You probably remember the first time you heard the name Vinícius Júnior. In March 2018 - fresh off the back of signing a £40m pre-agreement transfer to Real Madrid having only played 17 minutes for his boyhood club Flamengo - he was handed his Copa Libertadores debut for the Brazilian side and he was introduced as a 68th minute substitute with the team trailing 1-0 to Emelec. Within ten minutes he scored a spectacular solo goal, the type that gets dropped in the group chat three times over and, if you’re lucky, with a Titanic theme tune dubbed over the top. A few minutes later, he scored again. Stage set, destiny delivered, first chapter of the story written. He then upped it. Preserving the moment as any 17-year-old would dream of doing by jumping into the crowd, claiming a pair of one-lens sunglasses out of thin air, putting them on and posing for the cameras while being mobbed by the entirety of his team.
“It’s the best celebration of all-time,” Vinicius exclaims through a wide smile and subtle wink that pays homage to the imagination of that moment. “The best celebrations will always be the ones where you run to the fans but now we get yellow cards so we can’t do it anymore,” he says as another one of his laughs colour the empty, echoing walls of a downtown studio in Madrid. “I don’t even know how that moment happened,” he goes on to explain. “I just went to celebrate and someone from the crowd threw the glasses to me, so, naturally I picked them up and put them on. It was all so random but it ended up looking good on the picture [laughs]. So it was perfect.”
Beyond the memes, gifs and memories associated with that moment, the celebration has remained so iconic for the precedent it set. It welcomed Vinícius into the world as someone who dares to be different. Not so much for the celebration itself but for the freedom and defiance it displayed; the fact that Vincius had not fallen into the usual trappings and troubles that often strangle young players tagged with a wonderkid status. He actually delivered. You only have a minute to take in a moment and he made the most of it. He learned that from the very first day he ever stepped on to a proper football pitch.
“I remember the first day my father took me to the Flamengo football school, I felt like I was the happiest person in the world to be doing something that I loved the most,” he begins to explain. “Back then, I only ever cared about playing football and having fun; surrounding myself with people who always believed in me and pushing me to do more. Today is no different. My worst habit is thinking about football everyday, 24/7. It still remains the same.”
Vinícius’ entire career path is proof that creativity will always find a way to navigate through trouble. For the past two seasons, regardless of his direct impact on the pitch, he’s set forth in a direction all his own. Vinicius’ performances all have this simmering energy to them: free-spirited, but never individualistic, boundary-pushing but always with a nod to the workmanship that a Real Madrid player should have. He is edging closer to the sweet spot of a top level winger. A man of the moment, whose work reflects the moment. In a year faced by immense collective challenge - as well as creative individual challenges - his performances for Real have remained steady, true and uplifting.
“I would say my biggest strength is always having a clear head,” he chimes. “I never, ever give up. I always stay strong in what I am convinced of. If you look at what 2020 has taught us, then we have to make the most of each day, each moment as tomorrow is not promised. On and off the pitch. When the pandemic, no one could believe it and we still can’t. So, we have to enjoy every moment as if it was the last day of our lives.”
As a player who teeters on the edge, tightropes on the invisible line between being perceived as the joker or the joke, judgement still hangs over him. Having begun his Real career by becoming the first-ever Madrid senior player to be born in 2000, being awarded the Man of the Match in his first full start and for that goal at the Nou Camp, some questions still remain. The bright start, the consistent sparks and the evident enthusiasm often has people calling for more. More goals, more assists, more impact. More implausible skill. As a winger who thrives on the unpredictable, he does not always have the solutions. Although, he will never change. Because being himself is the only time he can control the odds. “That’s just me,” he explains. “My daring nature helps the team when we’re losing or drawing. I’m not afraid of losing the ball or playing with freedom. I’ll always be like that so people believe in me.”