That braces-rocking, baby-faced kid with his tongue out who you see above is Brazilian club Flamengo’s teen sensation Vinícius Júnior. Vinícius is 16 years old; he has racked up all of about a dozen minutes of pro-level soccer; and, as the club confirmed today, he has just become the most expensive teenaged signing in history, with Real Madrid buying him for €45 million. This sport has gone insane.
Vinícius has taken the soccer world by storm thanks to his exploits with Flamengo’s—and especially the Brazilian national team’s—youth ranks. Most impressively, the young forward dubbed “The New Neymar” won the South American U17 Championship with Brazil. In the eight matches he played in that tournament, Vinícius scored seven goals, created two assists, and was named the tournament’s best player. Those stats are of a piece with his typically dominating exploits with Brazil’s youth teams. Over the past couple years at U15 and U17 level, Vinícius has scored 23 times in 25 matches. That record, plus the local youth cups he’s won at club level, often while competing against kids years older than him, is what has made him such a coveted prospect.
As you can tell from the highlight video above, Vinícius does appear to be the real deal. The Neymar comparisons are pretty apt. Like his superstar compatriot, Vinícius is a lightning-quick right-footed forward who likes to play on the left. He is a phenomenal dribbler, is fearless when running at defenders, has a great eye for goal, and is maybe just as good at setting up teammates with cutting passes that split through his opponents’ defensive lines. He has the same blend of dribbling, scoring, and passing abilities that soccer’s most elite players share. And Vinícius has a good physical build, standing at a not-too-small 5'9" and is already physically stronger than Neymar was at that age. If he continues along the developmental path he’s currently on, there’s no reason why he can’t one day be one of the very best players in the world.
But still. Forty-five million Euros? For a completely unproven teenager? A kid who not only hasn’t even scored a goal in Brazil’s top division, he hasn’t even started a single match for Flamengo’s first team? This is pure madness!
Even if Vinícius is the most promising 16-year-old forward in the world, it’s still beyond crazy to pay so much for someone so young. Projecting talent at that young of an age is incredibly difficult proposition. There are a million different things that can happen to limit his potential as a player, from injuries to commitment issues to simply never quite developing the way everyone expected. It’s perfectly likely that, and wouldn’t be at all a disappointment if, Vinícius turns out to be a really good, European league-quality player who nonetheless is never good enough to star for Real. So for Real to pay so much for him now—that €45 million is the same as what Manchester City paid for Sergio Agüero, more than what Chelsea paid AC Milan for Ballon d’Or winner Andriy Shevchenko—when he still has so much to prove is nuts.
Why would Real do this then? Well, because they’re Real Madrid; they can do whatever they want. Real basically have infinite money, which means even spending €45 million on a player who might well never pan out won’t impede them from going out and buying whomever they want, whenever they want. If they can afford to burn all that money on a single teen, why not do so on one that has a chance to be the best player in the world? Should the stars align and Vincícius eventually become something of a New Neymar, then we’ll all look back at the €45 million Real paid for him now as a bargain, a stroke of genius.
(Though, even if he is all he’s made out to be, it’s unlikely that he’ll be Real-ready at 18 or 19 when he’s supposed to make his way to Madrid. Even the best Brazilians typically don’t move to Europe until they’re legitimately world-class at around 21 or 22. Sitting on Real’s bench for a few seasons in his late teens-early twenties or playing the loan lottery at midtable La Liga teams probably isn’t best for his development, making the mere act of signing with Real so young a potential limitation on his chances of reaching his ceiling.)
On top of those mostly justifiable reasons for making this move, you also can’t help but feel that this is in part a response to Madrid president Florentino Pérez’s still simmering frustration at having missed out on the real Neymar. Barcelona struck a similarly shady deal with Santos for Neymar with all kinds of strange pre-contracts and pseudo-transfer payments that basically gave Barça first right of refusal for signing Neymar long before the Brazilian stud actually joined the Catalan club. (The Vinícius transfer’s shadiness is due to the fact that, at 16 years old, the player is not allowed to move abroad due to FIFA’s rules against the transfer of underage players—the same rules that Real were recently punished for breeching—and thus technically the transfer won’t go through until July 2018, when Vinícius will be 18. Moreover, the player isn’t scheduled to actually join the Blancos until the summer of 2019, unless Real pay Flamengo even more money to bring him in sooner.)
Real tried everything to sneak in late and steal Neymar away from Barcelona back when Neymar was (rightly) widely viewed as the single best prospect in the world, but were ultimately unsuccessful. With Neymar living up to every bit of his hype so far, Pérez has remained jealous of Barça for beating them to Messi’s heir. He has even made laughable efforts to unsettle Neymar and buy him away from Barcelona.
Pérez no doubt does not want to be humiliated again (Barcelona were the other big European club most closely linked to Vinícius, and reportedly were actually favorites to sign him until Real swooped in and beat them out), and so was willing to pay whatever it cost not to see another world great playing for his club’s biggest rival. Whether that’s a good enough reason to spend so much money on a player who hasn’t done anything yet is yet to be seen, though Pérez’s larger transfer strategy of “buy great young players now, ask questions later” has been to a large extent vindicated.
Ultimately, for as much as this outlandish fee says about Vinícius’s potential, Real’s wealth, and Pérez’s petty determination, it mostly speaks to the new era of brain-melting transfer figures soccer is currently in. Real Madrid made Gareth Bale soccer’s first €100 million man a four years ago, and Manchester United just broke that short-lived record last summer with Paul Pogba. From now on, it’s quite likely that we’ll see at least one €100 million transfer each summer window as the plethora of super-rich clubs battle it out for increasingly expensive great young stars.
This summer, the best bet to near or maybe beat Pogba’s transfer record is Atlético Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann, whose flirtations with Manchester United have ratcheted up from shared winks to seductively sucked fingers over the past couple days. And he’s not the only one. In fact, it’s probably only a matter of time—either this summer or next—before Real push through a deal for Monaco wonderkid Kylian Mbappé, a transfer that will certainly shatter the teen transfer record they’ve just set today with Vinícius and probably even surpass Pogba’s fee. As crazy as the Vinícius deal looks today, in a couple years deals of this magnitude will probably look more like the norm than an outlier.