Real had pursued the Brazilian for years and he’d even got as far as having a medical in the Spanish capital. Yet Neymar opted for Madrid’s arch-rivals – 'following my heart', as he put it then - Barcelona.
Now, the Real president is making up for lost time. Over the last 18 months, as part of Real’s drive to scoop up the world’s finest young talent, Perez has brought in three Brazilian attackers he hopes will one day take Neymar’s place as the Selecao’s superstar.
Whilst the pain of missing out on Neymar plays an important role, there is more to the decision making process than merely getting back at Barcelona.
The three players they have signed - Vinicius Jr., Rodrygo and Reinier - all possess enormous potential, and all fit a specific profile. They have the physical, mental and technical attributes that are required at the top level of European football and are still young enough to be moulded into the finished article at Real.
That last point is crucial. Madrid have come in early – in each of the three cases, the deal was agreed before the player turned 18 – so that they don’t miss out like they did with Neymar, but also so that they can control the development process.
They believe it is far more beneficial to spend those vital years between 18 and 21 at a club where the psychological demands, technical standards and quality of coaching are exceptionally high. If they were to stay in Brazil, they would be playing with and against lesser players, in a less tactically challenging league with a potentially regular turnover of manager.
The price is also a factor – buying players from South America remains cheaper than similar talents who have already performed in western Europe.
Joao Felix, for example, cost Atletico Madrid €120m, around the same price as Reinier, Rodrygo and Vinicius combined.
Despite the obvious elements that link these three young Brazilians, they are in fact quite unique players with characteristics that could end up complementing each other in years to come.
Shortly after exploding onto the scene at the Copa Sao Paulo de Futebol Junior U-20 tournament in 2017, Vinicius was being reported as a Madrid target. And in May that year, after he had played just eight minutes of first-team football, the Spanish giants announced he would join them for around €45m. Just 16 at the time, Vinicius had to wait a little over a year before he could move as Fifa rules do not permit international transfers for minors.
After taking a couple of months to establish himself in the Flamengo senior side he started to show just why Madrid wanted him so much. His ability to skip past players, making full backs look as if they were running in quicksand, was genuinely exhilarating and without his performances in the Copa Libertadores in 2018 Flamengo may not have progressed out of the group.
Since his arrival at the Bernabeu, some of Vinicius’ technical deficiencies – his passing, crossing and shooting – have been shown up. But he has progressed under Zinedine Zidane and his through ball against Atletico in early February was a sign of improved technique and vision.
He will continue to develop in that regard, but Vinicius will always remain at his most exciting running with the ball at his feet, using his skill and pace to go past players when one-on-one. This season only Eden Hazard has attempted more dribbles per 90 minutes than the boy from Rio de Janeiro; expect that number to increase further as his confidence grows.
Rodrygo, like Vinicius generally starts from a wide position, but he is far less of a conventional winger than his compatriot. The Santos academy graduate is not as physically imposing and, though no slouch, lacks the same explosive acceleration. Most of his speed instead comes from his mind. It says a lot that a footballer as cerebral as Zidane picked out Rodrygo’s intelligence when asked to identify one factor that sets him apart.
He has already made that clear gliding across the pitch in Madrid, searching out space, time and angles to play incisive passes and shoot at goal. He is a constant threat ghosting into the penalty area; only Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard have had more touches in the box per 90 than Rodrygo this campaign and he has already managed seven goals and two assists in 17 appearances. It is even possible to see him ending up as a central striker, though he maintains he prefers operating on the right of a front three.
Reinier is the newest of the trio and as such the least familiar to European football fans, but rest assured Real are getting another impressive player from Flamengo. Patience may be required before Reinier is seen strutting his stuff for the first team though. Both Vinicius and Rodrygo had played over 70 senior games before they caught their transatlantic flights, but Reinier only broke into the Flamengo senior set up at the end of last year, playing 15 matches including appearances off the bench.
In the few games that he did play, it was possible to catch more than a glimpse of the player that he could become. Reinier is tall, elegant and powerful and has already been compared to Kaka. But his participation in the game is focussed further forward than that of the former Madrid No.8. Reinier loves to combine with team-mates on the edge of the box, playing lay-offs and one-twos before bursting forwards to get on the end of cutbacks and crosses. In 14 league appearances in 2019 (eight starts, six as a sub), he managed six goals – three with his right foot, one with his left and two with his head.
He will spend the rest of the season with Real Madrid Castilla, the B team, where he will be able to play more games and adapt away from the bright spotlights of La Liga and the European Cup.
IS THREE ENOUGH?
The answer, it appears, is a categorical ‘no’. Real already have another, Rodrigo Farofa, who has been playing in their youth set-up since 2017 and Perez sent scouts to the U-17 World Cup in 2019 to cast an eye over Palmeiras winger and player of the tournament Gabriel Veron.
Real have a permanent scout in Brazil, Paulo Henrique Xavier, and the club’s international football department is overseen by Juni Calafat, who was born and grew up in São Paulo. In short, expect the Brazilian influx to continue.