Behind every player there is a story, and MARCA has travelled all the way to Rio de Janeiro and specifically to Sao Goncalo, a neighbourhood located 30km from the state capital, where Vinicius Junior took his first steps in football.
There we met with Carlos Eduardo Abrantes, the man who first spotted Vinicius’ talent at La Escolinha, Flamengo’s academy team.
“He came to train at the age of six and he was already better than the rest, although the others were older,” Cacau tells MARCA.
“He was different. Off the pitch, he was a shy boy, but inside he changed completely. He was very focused. He finished training and was already going to the next category. He was here almost all day.”
“His father had to go to work in Sao Paulo, another state, to help financially. They are a humble family, but fighters. They had a lot of difficulties.”
“Vinicius had to do 75km and another 75km round trip to Ninho do Urubu [Flamengo training centre], until the age of 13 or 14 when he went to live with his uncle Ulysses to be closer.”
“At first his mother would go, leave him, stay until she left, waiting for about four hours to return to Sao Goncalo.”
It didn’t take long until Vinicius attracted interest from European clubs, with LaLiga Santander giants placing him on their radars.
“The father only told me that he had an agreement with Real Madrid,” added Cacau.
“Later I learned that Barcelona were also interested, even before Real Madrid, and then Real Madrid came and what happened happened.”
His former coach is confident that Vinicius will manage to win a Ballon d’Or if he keeps working hard.
“[The Ballon d’Or] is a consequence of your work,” he noted.
“You have to keep working hard, be focused and so if it happens it will be naturally, without talking about it.”
Investing in the Vini Jr Institute
A few meters from the field we come across the Escola Municipal Paulo Freire, where the Vini Jr Institute is based – the Real Madrid star’s most special project.
“This adventure is born from the desire of Vinicius and his family to help in the quality of education in Brazil, especially the public one,” executive director Victor Rodrigues tells MARCA.
“With the pandemic, it got worse and the children did not have classes for almost two years, so we needed to streamline the learning process, to bring it back to school, and to do it in an innovative way.”
“It is not just a sport, but a universal language that has the ability to attract and teach a lot. It is common to see the boys who are coming here commenting on the local matchday or the Spanish league, talking about the points their team [picked up], the number of goals. And so they do calculations with the standings, the goals.”
“The annual investment is about two million reais [more than 335,000 euros].”
“Vinicius came when people started working on the pilot, nobody knew it and it was a great surprise to have him in these places where he spent his childhood. He is a positive reference for children, he is the outstanding idol, it is very difficult to compete with him.”
Hugging their idol
In the same building, prior to an impromptu small-sided game with some of the children who have come despite being on holiday, we talked with Ana Paula, the school’s director.
“Vinicius was always a happy boy, attached to sports,” she says.
“He was convinced of what he was doing. He already dreamed of being a great player, but without forgetting his studies. Was he a good student? Yes, he was a worker.”
“He always comes to Sao Goncalo. The launch of the project was super exciting, the children waited for him and cried, they wanted to hug their idol because that’s what he is.”