’s head three times in one South American Under-17 tournament match against Paraguay in 2017.
But there usually are no over-elaborate ‘dancinhas’ – Portuguese for choreographed dancing celebrations – when he scores. He prefers to dedicate goals to his brother Netinho and his new sibling Bernardinho.
He has humble tastes – his favourite dish is still the rice, beans, meat and potatoes that he grew up eating. He is a tattoo fan but the one that reads: ‘Blessed by God’ is the most important to him. He feels privileged to have been given a gift. He’s a fan of playing FIFA video games and a karaoke devotee but for all the fun he’s serious in the workplace. And he’s completely driven.
When Vinicius arrived at Real Madrid he was politically astute, declaring himself a fan of Marco Asensio – but before his serious calf injury two weeks ago he had gone past the young Spaniard in Real’s pecking order.
He could so easily now have been heading into an incredible end to his first season. Had his finishing been better in that semi-final first leg Copa del Rey game against Barcelona, Madrid would have taken a lead into the second game and might have progressed to the final. He knows he needs to work on his finishing.
Coach Solari believed in his ability to naturally improve that side of his game. The player himself knows that Cristiano Ronaldo – someone he has been likened to for the way he likes to power in from the left flank onto his right foot – was not a prolific scorer early on. It took time for him to develop his goal-a-game ratio.
He could also have been enjoying a Brazil debut after being called up for a first cap by Tite. The injury put paid to that and to most of the rest of his season. When he comes back – possibly for the last two matches of the season – he will have a new coach to play for.
Gone is his Madrid mentor Solari. But Zidane is seen as a safe pair of hands for such a precious talent. He can’t wait to begin working with the teenager.
Zidane believes in his players having fun. Vinicius has been able to enjoy himself this season despite all of Madrid’s problems so he should be smiling broadly in better times under Zidane’s tutelage.