Since the turn of the century, it is no secret that football has undergone quite astronomical changes in its global presence spiraling from club owners, players and scouting systems right through to the worldwide fan bases that teams have obtained.
Despite this, some of football’s greatest, most prestigious success stories of the 21st century have been born, in the majority at least, out of a single academy, region or country, Barcelona being the most obvious example.
This homegrown success; success in its most authentic, sentimental form, has driven clubs worldwide to broaden their scouting scope, largely through envy and frustration of the inadequacy of their indigenous youth to an extent where, much like searching for oil on untouched land, once they hit the sweet spot, they will milk their self-proclaimed sanctuary of wealth and success of its every last drop.
Fortunately for Real Madrid, they have managed to hit the jackpot time and time again with their unique connection with Brazilian youngsters that have grown to become world-class, homegrown Galácticos, and with the 2019 summer signings of Rodrygo and Éder Militão to accompany Vinícius Júnior who arrived in 2018, they are looking to reinforce football’s most notorious transnational club connection into the foreseeable future.
But can their new Samba students reach the heady heights of Los Blancos’ brilliant Brazilians?
Whilst it is worth arguing that the most experienced of the three, Militão, is by no means unproven in Europe having earned his place in Primeira Liga’s 2018-19 Team of the Year with Porto before helping Brazil win the Copa América last summer, there are few footballing scenarios that can fully prepare a player, particularly at the age of 21, for the expectation and responsibility that comes with playing in the white of Real Madrid. Militão is, therefore, as unproven as the aforementioned Brasileirao signings at this most elite of levels.
One attribute that has become synonymous with so many Brazilian players over the years, none more so than those associated with Real Madrid is flair. Whether it is the audacity and artistry of Ronaldo or Kaká or the innovation and meticulous execution of Marcelo or Roberto Carlos; flair alone and the consistent ability to perform tricks effectively has seen many a Brazilian player turn fans’ favourite at the Santiago Bernabéu in next to no time. This, however, is unlikely to be a factor for a centre-back that thrives upon being face-to-face with this player type.
Consequently, Militão will most likely have to wait a while longer before making a significant breakthrough into a defence that boasts the central partnership of Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane.
Single moments within a fraction of a second can make all the difference in the development of a young flair player’s career, even considering the unrelenting, unforgiving nature of the Real Madrid faithful, but it is years of consistency and solidarity of the highest quality that distinguishes defensive-minded players worthy of Real Madrid’s first eleven from those that are not.
Amidst the long list of legends to have represented the Canarinha as well as Madrid, Casemiro has emerged as an exception to the rule that it is flamboyant flicks, showboating and spectacular moments of magic that all Brazilians must possess in some respect to succeed at the top.
The midfield general is instead the type of player to do the dirty work for these players before laying the ball onto them to work wonders. This description does, however, serve as a monumental injustice to the importance of Casemiro’s contribution to any recent Real Madrid eleven.
Whilst they occupy significantly different roles, in order to succeed at Real, Eder Militão must strive for the perception Casemiro has acquired over a number of years whereby he is underappreciated, even unnoticed by some whilst playing, but severely missed and in demand when unavailable.
The beauty of defensively-minded players at Real-level teams is that in most games, the best compliment bestowed upon them is roughly translated as “I didn’t even notice he was playing” due to the attacking expectation that any less than three goals is a disappointment and the subsequent defensive expectation that keeping possession immaculately and supplying the creative players whilst keeping a clean sheet in convincing fashion is the bare minimum for a competent performance.
With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that the pressure placed upon the young attacking players is a different proposition altogether.
On his €46 million arrival in 2018, 18-year-old Vinícius became the second-most expensive Brazilian transfer ever behind Neymar just 14 months on from making his senior debut at Flamengo (ten days before Real Madrid reached an agreement to sign him).
A deal sealed in the confidence that he would continue his development on loan in Brazil, or at the very least that he wouldn’t be making a cameo appearance in important games like the Madrid Derby, for instance, two months later. Even for a teenage wonderkid with the world at his dazzling feet, that seems premature, overwhelming and unfair for a boy with a lot still to prove, doesn’t it?
Of course not, this is Real Madrid; there lie far too many signs of weakness. And though it is doubtful that someone of Vinícius’ calibre has succumbed to such feelings, if the 18 months that have followed are anything to go by, the decision to throw him in at the deep end immediately has hardly been a roaring success. It’s understandable though I guess, the desperation and the incalculable desire to seamlessly succeed Cristiano Ronaldo left them little choice.
The details of the fairytale story were perfectly in place, though: the timing, the opportunity to write another glorious chapter in the plot of Los Blancos’ beautiful bond with Brazil. Comparable to Roberto Carlos’ unblemished beneficiary of 2007, Fluminense’s Marcelo, or in freakishly identical fashion, Robinho’s replacement of Luís Figo in 2005.
Only this time, there was a chasm left by one of football’s greatest ever players and planted there was an incumbent but ultimately incapable heir to the throne in Vinícius. Although the youngster was by no means their only hope in Ronaldo’s absence, regardless of who played and how often last season, that void, those years of success, and those crucial months in his development were never going to be fulfilled.
Throughout a year of post-Ronaldo healing for Madrid which saw two managers come and go in quick succession before Zinedine Zidane returned, Vinícius struggled to find his rhythm until the turn of the year, and as things started to come together during 20 consecutive appearances in all competitions, he was sidelined for two months with a ruptured knee ligament, and with that, his debut season and his best chance to cement a first-team spot was essentially over.
Vinícius’ first season in Spain was promising by all accounts, good performances were frequented by unfortunate absences but when he did play, he possessed what the Real Madrid faithful want: the speed, the skill, the nutmegs and the feints, the wow factor, you could say.
It was clear, however, from the summer of 2019 that the club had other plans for their flanks. Eden Hazard’s signing came with a sense of inevitability after years of interest and speculation, but the scalp of 18-year-old Santos winger Rodrygo was a Déjà vu buy that could only be read one way by the former Flamengo forward. After a year of performing in Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow at 18, time was already ticking for Vinicius to step up and improve to avoid slipping further down the club’s pecking order heading into the 2019-20 season.
The season began in quite substandard fashion for Zidane’s men, the results were alarmingly inconsistent, and the performances were even more so. Though, one man has given the fans reason to be excited about the long-term future. After battling through the unimaginably hard-hitting post-Ronaldo pressure with a drastically timed injury in his first season, Vinícius has had to witness his retrospective dreams of bursting onto the scene in spectacular fashion unfold in front of his eyes in the form of Rodrygo Goes.
Rodrygo’s debut arrived three months on from his €45 million arrival, a debut that was 15 months in the making after Real Madrid agreed to sign him in June 2018 felt worthwhile of its every minute, spanning from the minute the contract was signed right through to the minute after his introduction for his compatriot Vinícius against Osasuna when he scored his first goal.
Ninety-three seconds into his Real Madrid career, Rodrygo became the club’s quickest debut goal scorer since his countryman, a certain Ronaldo in 2002, and thus the customary comparisons with the Samba sensations of old began.
Alas, the next few months have seen Rodrygo not only break out of the shadows but continue to deliver consistent top quality performances when called upon, particularly in the Champions League. But despite a significantly more productive stint in Spain so far, the excitement and the threat that both Brazilian teens provide have been equally as prominent and compelling in anticipation of the future generation.
There is no disputing the fact that Madrid’s dominant Champions League dynasty is deteriorating at its core with Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema all into their 30s, but the club has learned from the devastating fallout of Cristiano Ronaldo and look to have clear direction and poise for the future with Brazil at the core.
The forthcoming capture of Flamengo playmaker Reinier Jesus will reinforce Florentino Perez’s homegrown Galácticos agenda, not to mention the impending emergence of Martin Ødegaard, Luka Jović, Takefusa Kubo and Federico Valverde as Los Blancos look to reshape the mold left behind.
Whether their South American sensations will establish themselves in the Bernabéu’s Brazilian hall of fame remains to be seen, this minimal risk strategy with potentially sky-high rewards has given the club hope and passion for a future that could well have fallen flat in the ill-preparation for a generational transition.
BY BRAD JONES