What seemed like a risk at the time has since become the norm. In 2017, it appeared barely credible that Real Madrid would pay €45 million to sign a 16-year-old Brazilian who had not played a senior game for his club. In hindsight, it stands as a wonderful piece of transfer business. Vinicius Junior has developed into one of the most dangerous attacking players on the planet, whose goal decided last season’s Champions League final.
The deal seemed like an outlier six years ago, the reaction of a club still smarting on seeing Neymar sign with rivals Barcelona for €86.2ma few years earlier and desperate not to lose out on another Brazilian of exceptional potential. But this type of deal is becoming more common. In 2019, Gabriel Martinelli was acquired by Arsenal for €8m from Ituano, a small club on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, before he had got anywhere near the Brazilian first division. And barely a glance was raised when Real Madrid signed another 16-year-old, Endrick from Palmeiras, for a total of €72m last month.
The major European clubs now want to sign South American talent as early as they can — meaning that they are thoroughly prepared to take a hunch on potential alone. It is a route Chelsea are now following with the €20m signing of 18-year-old Vasco da Gama midfielder Andrey Santos. While he is a less glamorous player than Vinicius or Martinelli, Santos is a well built box-to-box midfielder — a position where Brazilians have found it more difficult to adapt to European football than the wide strikers. This is a huge part of the explanation for signing the players so early; for legal reasons the clubs have to wait until the youngsters turn 18 to bring them over, and the consensus view is that the sooner they come, the better.
European football is quicker and more intense, and this especially impacts central midfielders since the ball moves through their zone of the field much more swiftly. There is less time for the player to decide what to do on the ball, and the European clubs want their players exposed to this reality as soon as possible. There is an obvious template for Santos, that of Douglas Luiz of Aston Villa. Same position and with similar characteristics, both of them made their names helping Vasco win promotion to Brazil’s top flight. Luiz played a handful of games in the first division before Europe came calling, while Santos is going straight from the recently completed second-division campaign to the Premier League — and probably to a loan move.
Luiz was signed by Manchester City in 2017, loaned to Girona in Spain and then to Villa before he made Birmingham his permanent home. There are pitfalls in this model of player development. The player is leaving his home country at an age when many aspects of his life are in transition. Late adolescence can be complicated enough without going through it in another country and culture — and it can be worse if the player is loaned out to clubs that have no long-term interest in his progress. But there are also pitfalls in staying put. Wait too long and luck may never come.
That is the situation that Palmeiras and their midfielder Danilo are currently negotiating. Dynamic and left-footed, Danilo has been a key part of Abel Ferreira’s all-conquering Palmeiras side which won the Copa Libertadores in 2020 and 2021 and the Brazilian league last year. At the age of 21, he has more or less done it all in South American club football. There is still plenty to come from him. However, a call up to the Brazil national team in the middle of last year may have had an adverse effect on him. He did not get on the field against South Korea or Japan during two summer friends, and his form dipped afterwards. It is possible that he was shocked by the step up required between domestic and international football. But he remains an excellent player and a fine prospect.
Palmeiras, though, are concerned that at the age of 22 he might not be the same as he is at 21. Time is ticking. A few months ago, Arsenal seemed a likely destination. Now, the more modest Nottingham Forest are shaping up as his next club, and Palmeiras will be happy to take a cut-rate transfer fee of €20m. They have been burnt playing this game before, as they seemed to have had a future superstar on their hands in winger Gabriel Veron, the key name as Brazil won the 2019 Under-17 World Cup. Veron immediately looked at home in the Palmeiras first team, but then injuries struck, there were some off-field problems and in the middle of last year he only fetched a disappointing reported fee of €10m from Porto.
Wesley was another winger who was fascinating the major European clubs; Palmeiras held on to him but he did not develop exactly as they had hoped. Earlier this month, at that dangerous age of 22, fellow Brazilian side Cruzeiro signed him for just €3m.
It is vital, then, to get the timing of the move right — which seems to mean an early transfer. Copa Libertadores champions Flamengo have become the masters of this, learning from the experience of Vinicius, and also parting early with the likes of Lucas Paqueta (West Ham United) and Reinier (Real Madrid, now on loan at Girona). This gives them the funds to invest in players that Europe does not want — either veterans looking to return home or good performers who have not found space to shine on the other side of the Atlantic.
Flamengo, then, are celebrating the imminent transfer of combative midfielder Joao Gomes to Wolverhampton Wanderers. It will reportedly bring in around €20m. Gomes is 21. A year from now, even if he had developed further as a player, his transfer value might well have fallen. Much more than reality, Brazil’s clubs are cashing in on promise.