Vinicius Jr.’s impact in five years at Real Madrid goes beyond the pitch

Five years have gone by since Vinicius Junior left Brazilian powerhouse Flamengo for Spanish giants Real Madrid. And in that half decade, the young winger has a claim to have changed football on both sides of the Atlantic.

His impact in Europe is undeniable. With 59 goals and 64 assists from 225 matches so far, Vinicius has established himself as one of the most potent attacking forces in the world, combining blistering pace with clever changes of rhythm and an ever-improving end product, both in terms of crosses and goals. He is a defender’s nightmare, and he tipped the balance Real’s way in the 2022 final of the Champions League, scoring the goal that beat Liverpool.

Back in Brazil, the “Vinicius effect” is less obvious but at least as profound. First, he has changed the rules of the transfer market. When Real agreed to pay around €45 million to sign a 16-year-old who had yet to play a senior game, it seemed like a wild overspend to compensate for missing out on previous wonderkids.

In hindsight, his transfer fee was a bargain. In the wake of his success, European clubs have been increasingly keen to acquire South American prospects as early as possible.

Vinicius’ old club have played this game as well as anyone. His advancement became a template that has brought undoubted success. When he turned 18 and left Flamengo in 2018, the club had won two national titles in the previous decade — the domestic cup in 2013 and a surprise league win four years earlier. Subsequently, they were crowned league champions in 2019 and 2020 as well as the Copa Libertadores winner in both 2019 and 2022.

Flamengo seem to be in the process of becoming the world’s biggest club outside Europe, and this has plenty to do with Vinicius. His transfer — and that of others such as Lucas Paqueta — brought in the funds to be invested in players who had not lived up to expectations in Europe but who, in the right conditions, could be match winners in Brazil.

Striker Gabriel Barbosa, signed from Internazionale, is the symbol of the club’s recent run of success, and without the revenue from the Vinicius deal, his acquisition would not have been possible.

Vinicius feels the connection. On his summer break, he was spotted at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium cheering on his former squad. Watching Flamengo must have brought back memories … not all of them entirely positive. Brazilian football can be cruel with its players. Part of the local culture has always consisted of building up stars to bring them crashing back down. The transfer fee and the hype surrounding Vinicius — before he had had the chance to do much at senior level — obviously invited a reaction.

During his time with Flamengo and before he proved himself with Real Madrid, it was common to see Vinicius compared to Negueba, a Brazilian player who had been declared a disappointment. Negueba began his senior career with Flamengo in 2010 and played nearly 100 games before moving on to other clubs and later to South Korea. Negueba was harshly singled out by some as a lightweight, unproductive winger.

The comparisons between Negueba and Vinicius, who are both Black, might well have had racial undertones. Negueba was a nickname, a term seen by some as a racial pejorative. Vinicius was dubbed “Neguebinha,” or little Negueba, clearly a term intended to diminish him.

Vinicius also faced social barriers before he moved to Spain. In his home neighborhood of Sao Goncalo, across Guanabara Bay from Rio, he has set up an educational institute for local kids that includes an Afro-Brazilian perspective in the learning process.

The institute sees education as a tool for transformation — and its founder is transforming Spain. Vinicius’ refusal to back down in the face of racism, as evidenced by several instances this past season of racist actions toward him, is forcing Spain to confront the depth of the social problem.

If Vinicius never kicks another ball, he already has played a hugely significant role on and off the field. But he still has plenty of time left to compete, and now comes a phase when the challenges get even more fascinating. He’ll now wear No. 7 for Madrid — a confirmation of the extra responsibility he bears. He made his name as the junior partner in the attacking combination with Karim Benzema, who previously wore that number. The French player has moved on, and Vinicius has moved up the pecking order.

A similar dynamic will probably take place on the national team. Vinicius was essentially a late addition to Brazil’s World Cup starting lineup, an extra on Neymar’s team. This is clearly not the way that things will be organised in the future. Brazil can be expected to build their side in a way aimed at getting the best out of Vinicius Junior — meaning that if his first five years in Europe have outstripped expectations, the next five promise to be extraordinary.

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