Vinicius Jr is a Champions League winner once more and a Ballon d’Or favourite – this is his time


Real Madrid winning the Champions League has become tradition — and so have Vinicius Junior’s decisive contributions in finals.

Two years ago, the Brazilian settled the final against Liverpool in Paris with his 59th-minute effort. Against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley, his nerveless finish with seven minutes of normal time to go confirmed a record-extending 15th European Cup/Champions League title for Madrid.

You only had to look at the reaction when he was substituted in stoppage time to see his impact. The noisy Dortmund end produced loud whistles while Madridistas gave him a standing ovation and chanted “Vini, Vini, Vini!”.

Vinicius Jr’s performance was even more remarkable given concerns over his physical condition this week. The 23-year-old winger had been on good form in Friday’s open training session at Wembley, but before the game rumours circulated that he was unwell.

When contacted by The Athletic, the player’s entourage said he had experienced discomfort during the week but had not suffered from a fever as some reports suggested. They said he had improved on Friday and added that he would make history on Saturday.

That is exactly how things panned out. Vinicius Jr urged the Madrid fans to show their support from kick-off, with the team starting poorly. Even right-back Dani Carvajal admitted afterwards that a goalless draw at half-time was “a miracle” given the opportunities that fell to Dortmund.

Real Madrid seal 15th Champions League title

But Madrid stuck to their task and everything changed in the 73rd minute thanks to Vinicius Jr. He received the ball on the wing, dribbled past Mats Hummels and then produced a spectacular back-heel to evade right-back Julian Ryerson, forcing Hummels to concede a corner.

It drew a laugh from Vinicius Jr — as if he were unconcerned because he knew Toni Kroos would guarantee an assist from the resulting set piece. When the German produced an inch-perfect ball for Carvajal’s header, Vinicius Jr went straight to the retiring midfielder to hold him up.

Then Vinicius Jr killed the game, latching on to a pass from Jude Bellingham to put Madrid 2-0 up. The Englishman pretended to take a photo of Vinicius Jr performing his own iconic celebration, with his arms outstretched.

Vinicius Jr celebrates his goal with Bellingham (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

It was more history for Vinicius Jr. At 23 years and 325 days old, he had surpassed Lionel Messi as the youngest player to score in two Champions League finals (Messi achieved that feat at 23 years and 338 days old in the 2011 final, also at Wembley).

In the stadium’s mixed zone after the full-time whistle, head coach Carlo Ancelotti and Carvajal called for Vinicius Jr to win the Ballon d’Or. President Florentino Perez decided to be more diplomatic, saying “Give it to all of them”.

But the consensus was clear among Madrid players on social media. “Melhor do mundo” — ‘the best in the world’ — wrote his fellow Brazilian Rodrygo. “Balon de Oro,” commented right-back Lucas Vazquez. Bellingham called him “No 1” and Joselu echoed those calls for him to be given the prestigious individual award.

Past players couldn’t resist getting involved either. Ronaldo Nazario, one of the galacticos signed by Perez in his first spell as president, posted a photo from the day of Vinicius Jr’s presentation as a Madrid player in 2018 with the Portuguese caption “BOLA DE OURO!”.

The former Manchester United and England centre-back Rio Ferdinand called for it nine times in 19 seconds as he watched back his goal on the live broadcast. The 2022 winner and Madrid’s second all-time top scorer Karim Benzema added his voice to the campaign and Federico Valverde commented “Good morning, Ballon d’Or” on the winger’s post on Sunday morning.

“It’s very complicated to win it because of the whole process behind it,” Vinicius Jr said. “But I believe in what everyone I’m with every day tells me. They tell me I’m the best and I end up believing it.”

The goal was his 11th goal contribution (including assists) in 10 finals for Madrid, with whom he has won 12 titles in six years. This has been his highest-scoring season with 24 goals, despite playing 17 fewer games than last season after suffering the first two muscular injures of his career early in the campaign.

“Hopefully the president can see this interview and renew me one more time (Vinicius Jr did so in 2022 until 2027) because I want to always stay here,” he said. “I want to make history like Kroos, (Luka) Modric, Carvajal and Nacho, who have won six Champions League titles and have shown us the way.”

That would have seemed far-fetched not so long ago. The 18-year-old Vinicius Jr arrived at Madrid for a fee of €45million ($49m; £38m at current exchange rates) from Brazilian club Flamengo in 2018 — but the deal had been announced when he was just 16. Some criticised the amount of money being spent on the teenager.

In that summer of 2017, the player’s uncle, Ulysses — who works as a representative in his nephew’s agency — was quoted on the front cover of Spanish sports newspaper Marca. “In a few years, Madrid will think they paid too little,” he said.

The Athletic reminded Ulysses of those words after the final. “I was sure! Vamoooooos!” he replied.

Vinicius Jr’s entourage has helped him flourish at Madrid. He has 25 specialists who work for him from the TFM agency, which was taken over in 2023 by Roc Nation, the entertainment company founded by Jay-Z. The rapper was at Wembley on Saturday to support the Brazilian.

His first few managers at Madrid did not make full use of his potential in the same way as Ancelotti. He made his debut under Julen Lopetegui but spent the first few months of his Bernabeu career playing for their reserve team — much to Perez’s discontent. Lopetegui’s replacement Santiago Solari trusted him after being promoted from managing that team, but his sacking and the return of Zinedine Zidane saw Vinicius Jr sidelined again.

Ancelotti has been one of Vinicius Jr’s big supporters at Madrid (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Ancelotti’s arrival in 2021 was decisive. In one of the Italian’s first meetings with the board, he made clear he had confidence in Vinicius Jr and that the young winger would be key to his project. Vinicius Jr has responded to that confidence and affection — as shown by how they embraced each other after his goal at Wembley.

Even a change of position has not stopped Vinicius Jr from thriving. Benzema’s departure to Saudi Pro League side Al Ittihad last year deprived Madrid of a top-class striker. Ancelotti asked for Harry Kane in his place but had to make do with loan signing Joselu instead. He came up with a hybrid 4-4-2 system with Vinicius Jr up top to counter that and it has led Los Blancos to La Liga, the Champions League and the Supercopa de Espana (Spain’s equivalent of the English Community Shield).

Criticism of Vinicius Jr has aged badly. In a March 2022 Clasico, Barcelona defender Eric Garcia was caught on camera taunting him, saying “You, next year the Ballon d’Or”. But now the winger must be considered a favourite for the award, with the potential to bolster his candidacy if he wins the Copa America with Brazil this summer.

The only question now is: what’s next? The expected arrival of Kylian Mbappe from Paris Saint-Germain has led to debate as to how Vinicius Jr will fit in the same formation as the Frenchman given both forwards prefer to play off the left.

But this is not seen as a problem by Vinicius Jr. In fact, he has been speaking to Mbappe on social media for years and wants to play with him. Some have speculated that Vinicius Jr’s central role is a way to prepare the ground for Mbappe’s signing.

We will know more about that in the coming months. For now, this is Vinicius Jr’s time.

(Top photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

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