“We always had a great laugh listening to the parents of the opposition players,” Carlos Abrantes tells The Athletic. “They used to say that the only way to catch Vinicius was with a motorbike.”
Abrantes has had plenty of good times following Vinicius Junior’s career — zooming through youth football in Rio de Janeiro, dazzling for the Flamengo and Brazil under-age teams, making his big-money move to Real Madrid at age 18, and now exploding onto the Champions League stage this season.
The Athletic spoke to those who were there along the way, guiding him and redirecting when needed, right through to this weekend’s Champions League final against Liverpool in Paris.
Vinicius Junior grew up in Sao Goncalo, a neighbourhood separated from the more picturesque parts of Rio de Janeiro by the waters of Guanabara Bay and a bridge that is invariably clogged with traffic. It is not a prosperous area, but Vinicius had a stable, happy childhood.
He started at the local football school — one of around 120 around Brazil affiliated with Flamengo, one of Rio’s leading sides — at the age of six. His first coach there was Abrantes, who took to the youngster instantly.
“Vinicius immediately stood out for his dribbling ability and speed,” Abrantes tells The Athletic. “When we played in tournaments teams tried to man-mark him, but they never managed to keep him quiet. He was too quick, too direct. No one could keep up with him. He was unstoppable.”
At 10, Vinicius officially joined Flamengo’s youth system. Strangely, on his first registration form, he described himself as a left-back — a loving nod, perhaps, to his favourite Flamengo player at the time, Renato Abreu, who was an attacking midfielder but occasionally filled in at full-back.
Overseeing his progress in those early years was Carlos Noval, the executive director of the Flamengo youth teams. He describes Vinicius as “unpredictable, fearless, mentally strong”, and says those attributes were there right from the outset.
“He was head and shoulders above the rest,” Noval tells The Athletic. “Right from the start, he just used to go at the defenders, exactly like he does today. He wasn’t scared of anything. The way he could dribble at pace was impressive. He could change direction in a flash.
“If I had to pick one word to describe him, it would be ‘joyous’. Wherever he went, he won people over with his smile and attitude. It was contagious.”
Gilmar Popoca was similarly enamoured. He coached Vinicius in Flamengo’s under-13 and under-17 teams, but it was at under-20 level that their bond was cemented.
By that stage, Vinicius was already being talked about as one of the jewels of Flamengo’s youth system, but few expected the fireworks he produced at the Copinha — Brazil’s most prestigious youth tournament — in 2017. Not least because he was three years younger than most of the other players in it.
“You have to know the right moment to throw a kid into the team in a tournament like that, especially when he has just come from a younger age group,” Popoca says. “Some of the other boys were on the brink of joining the senior squad, so I had to take care with him. But he seized his chance.”
Vinicius netted twice off the bench against Central, set two goals up against Nacional and scored a fine winner against Cruzeiro. For all the fancy footwork — and there was plenty of that — the word “decisive” comes up over and over in conversations with those who have coached him.
“He settled so many tough games in our favour,” Popoca says. “He was someone who wanted to take responsibility in difficult moments, who wanted the team to count on him.
“Some people have said he’s not the most clinical, but that doesn’t sit well with me. Vinícius was always a good finisher — he was the top scorer in pretty much every age category at Flamengo.”
Shortly after the Copinha, Vinicius headed to Chile to play for his country in the Under-17 South American Championship. He returned, seven goals and a winner’s medal later, with his reputation further enhanced. But not before receiving an earful from Brazil’s coach, Carlos Amadeu, about the importance of tracking back.
“Vinicius was someone we could get in behind the opposition defence, someone who could ‘infiltrate’ and exploit the space,” Amadeu recalls. “But before the competition we noticed one big weakness — he didn’t do his defensive work.”
Amadeu put together a video reel to show him. Vinicius watched it in silence, then told his coach he’d sort it out. “That’s when he started to put more effort in,” Amadeu says. “He was brilliant in that tournament. He was the top scorer and the best player, but he also did his duties.”
The buzz around Vinicius quickly veered into silly territory.
The Spanish press labelled him “the New Neymar”, and swooned at the fact he already had a €30 million release clause. He made the cover of Marca before even training with Flamengo’s first team. When Real Madrid struck a deal that May to sign him once he turned 18, he had played just 17 minutes of senior football.
All of which raised an important question: Could this untested teenager cope with it all?
Flamengo are a pressure cooker of a club at the best of times; add the scrutiny that comes with a €45 million transfer for someone of that age and he would have been forgiven for wilting in the spotlight.
Those concerns were quickly dispelled.
Vinicius’ first months in the Flamengo first team had a light, sugar-rush texture. He scored four goals in 32 appearances, just four of them starts, in that 2017 debut season and generally looked to be relishing his new-found fame.
“He showed he could live with the demands and the expectations placed upon him,” says Amadeu. “He always had that strong personality. He faces challenges head-on.”
Vinicius’ flashy style was not to everyone’s liking.
The little boy who once used to tell opponents exactly how he was going to dribble past them divided opinions during his final six months in Brazil. A provocative ‘crybaby’ celebration against Botafogo caused a prolonged bout of mud-slinging in the local press, while others complained he was doing too many tricks. “Too much individualism, not enough teamwork,” was Flamengo idol Dejan Petkovic’s assessment.
Wisely, Vinicius let his football do the talking. A deadly brace off the bench away to Emelec of Ecuador in the Copa Libertadores drew comparisons to countryman Ronaldo, and by the time the countdown clock on his move to Madrid reached zero, he was widely seen as Flamengo’s most important player.
After his final game at the Maracana in June 2018, Noval — by that point, the director of the first team — begged him to stay to help Flamengo win the league. Vinicius sobbed in his arms but said he had to go.
Flamengo finished second that season, but Noval holds no grudges. He still chats to Vinicius regularly, sending the odd tip about positioning but mainly just congratulating him on his performances. It’s clear he is hugely proud to have played a role in Vinicius’ journey.
“Even when he was tiny, I was certain that he would become one of the best players in the world,” Noval concludes. “He might actually be the only player I ever felt that way about.
“He was a joy to watch. He enchanted everyone.”
Lots of European clubs had looked at signing Vinicius, including Barcelona. But Real Madrid were determined to get him having lost out to their arch-rivals on another Brazilian starlet, Neymar of Santos, in 2013.
While the financials were obviously attractive to the teenager and his family, sources say it was Madrid’s in-depth plan for his future which won them over, with the club’s talent scout Juni Calafat playing a key role. Calafat spent a large amount of time in Brazil convincing the teenager and those around him with a long-term plan for his development into a starting player at the Bernabeu.
After Vinicius had agreed to the move, and was waiting another year to turn 18, each week he met with a Madrid employee to review video footage of his own games and also Madrid matches, so he knew how they expected him to develop.
The deal was also a huge marker laid down by Madrid — Calafat had been brought on board in 2013-14 and tasked by club president Florentino Perez with identifying and securing the best young players in the world.
Vinicius’ incredible physical and technical gifts were clear. Less easy to predict was the mental side, whether he would settle, and thrive, in Europe. So there were risks involved, especially given the huge sum Madrid paid to secure him.
This project impacted all levels of the Spanish club, especially the Castilla youth team where Vinicius and other ‘projects’ such as Martin Odegaard, Fede Valverde, Takefusa Kubo and Rodrygo began their time with Madrid. Castilla’s coach when Vinicius arrived was former Madrid midfielder and 2002 Champions League winner Santiago Solari.
“Vinicius arrived as part of a strategic plan by Madrid to try and sign the best players before they exploded,” Solari says. “The football market has become terrible. And now you see the fruits of this club strategy. A lot of bravery was required, and also a very good eye for talent. So the directors and the institution deserve praise for that.”
It did not take long for the new kid to make an impression — Vinicius scored two individual goals in a 2-2 ‘mini-derbi’ draw at Atletico Madrid B in early September 2018. There was an immediate clamour from the local press for then first-team coach Julen Lopetegui to throw him into a side struggling for goals following Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus that summer.
The cautious Lopetegui gave him just 12 minutes over two La Liga games though, and he mostly played with his own age-group at Castilla.
“I think Real Madrid handled him well, putting him in the B team to start with,” Popoca says. “So he could feel the weight of the shirt and get to know the Spanish style of football.”
When a 5-1 Clasico defeat away to Barcelona saw Lopetegui fired late the following month, Solari was promoted to run the first team — and brought Vinicius up with him.
It was not an easy atmosphere to come into, but the Argentinian felt the time was right. The Bernabeu crowd, suffering through a difficult campaign, quickly took to the kid’s pace, dribbling and positive energy. Supportive voices in the local press also seized on a positive story that reflected well on under-fire club president Perez.
“The only way to know if a player is ready is to play the games,” Solari says. “I could see that he deserved a chance to show what he could do. The connection (with the fans) came very quickly as he is a very direct player who takes people on for the whole game.
“He generated a lot of expectation every time he picked up the ball. It got fans off their feet in the stands. He always transmitted a great joy — which seems to be part of his character. It makes you happy just to see him play.”
By January 2019, Vinicius was a regular starter in interim coach Solari’s team. A first La Liga goal came against Alaves the following month, but the Copa del Rey was where he really shone. He racked up six assists and two goals in five early-round ties, then ran Gerard Pique ragged in a Clasico semi-final second leg, even though Madrid lost the game 3-0 at home.
That bright start in Spain came to a very frustrating stop just a week later, however.
Vinicius left the Champions League last-16 second leg against Ajax at the Bernabeu in tears having suffered a serious ankle injury. A 4-1 defeat and Madrid’s early exit from a competition they had won for the previous three seasons saw Solari sacked and Zinedine Zidane return for a second spell as coach. That summer’s transfer window then brought the €100 million-plus arrival of Eden Hazard from Chelsea — a signing Zidane pushed for.
During his second Madrid season, Vinicius completed the 90 minutes just seven times, contributing five goals and four assists in 38 appearances across all competitions.
The relationship with Zidane was clearly difficult. The Galactico’s focus was often on what the youngster needed to do to improve, not on what he did really well. This ‘tough love’ approach was “not necessarily the best for Vini”, says someone who knows him well.
It was also obvious that Zidane really wanted Hazard to work out, despite the Belgian’s continuing problems with form and fitness. Vinicius was sent to the right-wing, or to the bench, and did not enjoy either.
The problems culminated in an incident at half-time of Madrid’s Champions League group game away to Borussia Monchengladbach early last season, with the German side 1-0 up.
“Don’t pass to him, brother,” cameras caught striker Karim Benzema telling left-back Ferland Mendy about Vinicius. “He’s playing against us.” Benzema then did not play one pass to Vinicius in the next 25 minutes, in which time Gladbach scored again, before the latter was hooked for Hazard, who was making another return from injury. Madrid then scored twice late on to rescue a draw.
Sources however say the Frenchman and Brazilian have always been close, with their relationship especially forged by time spent together during international breaks when most of their team-mates who had made their countries’ respective squads were absent.
It is true there were moments when Vinicius did need an arm around his shoulder. Calafat was among those within the club who kept close to him, while Perez’s support from on high was always there.
Those who knew Vinicius back in Brazil, and were watching his development closely, did not doubt he had the character to handle these difficult moments.
‘Vinicius is a typical Carioca (person from Rio) — extroverted, talkative, someone who loves to have fun and mess about,” his former Brazil Under-17s coach Amadeu says. “He’s a happy kid. And he also has a strong personality: he overcomes difficulties with ease, faces challenges head-on, and can live with the demands and the expectations placed upon him.”
That 2020-21 campaign did have one standout moment, which this week seems even more significant.
The April’s Champions League quarter-final first leg saw him give Liverpool’s England international right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold a real chasing, scoring a superb double that set his team on the way to the final four.
Madrid’s season ended on a downer as Chelsea won that semi-final 3-1 on aggregate thanks to a late clincher at Stamford Bridge and Atletico pipped them to the title by two points, but an upswing in fortunes was coming.
When new coach Carlo Ancelotti started Hazard and Gareth Bale on either side of Benzema in the first two games of this season, it did not look so promising for Vinicius. But he did not need long to change Ancelotti’s mind, scoring and impressing in 25 minutes off the bench against Alaves in the opener, then scoring two world-class goals when given half an hour in the 3-3 draw at Levante a week later.
The turnaround took many around Madrid by surprise.
“Vinicius has learned how to finish in a week,” said Jorge Valdano, while laughing in disbelief during his TV commentary on the latter game. This was no flash in the pan, either. He scored five times in his first five La Liga outings — two more than he managed in his 35 league appearances the previous season.
Ancelotti also worked with him on the training ground — in particular asking him to get shots off earlier and take fewer touches around the opposition box. Mostly though it was about Vinicius getting his confidence back, and feeling important again.
The familiar smile was definitely back on the Carioca’s face.
After scoring against Celta Vigo on September 12, he leapt into the crowd to celebrate with fans back at the Bernabeu for the first time since the pandemic began 18 months earlier. Within the dressing room, there was now respect from senior team-mates for how he had kept working and focused through the difficult times.
As the weeks went by, the big moments and important goals kept coming.
Vinicius was unplayable with two goals and an assist in October’s 5-0 Champions League win at Shakhtar Donetsk. A huge moment was the late winner at home to Sevilla just over a month later, when he chested down a ball out on the wing, zipped past a couple of challenges, and hammered a 25-yarder to the far top corner. Only a player full of confidence, and blessed with talent, could score such a goal.
Ancelotti quickly adjusted his tactics to have Madrid sit deeper and draw sides forward, specifically to open up space for Vinicius to dash into on the counter-attack. It was also clear how team-mates — especially Benzema — were now looking to include him as much as possible. When he broke clear, the expectation now was that he would take the right decision.
A theme of Madrid’s 2021-22 season has been Vinicius assists on Benzema goals, as happened in the last-16 second-leg comeback against Paris Saint-Germain at the Bernabeu and in both quarter-final games with Chelsea. The Brazilian also showed he could go the whole way himself when burning veteran countryman Fernandinho for a superb solo goal away Manchester City in the semi-final’s first leg.
Vinicius finished the La Liga season with 17 goals and 10 assists, and was named in most observers’ Spanish teams of the season, including The Athletic’s. His 12 Champions League games so far have brought three goals and six assists.
“(This progress) is something that you expected, but you never know for sure,” Solari says. “He has had a brilliant season, has played his part as Madrid have won La Liga and reached the Champions League final. So that makes me very happy, for him, and for the club.
“He is the prime example now of that brave policy decision the club took, to make bets on young players, and provide the structure for them to grow.”
Still just 21, Vinicius has now played 169 senior games for Madrid, and learned from the good and bad times.
Like many at the club, he has a live-in personal fitness coach and a chef, works a lot on his recovery post-game and has had zero injuries this season. His natural gifts and winning smile have brought huge commercial opportunities and he has avoided any damaging off-pitch publicity which might have steered him off course.
Madrid missing out on signing PSG’s Kylian Mbappe this summer is a huge blow felt all around the Bernabeu, and also underlines how the team will need players such as Vinicius, Valverde and Rodrygo to keep developing if they are to stay competing at the very top.
“Now he has to keep pushing on,” Solari says. “Every year at Real Madrid, the demands are maximum, for everyone — players, coaches, directors. Vinicius is already one of the best young players in the world, which is a lot to say. All these things depend, always, on not sleeping on your laurels, and working hard every day to keep improving.
“I have all the confidence in the world that he will continue on this path.”
Additional reporting: Nick Miller
(Photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)