As a football club synonymous with the acquisition of marquee names and the assembly of superstar squads, Real Madrid’s latest recruitment policy has thrown something of a curveball when considering their traditional methods. Although infamous club president Florentino Perez, a man who oversaw some of the most significant transfers of the last century, remains the figurehead of the world’s greatest footballing institution, the “Galacticos” image that was so iconic at the beginning of the century seems nothing more than a distant memory. Following on from one of the most successful periods in the club’s history, in which Los Blancos won a staggering four champions league titles within five years, the team has struggled to recreate such success over the last two seasons given an abundance of ageing players within the squad and Cristiano Ronaldo’s relocation to Italy. In light of these problems, it seems that Real Madrid have torn up their manual and started from scratch by poaching some of Brazil’s best young talent before anyone else has the chance.
Brazilian players have been of significant interest and value for European clubs for quite some time now, dating back to the mid 1980s when the financial rewards of Europe began to alert a number of talents. It was towards the late 90s and early 2000s when it became apparent that top European clubs would do anything get their hands on some of the remarkable young stars emerging from the country: legendary striker Ronaldo broke the transfer world record twice before his 21st birthday, with Inter Milan acquiring his services just a season after his record transfer with Barcelona. Not only this, but On 3 September 2003, with the international break looming, Barcelona even rearranged a game with Sevilla to midnight just so that Ronaldinho could make his home debut. Not many players could persuade a club president and La Liga to take such drastic measures to ensure their participation in a league game, but this proves just how important Brazilian players had become for the elite European clubs. Their talent demanded that exceptions be made and records be broken.
However, while transfers involving young Brazilians are nothing new, Real Madrid’s decision to invest early in raw Brazilian talent in the hope that it will prove to be a bargain down the line certainly is. First came the purchase of then 16 year old Vinicius Jr from Flamengo for a staggering 45 million euros, then Rodrygo from Santos for a similar price and most recently a deal for another talent from Flamengo, 18 year old Reinier, was finalised in the january transfer window for a fee of around 30 million euros. All these deals seem on the surface to be smart and refreshing pieces of business given Real’s current need for a squad overhaul and an old-fashioned Galacticos model that was in need of revision, but what lies beneath these transfers is a darker truth that threatens the fabric of the Brazilian game that we all know and love.
Look back to the Copa America in the summer of 2019 and one can see that issues within the Brazilian game were already starting to pervade. Attendances by Brazilian fans were at all-time lows despite the team’s strong chances in the competition, and there was a sense that the masses were struggling to connect with their players. Not only did the team lack an identity on the pitch, something that had always been an integral part of Brazil’s ability to captivate a global audience since the 70’s right up to the recent era of Jogo bonito, but the public felt as though they knew next to nothing about the squad and what they could offer their nation. Without Neymar, perhaps the last example of a Brazilian superstar who made his mark with a Brazilian club, the squad was comprised almost entirely of players that had barely played for club teams in Brazil; how could the public be expected to cheer and show support for players they had barely seen play for clubs with which they identified? The struggle to get fans buying tickets for national games starts with a problem that this new-age Real Madrid vision is currently fuelling: when players leave their country of origin from as young as 18 to forge a career in Europe’s top leagues, they struggle to leave behind a legacy and build a lasting connection with national team fans. And, in turn, a situation occurs in which a disconnected fanbase unintentionally causes the demise of their beloved national side. With less money from ticket sales and a diminishing demographic of avid supporters, the separation between a nation and their players could prove to be catastrophic for Brazil’s national team down the line. While these problems are not solely down to the recent policy adopted by Real Madrid, with Richarlison’s move to Watford and Gabriel Jesus’ move to Manchester City in the summer of 2017 highlighting how difficult it is for Brazilians to witness their own talent on home soil once the european clubs come knocking, Zidane’s and Perez’s vision of a new-look Los Blancos side, made up of a significant number of Brazil’s stars of the future, certainly has the potential to exacerbate the situation.
Of course, there is a flip side to all this: Brazil did manage to win the Copa America last summer in their home country, and it seems that Brazil’s long and illustrious production line of mercurial talents shows no signs of faltering. All the players mentioned above that have either made or are about to make the move to the Spanish capital from their home country look like they have the potential to be the real deal, and what better place to continue their development than at the most successful club in the history of football, right?
It is difficult for many football fans to forget the damage that Martin Odegaard’s transfer to Madrid caused for his career. At the age of 15, it seemed that the sky was the limit for the child who was forced to become a young man; fast forward five years and it would appear that his time in Real Madrid’s Castilla system did nothing but stall the current Real Sociedad loanee’s development. Other players that have shown potential but seemed to make the leap from Brazil to Europe far too early, such as Inter Milan’s Gabigol, only support the argument that talent needs to be nurtured in a safe and comfortable environment before it can be realised fully. Vinicius Jr. has spent similar time to Odegaard training and playing with the Castilla when time may have been better spent continuing to play with seasoned professionals in Brazil in front of larger crowds. His start to life in the Los Blancos first team began promisingly, but performances this season have seen him relegated to the bench or excluded from the matchday squad. He appears to be a player low on confidence and in desperate need of consistent game time at a high level in order to unlock the true potential within him.
This lack of confidence that has come to define Vinicius Jr.’s recent time at Real Madrid should not come as any surprise and is symptomatic of the problem with moving extremely young players to the biggest team on the planet before they have had any time to properly develop. Their motivation may disappear as a result of achieving a goal that most never achieve before they’ve barely reached adulthood, and the pressure of playing alongside the world’s best may prove to be too much too soon. Not only this, but the pressure they put on themselves and the doubts that creep in about their own ability when they don’t appear for the first team seem ridiculous when you consider the player’s age and the competition for places at a club of Real Madrid’s stature. It appears that Rodrygo doesn’t suffer from quite these problems in the same way as Vinicius has, managing to become the youngest player to score a Champions League Hat-trick earlier in the season, but it’s important to recognise that differences in the physical and mental attributes of players result in differences in their rate of development. Vinicius could prove to be every bit as good as his Brazilian team-mate in the future, but at this present time he’s unable to cope with the pressure of playing for a Real Madrid team that boasts so much talent and experience. Who’s to say that Reinier, a player who looks as though he has the potential to become one of football’s shining lights, won’t suffer from the same problems due to his age and the magnitude of the task in front of him? These questions regarding development and pressure also have significant implications for the Brazilian national team in the years to come: if these players struggle to live up to the hype because of their environment and demands at Real Madrid then Brazil will have missed out on a remarkable generation that could have flourished if a different route had been laid out for them.
There’s clearly no simple way for Brazilian clubs and federations to confront an issue like this, the likes of which has never occurred before in the modern game. When the biggest teams approach these clubs with huge offers for such unproven talents, it’s almost impossible to resist their attempts to lure them away. The capacity is always there for a country like Brazil, with such a high volume of exceptional players coming through the ranks at any given moment, to build a successful national team that can compete for the highest honours. However, Real Madrid’s new move to ensure that a future Brazilian star never slips through the net and into the hands of a rival European club should be ringing a few alarm bells for those entrusted with creating a glamorous and prosperous national side, something which the Brazilian public always demands. The Brazilian league had always provided its young talent with a platform to excel and establish a reputation before the bigger challenges in Europe presented themselves, and its disappearance as a building block for success may prove to be the enemy of progression for those who need time to realise their potential. While Real Madrid’s policy provides them with a unique and potentially ground-breaking opportunity to pick up talent ahead of other teams, it threatens the viability of national and club football within Brazil and has the capability to ruin careers before they even began.