Madrid's ‘new Neymar’ who feels no pressure
Real may have paid €45m to sign Vinicius Jr but the teenager is fearless about playing alongside Ronaldo
The meteoric rise of Vinicius Junior is nothing new for Brazil, the spiritual home of football. Born and raised in Sao Goncalo, the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro, Vinicius, like all those around him, dreamed of one day becoming his country’s next superstar.
His precocious talent was clear from an early age and he joined Flamengo, Brazil’s best supported club, at 10 years of age. He immediately stood out. Joyful, talented and irreverent, the youngster drew attention at every step of his ascent through the youth ranks.
But it was in 2017, over the course of a whirlwind three months, that his life would be transformed forever.
The Copa Sao Paulo has played an important role in Brazil’s football history. From Casemiro and Neymar to Lucas Moura and Gabriel Jesus, some of the Selecao’s best players have made names for themselves at the country’s most prestigious youth tournament. Vinicius Junior took part as a 16-year-old and dominated his opponents – some of whom were three years his senior.
Weeks later, he guided Brazil to glory at the South American Under-17 Football Championship. He was the tournament’s top-scorer and was named its best player.
Then, to top it all off, Real Madrid came calling. A €45 million deal was agreed before he’d even made his professional debut.
“I really didn’t expect it. Neither me, nor my family, but we believed it could happen at some point,” Vinicius tells Goal after accepting his prize for finishing third in this year’s NxGn, which lists the 50 best teenagers in the world born in 1999 or later.
“Everything happened so quickly in those three months. I was on the bench in the youth team but then I had an excellent Copa Sao Paulo and South American championship, so I was called up to the senior team very quickly.”
The size of the transfer fee surprised many, given Vinicius had yet to even compete at senior level, but the forward’s career had long seemed to be on fast forward.
He was called into the Under-15 Brazil squad at just 13, and inspired Brazil to the title with six goals and five assists in six matches.
A two-time continental champion by just 16, superstardom felt more inevitable than possible, and Flamengo knew there was no point delaying his debut just to protect him.
On May 13, 2017, he made his first senior appearance in a game against Atletico Mineiro, at the historic Maracana no less – and lined up against his childhood hero, Robinho.
“It was a dream come true for me and my whole family,” he gushes. “Everybody dreams about something like that and it came true for me at 16-years-old. It was a very special moment.
“When I first started playing, back in Sao Goncalo, someone once asked me who was my idol, and mine was Robinho. But Neymar and Ronaldinho are the players who inspire me the most in football.”
Vinicius looks the complete player: quick and skilful, he has spent his adolescence flying past one defender after another in the great Brazilian tradition of dribbling. He can use both feet and strikes the ball powerfully from long distance. Another great attribute is his vision, which has seen him create countless opportunities for his colleagues.
Due to arrive in Madrid in July 2018, when he turns 18, the expectations on the teenager are huge. So big, in fact, that they can only truly be compared to those placed on a young Neymar when he emerged at the tail end of the last decade. So, while the ‘new Neymar’ tag is unfair, it is wholly unsurprising.
“I do not pay attention to it,” he insists. “But I have always followed Neymar. I have more contact with him nowadays and when I watch him play, I try to take things to improve myself.
“But I do not want to be another Neymar. I want to build my own career and spread happiness for everyone from Brazil.”
With the Madrid move waiting just over the horizon, one would imagine that the pressure on Vinicius to justify his colossal transfer fee would be overwhelming. However, the youngster seems to be taking all of the hype in his stride.
He’s relaxed, joyfully adolescent, always smiling from ear-to-ear. After all, he’s still a teenager, a kid who just wants to have fun playing football.
“There is no pressure,” he declares. “It is very good to be able to play football. I like to entertain on the pitch and there is no big responsibility, on or off the field. I just want to be happy here in Flamengo and help the team.”
He doesn’t have too long to do so. Despite his huge affection for Flamengo, Vinicius knows that soon he will head to Madrid to join the biggest club in world football.
He visited the Santiago Bernabeu for the first time at the end of last year and received a warm welcome.
“I talked to Cristiano Ronaldo a little and found out about the structure at Real Madrid,” he reveals.
“I spoke to everyone, but mostly with Marcelo and Casemiro. I talked a lot with them and Ronaldo is a really cool guy. He wished me good luck and asked when I will be joining him there.”
Vinicius has a number of new-found, high-profile acquaintances – and has already amassed a scrapbook that serves as a strong reminder of how much things have changed. But he still speaks with the same humility he has always had.
“There are some pictures I keep looking at and thinking, ‘The guys who I only ever saw on TV and in video games are now giving me advice to make me a better person, both on and off the field,’” he says, clearly awe-struck.
“But that is a result of my hard work and God always blessing me by placing great people by my side.”
His humble nature and grounded behaviour have certainly pleased the Flamengo fans, who have not seen any of the petulance that has plagued the early careers of so many of the wonderkids to have come before Vinicius.
It certainly would have been easy for the success to go to his head. Still just 17, he has already hit 12 goals in 53 games, most of them coming off the bench.
His next task is cementing a place in the first-team and then he will set his sights on bigger things, with a senior international cap top of the wish list.
"[Brazil coach] Tite is doing a great job and we have excellent players: Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Coutinho are among the best players of the world,” he enthuses.
“We will do well at the World Cup and come back as the champions.”
And not only that. Before the year is out, he hopes to be representing the European champions, too.
Indeed, when asked who will win this year’s Champions League title, he raises what is becoming a trademark smile and replies "Real, of course."