At just 18 years old, in his first season in Europe, Brazilian forward Vinícius Júnior has already carved out a significant role for himself in Real Madrid’s squad. His emergence as a valuable and now arguably a critical component of one of the best teams in the world happened way faster than anyone could’ve predicted. This is phenomenal news for the kid himself and for every Madridista who worried when the club paid a staggering €45 million for, at the time, a 16-year-old prospect who’d yet to start a single game at the professional level. It’s also a sign of just how far Real Madrid have fallen this season that any of this even came to pass in the first place.
After seeing very little game time with Real Madrid’s first team in the first half of the season, earning the bulk of his minutes during that period with the reserve team down in Spain’s third division, Vinícius has become a regular starter since the turn of the year. Of Real’s eight matches in 2019, Vinícius has started in seven of them, played the full 90 minutes in five, and came into the game as a sub in the one match he didn’t start. An 18-year-old racking up those kinds of minutes at a club of Madrid’s stature is by itself impressive; even more promising is how he’s performed in the minutes he’s been given.
Vinícius has consistently been one of if not the best of Real Madrid’s players since becoming a regular starter. He’s confounded opponents and dazzled spectators with his grown-man speed and strength and dribbling and ball control, his constant movement with and without the ball, his directness, his love of quick combinations down the wing that free up space for him or a teammate to hack a cross or a cutback into the box, his hunger for goals that compels him at all times to look for shooting angles, and his unselfishness that prevents him from bashing in a shot when a pass would set up a teammate in a better position.
The kid can run like this:
And finish like this:
And control a ball like this:
And do lots of other stuff that makes it clear why Real Madrid couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sign the guy who very well might become the next Neymar:
What’s possibly even more impressive than his copious skills and physical gifts is his complete and utter fearlessness when faced with the prospect of carrying the most famous team in the world as a goddamn teenager. He puts on that famous white shirt as if it were any other, steps onto a pitch he shares with historically great players who’ve won literally everything, and doesn’t appear to even think twice about assuming the responsibility of being the team’s attacking focal point.
Vinícius is nowhere near perfect, of course. His decision-making is routinely pretty bad; he often tries to do too much, as if attempting to cram the entire planet into his mouth and eat it in one big bite; and for as mature as his body and game appear in one moment, the next he’ll pick up the ball and sprint off like a newborn deer still getting used to his legs, looking like more of a threat to fall over himself than to score or create a goal. But these flaws are the sort that are common to young players first starting out, even the future greats, and aren’t at all a serious concern about his long-term prospects. Because of what he’s already done, Vinícius has demonstrated the talent and mentality to one day become one of the best players at a club like Real Madrid. That and finally getting his braces off make the past six months quite eventful for the callow teen.
Vinícius having a breakout as spectacular as this is of course good—for Vinícius and for the club. But the fact that Real Madrid have had to turn to a completely unproven teenager—a kid who, despite his obvious talents, is still incredibly raw and not yet good enough to be one of the star men leading a club with aspirations of winning every trophy—testifies to how awful Real Madrid’s season has been.
Madrid currently find themselves third in La Liga’s table, already an almost certainly insurmountable 10 points behind Barcelona. Their goal difference is a paltry +8, miles behind Barça’s +37 and lagging behind Atlético Madrid’s +19 and even Sevilla’s +14. Their defense is middling and their attack anemic; they’ve score just 34 goals in the league all season, far fewer than the 58 Barcelona have knocked in.
The picture in Europe isn’t much rosier. As crazy as it sounds on paper, no one would be shocked to see Real booted from the first Champions League knockout round when they face Ajax next month, and they are no one’s favorites to win the whole thing. When Madrid lost Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer and decided against signing a world-class replacement, it was clear that the club saw this as something of a transition season, which is perfectly fine coming off the historically dominant Champions League run of the past five years. But not even the most far-sighted Madridista could be content watching the aggressively bland and ineffectual soccer being played at the Bernabeu right now.
That is why Vinícius’s ascent is evidence of both the good and the bad of Real Madrid’s season. In an ideal world, Vinícius probably wouldn’t have piled up even half the minutes he’s played so far this year. Had Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio (both of whom have spent considerable time on the sidelines with injuries) been healthy, and if Isco were given the playing time his talent deserves, and if the rest of the squad played up to their best, Vinícius today would probably still be the alluring enigma he was at the beginning of the season, getting a few Cup starts here and there and showing up as a late sub in a handful of matches every month as he gradually worked his way into what should be, even without Ronaldo, one of the best teams in Europe. Instead, Madrid have been ravaged by injuries to some of their best attackers and suffered the poor form of just about everyone else not named Karim Benzema, and have had their lack of youth and speed and movement and drive exposed to such an extent that they’ve been forced to rely on a teenager as just about the only real source of chaos and attacking thrust and determination the team can find.
Also worrying is that Vinícius is so far the only young prospect to make a big step forward this season. Real have bet their future on their ability to identify and develop young talent. While several of the sport’s other megaclubs have shelled out hundreds of millions in cash—sometimes for just a single player or two—to attract the world’s best players, Real have taken a different tack. They have attempted to solidify their team’s short- and long-term future by spending more manageable fees on an array of younger players who’ve yet to realize the full extent of their potential, in hopes that a few of them turn into stars.
Vinícius, because of his age and price when Madrid bought him, is probably the most infamous recent example of this strategy, but he’s just one part of a broader contingent: Isco, Asensio, Mateo Kovačić, Dani Ceballos, Martin Ødegaard, Brahim Díaz, Álvaro Odriozola, Jesús Vallejo—Madrid bought all of them for relatively cheap fees when the players were young and full of more potential than current ability. From this group, the core of Real Madrid’s future is supposed to emerge. With so many world-class players still on the roster and all that young talent ostensibly ready to burst out, it made sense for Real to save their transfer powder last summer. This would give the team’s youngsters a chance to fill the gaping hole Ronaldo left. Figuring the resulting team would have enough to put together a respectable season this year, Real decided against stumping up big for a direct Ronaldo replacement, probably believing the young and experienced team that came out the other side would make the club even better situated for the future when Real finally opened the money clip this coming summer.
And yet for a host of different reasons—Kovačić’s frustration with his lack of playing time that led him to request a transfer, Asensio’s injuries and stagnation, Vallejo’s likely ceiling-ruining injuries, Isco’s and Ceballos’s strange lack of playing time—nearly all of those younger guys have been disappointments. Only Vinícius can say he’s lived up to and even surpassed the hopes Madrid had when signing him, and even he still has incredibly far to go before anyone would feel comfortable making him a key cog in a truly elite team. Real Madrid’s only truly major concern remains their efforts to find a suitable replacement for Ronaldo in the transfer market, and that was likely always going to be the case no matter what happened this season. Still, that none of Real’s in-house bets for superstardom have paid off yet, other than the qualified success of Vinícius, has to worry a club whose present and future looked so secure as recently as a year ago.
But let’s step away from the crystal ball for a moment and return to the present. There are few thrills better than watching a highly hyped young person come into their own the way Vinícius has over the past month or so. Seeing a young man so confident in himself and his abilities, playing as if he doesn’t know or doesn’t care that his teammates and opponents are some of the most celebrated figures of this era, with each passing minute realizing what he’s able to do and learning how to do it even better—this is what makes following sports, where the entire cycle of life from birth to maturation to decrepitude to death gets condensed and accelerated into the period of a decade or so, such an exciting, rewarding, life-affirming experience. Vinícius is hope personified, the promise that the future will come and might just be as special as the past, and for that fact he should be celebrated without getting too caught up in what it all means. What is to come probably won’t live up to our loftiest hopes and dreams, but the deliciousness of the present and the tantalizing image of the future it conjures in your mind right now are well worth savoring.