Vinicius Junior had a silvery smile when he landed at Madrid’s Barajas airport in the summer, a couple of days after turning 18 years old.
His new employers, Real Madrid, were delighted to see him in such a positive mood. But after finally unveiling him to the fans, the team made a demand: The braces on his teeth had to go.
The Spanish giants were worried the Brazilian forward could get seriously hurt if he were hit by an elbow during a game, and he was a prized new asset they needed to protect.
The previous year, Real Madrid agreed to pay Rio de Janeiro side Flamengo an astonishing €45 million ($51 million)—and potentially €61 million ($69 million)—for Vinicius when he was still just 16.
He had made his first-team debut for Flamengo only 10 days earlier and had played a grand total of just 17 minutes of senior football.
Still, Real Madrid knew they had to have him, even though international transfer rules meant he could not move to Europe until he turned 18.
Vinicius went on to play nearly 70 games at Flamengo, a club in mourning after 10 young players died at their youth team training centre on Friday.
Vinicius tweeted about the incident saying: “Just remembering the nights and days I spent at the training centre, it gives me goosebumps. I still can’t believe it, but praying for all! May God bless everyone’s family!”
Real Madrid manager Santiago Solari admitted his player was affected by the tragedy, but he still trusted Vinicius with a starting place in Saturday’s Madrid derby, and the youngster won a penalty in a significant 3-1 win over Atletico.
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Getting rid of the braces was the first demand Real Madrid put on Vinicius this season, but it hasn’t been the last.
With Cristiano Ronaldo leaving for Juventus and manager Zinedine Zidane also departing the club after a third successive Champions League title, former Spain coach Julen Lopetegui was brought in to try to reconfigure the team.
However, he clearly saw Vinicius as part of the future, not the present.
Under Lopetegui, Vinicius played just 12 minutes in two substitute appearances. It appeared he would have to settle for lining up for Castilla—Madrid’s reserve side—who play in the Spanish third tier.
But after a few months, everything changed. Lopetegui was sacked following a disastrous four-and-a-half months in charge, and new head coach Solari has put his faith in Vinicius. Since then we’ve been witnessing the meteoric rise of a prodigy.
Last week, in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final, Vinicius became the club’s youngest player to be featured in a Clasico against Barcelona in the 21st century.
He wasted no time proving his future is now. As he touched the ball for the first time at the Camp Nou, an almost deafening whistle from around 92,000 fans was heard. But he needed only six minutes to silence them, combining with Karim Benzema to set up a goal for Lucas Vazquez in the 1-1 draw.
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He’s been involved in eight goals for Madrid in the Copa del Rey this season, scoring twice and providing six assists.
He has also emerged as a regular starter in La Liga and is primed to play his first UEFA Champions League knockout tie when Real Madrid travel to Amsterdam to face Ajax on Wednesday.
Vinicius brought his whole family—father, mother, sister, two brothers, niece and uncle—with him from Rio de Janeiro to Madrid. They live in a mansion with a basketball court in La Moraleja, an affluent residential neighbourhood near the club’s facilities.
Teammates Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Casemiro and Luka Modric all live next to him, which is handy since Vinicius still doesn’t have a driver’s license and relies on lifts from his new pals to get him to Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground.
Some of his new teammates are almost as old as his dad, Vinicius Jose Paixao de Oliveira, a 37-year-old cabling technician.
Oliveira came from a humble background and worked hard his entire life to be able to take his four kids out of one of Rio’s most dangerous favelas, Portao da Rosa, where they lived in a four-room house during Vinicius’ first 15 years. Oliveira once even left the family and moved to Sao Paulo on his own to take a job to make more money for the family.
When Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazi’s most popular newspaper, recently asked Oliveira about the possibility of taking some photos at his old residence, he advised them not to go there because drug dealers would probably be around.
His relatives avoid speaking to the media too. For safety reasons, they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. The loved ones of Brazilian footballers have been kidnapped for ransom in the past.
Family support is a key part of the Vinicius story.
“Vinicius Junior is a diamond in the rough,” Gilmar Popoca, a former midfielder who worked as Vinicius’ coach in the U13, U17 and U20 age groups, tells Bleacher Report. “I have no doubt he’s going straight to the top. If you ask me why I’m so sure about that, I would recommend getting to know his family.”
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Popoca knows what it is like to be highly touted. He was named player of the tournament at the 1984 Summer Olympics and was compared to the great Zico as he helped Brazil win the silver medal. However, that was as good as it got for him during what turned out to be a journeyman career.
“The same won’t happen to Vinicius,” Popoca confidently predicts.
“Back in my time, there wasn’t so much money around; there’s plenty of it now. And it can be a problem, bringing arrogance with it, an attitude that can harm a career,” he adds. “But despite the €61 million price tag he carries, Vinicius remains calm, very simple, surrounded by people like his father, who are very down-to-earth and will not let him get carried away by the fuss.”
Vinicius Junior loves tattoos, but his father is not the biggest fan.
On Wednesday, when Real Madrid face Ajax, Oliveira will watch the game closely, knowing there is more at stake for his son than a possible advantage for the second match at home.
That’s because father and son have a deal—a tattoo for every significant milestone Vinicius reaches in his career. The first one came after he made his professional debut, and two more have followed.
Vinicius will be entitled to a fourth if he scores on the European stage for the first time.
Even when it comes to off-the-field passions such as tattoos, Vinicius’ father has managed to transmit it into on-the-field focus.
The way Vinicius has settled into European life reminds former Brazil youth football coordinator Erasmo Damiani of Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus, who quickly settled in the Premier League after arriving at City in 2017 as an 19-year-old from Sao Paulo side Palmeiras.
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“Vinicius’ potential is so huge that I think he can perfectly establish himself even before Gabriel Jesus did,” Damiani, who watched Vinicius climb from Brazil’s U15 to U20 team, tells B/R. “I used to hear people saying in our meetings, ‘He’s very good, has so much potential, but he’s a bit distracted sometimes.’ As long as it is not for negative things, why should we even discuss it? He has always been an extroverted boy and matured a lot throughout his time with us.”
When Vinicius has the ball, you have the feeling something might happen. He’s willing to take risks and run at defenders, which brings to mind great Brazilian players such as Neymar, Kaka and Ronaldinho.
In Spain, he’s starting to fill the Ronaldo void in the hearts of the Madridistas. He’s been the main man responsible for the change of mood at the club. The Bernabeu was a sad, quiet place earlier in the season, but Vinicius has brought the buzz back.
Vinicius’ journey also mirrors that of Savio. Back in 1998, Savio also left Flamengo for Real Madrid. He returned home with three Champions League titles.
The former left-winger, now a 45-year-old businessman, met Vinicius before he moved to Europe and liked what he saw.
“He came here with his uncle [Ulysses Leao], a very kind and simple man. Despite being only 18, he gave me the impression he was already focused on his goals, what he had to do out of the pitch, something that you don’t expect from a kid of his age,” Savio tells B/R.
Savio’s main advice to Vinicius? Get used to the cold Madrid winters, and get the fans on your side.
“My main problem was the weather—I left Rio in the summer and arrived in Madrid to train with zero degrees. It wasn’t easy,” he recalls. “What really helped me is that I had the support from fans since the beginning; it was very important, gave me the confidence I needed. I see the same affection towards Vinicius now. The Bernabeu can be a very complicated stadium to please, with pressure everywhere. Either the fans fall in love for you or hate you.
“Right now, I’m sure they’re in love with Vinicius.”
The hype is certainly building. Just last week, a column by Marco Ruiz in Spanish newspaper AS proclaimed “a new era is approaching at Madrid—it is the Vinicius era.” Is the teenager prepared for such a leading role?
Tostao knows a bit about talent. A key member, alongside the likes of Pele and Jairzinho, on Brazil’s celebrated 1970 World Cup-winning team, he is now one of the country’s leading football pundits.
“[Vincius] is still young but physically ready, extremely fast, with very impressive sprinting,” Tostao tells B/R. “It’s been a while since I saw a player with his pace and control of the ball. He’s not a promise anymore; he’s a reality.”
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However, Tostao also urges caution. “It remains to be seen, however, how far he will go—if he will be an excellent player, something he has already proved to be, or will reach the level of the biggest footballers in the history.
“It’s impossible to predict this now. He still makes some poor decisions. I’m not sure if that’s because he’s too young or due to some weakness on his game.”
With his displays at the Bernabeu, Vinicius has managed to silence critics back home who predicted he would not live up to the expectations.
After some patchy early performances at the club when he was still just 16, some critics labelled Vinicius “Neguebinha” (meaning “little Negueba”). Negueba was another Flamengo graduate who seemed destined for greatness, but who is languishing in South Korean football.
“When some fans and even certain people in the media started referring to him as Neguebinha, I warned them: ‘It doesn’t make any sense. This boy is different. He is still only 16,'” Damiani says. “‘Why are you putting so much pressure on him? He has a huge potential.’ Not to mention he always finds a way to overcome adversity—that’s what makes him so special.
“Some people in Brazil seem to get satisfaction from criticising young players, underestimating them, but I think Vinicius is now shutting them up.”
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Gareth Bale, for whom Real Madrid paid a world-record fee to acquire in 2013, was often seen as the heir apparent to Ronaldo, but Vinicius has been outdoing him this season and seems to have little concern about losing his place now the Welshman has returned from injury. He often cites a quote from Michael Jordan as his motto: “Never say never, because limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.”
The Brazilian has started the club’s last 11 matches and is in such amazing form that Madrid seem to be him plus 10 at the moment.
While the Spanish title might be beyond Real Madrid’s reach (they are still six points behind Barcelona despite closing the gap in recent weeks), Vinicius’ rapid development has helped spark hope of a fourth consecutive Champions League title.
And where will this year’s final take place? In Madrid, at the home of their city rivals Atletico, on June 1. What a place that would be for Vinicius to flash that smile one last time this season.
A cause for another tattoo, if ever there was one.