In October of 2020, during half-time of a Champions League clash against Borussia Monchengladbach, Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema appeared to be caught on camera criticising his teammate Vinicius Junior. He allegedly said: “On my mother’s life, he [Vinicius] is playing against us”, to French compatriot Ferland Mendy, advising him not to pass the ball to the Brazilian.
Fast forward to just over a year later, to the Spanish Super Cup semi-final against Barcelona, and Vinicius Junior opens the scoring in the Clasico, following a through ball from Benzema. That was the 21-year-old’s 15th goal in all competitions this season, as he has seen himself become part of a deadly attack alongside the Frenchman.
When Real Madrid bought Vinicius for a reported €46 million from Flamengo in 2017, it was thought that they were getting the next Neymar. The talent was obviously there but he was raw and needed to be moulded, like every teenage player. Expectations were high when he was unveiled at the Bernabeu a year later and, on his first start in a Copa del Rey match against Melilla in October, he was given the Man of the Match award by Marca. After that impressive cameo, however, Vinicius was in and out of the squad, split between the Castilla and the first team as Real looked to ease him into action. His form was inconsistent over the next year and frustration grew with an injury in March 2019 ending his season early.
When Benzema and Mendy’s conversation appeared online, it looked like Vinicius no longer had a future in the Spanish capital. He hadn’t delivered on a consistent basis in over two years and a senior figure in the dressing room was actively telling teammates to avoid passing to him.
This attitude reflects modern football, its promptness to write players off and eagerness to declare them ‘flops’. Vinicius, at only 18, moved to Spain from Brazil, had to adapt to a new life and footballing style that would have been completely foreign. Possessing such natural ability at his age, requires managing that and the expectations surrounding the player.
This season has seen the explosion of form that Los Blancos fans were waiting for. Alongside his goals, Vinicius has also added nine assists so far and together with his captain, Benzema, has been the main source of attacking joy for Madrid. His goal against Barcelona in the Super Cup was a perfect example of the great link-up between the two. After winning the ball in midfield, Madrid broke quickly through Benzema and the 34-year-old found his strike partner with a lovely ball down the left-hand side of defence. Two brilliant touches by Vinicius allowed him to smash a near-post finish past Marc-Andre Ter Stegen in goal.
With Real in pole position to win La Liga this season, they will also fancy their chances against a disjointed looking Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League and, if Vinicius can continue his current form, he may play a key role into them adding yet another European trophy to their cabinet.
There’s no doubt that 2022 will be a big year for the soon-to-be 22-year-old, as he continues to captivate on his way to becoming the next superstar of world football.