When Vinicius Junior pounced in the Champions League final last year to fire Real Madrid to a 1-0 win over Liverpool and lift the trophy for a record 14th time, it seemed like a career milestone and also a platform to build on.
After years of criticism for his finishing and decision making, sometimes even from his own fans, it was at once the perfect riposte and proof he belonged among the elite.
Forced to step into Cristiano Ronaldo’s shoes when Madrid’s all-time top goalscorer left in 2018, it seemed too much too soon for Vinicius – it would have been for almost anyone, let alone a teenager.
The Brazilian forward exploded at Madrid in the 2021-22 season, hitting 22 goals across all competitions, having managed just 14 in total across the three campaigns prior.
His Champions League winning final goal should have signalled his arrival as a superstar and silenced the noise around him, but instead it transformed it into something more sinister.
No longer able to scoff at his performances, this season attention from opposition fans and players has been focused on trying to shackle and diminish the winger, in any way possible.
Some of the needling has been give and take, with Vinicius no stranger to giving opponents an earful, diving or winding them up.
Vinicius’s tricks and flicks are also viewed in some quarters as designed to humiliate opponents – just as his compatriot Neymar was tarred with the same brush during his time at Barcelona.
In exchange the forward has received increasingly rough treatment from defenders, peaking earlier in February when Mallorca fouled him 10 times.
Vinicius was engaged in a running battle with defender Antonio Raillo, with whom he has long not seen eye-to-eye with.
“Let Vinicius dance but don’t let him insult and disparage fellow members of the profession,” said Raillo in 2022.
The player’s dancing celebrations are another bone that some opponents and fans pick with the forward.
“It seems like the problem is Vinicius, but the problem is what happens around him, period,” said coach Carlo Ancelotti, under whom Vinicius has flourished.
“It is a problem of Spanish football. I am a part of Spanish football and I think it’s a problem that we have to solve because it seems that Vinicius is the culprit, but he is the victim of something that I don’t understand.”
Vinicius is also having to deal with far worse off the pitch — a spate of racist abuse from opposition supporters is tarring the Spanish game.
A group of Atletico Madrid ultras hung an effigy of the player from a bridge near Real Madrid’s training ground, a matter being investigated by police, while numerous instances of racism aimed at Vinicius have been filmed.
“Racists continue to go to stadiums and watch the biggest club in the world up close and La Liga continues to do nothing,” complained Vinicius.
The Spanish top flight has reported several incidents to prosecutors, however no punishments have yet been dealt by the courts, with some cases dismissed.
“The insults continue but the dance does too, see you in Liverpool!” said Vinicius on Twitter after Madrid’s win at Osasuna on Saturday.
Even though amid the controversy and kickings Vinicius has not hit the rich vein of form he managed last season, he still has 16 goals and counting across all competitions and is one of the most exciting players in the world.
However he was left out of the shortlist for the FIFPro men’s world 11, and there are several reports he feels undervalued by Nike and is looking to break up his deal with the sportswear brand.
Vinicius shone at the Club World Cup in Morocco which Madrid won earlier in February, and he will welcome the Champions League last 16 clash with Liverpool as another chance to escape the negativity and revisit his finest moment to date.
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