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Vinicius Jr: latest in Brazil's football talent pipeline


Everyone's heard of Neymar but now make way for the latest footballing diamond from Brazil's seemingly inexhaustible talent mine: Vinicius Junior.

Recruited for $45 million (36.5 million euros) by Real Madrid last year, the rising star from Rio de Janeiro side Flamengo has done everything to persuade fans that he really is the next big thing. And he's only 17.

When the Spanish giant put down that kind of money last May for Vinicius it looked like a gamble. After all, he'd played just two professional games at the time.

Nine months later, his performances for Flamengo has eased any fears and as soon as he turns 18 in July he'll be on a plane to join the reigning European champions.

He says he's ready.

"I talk from time to time to (fellow Brazilian players at Madrid) Casemiro and Marcelo. I went to Madrid at the end of last year and I got to know more players, like Cristiano Ronaldo," he told AFP.

"It's a fantastic club, but everything in its good time. For now, I am focused on Flamengo," he said in emailed comments.

With his horizons rapidly expanding, Vinicius hopes he can even get called up for this summer's World Cup in Russia. After all, the great Ronaldo went at 17 with the Cup-winning team to the United States in 1994, even if he didn't play.

Another Brazilian legend, Ronaldinho, gave him the idea.

"We met not long ago and he told me that they often take a younger player so he can get close to the others. He told me to stand by," Vinicius told Globoesporte.com last week.

With Neymar now facing an anxious wait to be fit for the finals, Vinicius's chances might have risen.

- Demon dribbler -

Although Brazil coach Tite has not yet called him up, Vinicius has made waves in the national under-17 team.

Brazilian television played a highlight over and over last year -- just before Real Madrid announced they had signed him -- where the youngster tormented Paraguay with three successive flicks over the heads of opponents.

"He's always been incredibly fast with the ball at his feet, had great technical quality and an unrivalled capacity for improvisation," said Marcio Torres, who coached him for two years at Flamengo's under-17s.

This month, Vinicius got his first taste of professional silverware when he helped win the Taca Guanabara, the first phase of the regional Rio championship.

He also showed his theatrical side when he celebrated his goal in defeating Botafogo 3-1 in the semi-finals by rubbing his eyes -- imitating opposition supporters' tears.

- 'Great kid' -

That caused a ruckus, with Botafogo retaliating by refusing to allow its Olympic home stadium to be used for the final in which Flamengo under-17s beat Boavista 2-0 -- again with a Vinicius goal.

None other than Neymar came to the young player's defense, tweeting that "football becomes boring" when you can't make fun of opponents.

However, apart from great talent, there's not much similarity between the star and the star-to-be.

To many, Neymar is something of a spoiled kid, while Vinicius is down to earth. "Even if he has always been the best of the lot, he has never posed the slightest problem. I never saw him even arrive late for training," said Israel Falcao, in charge of youth players at Flamengo when Vinicius arrived aged 11.

"He's a great kid because he has a good entourage. His family is from modest background but his father never tried to turn him into a product."

There was certainly every opportunity. At just 13, Vinicius was on the wish list of Corinthians and then a year later Cruzeiro even tried offering his father a job. English Premier League club Arsenal lurked.

But Vinicius stayed at Flamengo until Real Madrid scored the deal.

"It's a bit sad to know he's going to leave us soon, but with that kind of offer the club had no choice," said Torres. "With his talent and character, he has every chance of succeeding in European football."