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Vinícius Go Boom

Real Madrid's Brazilian forward Vinicius Junior celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the Spanish League football match between Real Sociedad and Real Madrid CF at the Anoeta stadium in San Sebastian on December 4, 2021.
Ander Gillenea/AFP via Getty Images

In case it wasn't quite clear from our earlier coverage, let's go ahead and state it explicitly: Real Madrid's Vinícius is now a full-blown star. What had been frequent but inconsistent flashes of greatness has become a steady, blinding beam of white light. At just about the season's halfway mark, the 21-year-old Brazilian has emerged as Real Madrid's key figure, La Liga's most electric talent, and one of the five or six best attackers in the world on current form. The transformation has been remarkable.

On Saturday, Vinícius was once again Madrid's best player in a crucial match, this time away at Real Sociedad. He led the match in shots (5), in dribbles both attempted (6) and completed (4), and in progressive carries (20, twice as much as the next highest). Karim Benzema, who himself is on a career-best run this season, came out of the game in the 17th minute after picking up an injury, which robbed the Blancos of their best player and forced Vini to step into that breach. His response was to do this:

That goal, Vinícius's 10th of the league season, was the first in what finished a 2–0 Madrid victory, one of the team's most impressive wins yet against one of La Liga's strongest teams. The win put Madrid in commanding position in the league table, eight points above second-placed Sevilla (who Vini murdered the week before by clubbing in a late winner), 10 points above fourth-placed Atlético Madrid, 16 points above seventh-placed Barcelona. We're only 16 matches into the campaign, but already the league title is Madrid's to lose. If the Blancos do go on to win it and do so in the fashion they are currently playing, the trophy should be known as the one Vinícius won them.

This eruption has been sudden and stunning, but hardly surprising. It's all been there from the very beginning. In his penchant for the dramatic, evident from his first steps in the professional game, you could already see the raw materials of a real-deal superstar. In his determination to seek prominence on any pitch against any opponent, and his refusal to respond to failure, even of the glaring and embarrassing sort, with anything other than renewed determination to try again and again and again, you could see the mentality required to convert raw materials into a finished product.

Vinícius is an emotional player, and all of his joy, focus, frustration, confidence, courage, anger, and tenacity is always right there on his face and in his body language. Even at his lowest moments, with Vini hunched on his knees with his face twisted in agony after an umpteenth bad choice or errant touch at the moment of truth, you got the sense that you were watching wasn't failure, but rather someone in the process of willing themselves to success. Failure for him was just quickest way to uncover the secret to success, and Vini gorged himself on failure in his impatient quest to attain greatness as soon as possible. Well, he's now arrived. The subtext of every goal celebration is less Wow I can't believe I did that! and more I fucking knew it! Finally!

In the post-Ronaldo and Messi era, La Liga and its two biggest clubs have been desperate for charismatic stars who could at least approximate the reliable thrill those two used to provide. In Vinícius, Real Madrid seems to have found one. It's what club president Florentino Pérez hoped he was signing when he paid handsomely for the 16-year-old Vini back in 2017, and, after each ballooned shot and mistimed pass along the way, it must've been what Vini saw in his mind's eye to convince him to keep trying. Right now, he's the only player in Spain who qualifies by himself as must-see TV. The league will need more than that to return to its glory days, but one is a good start.

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