The boys from Brazil: Teen sensations Vitor Roque and Endrick tipped for the top

Shadow of Neymar will linger over Barcelona and Real Madrid-bound youngsters

New Barcelona player Vitor Roque is unveiled at Camp Nou. Getty Images
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It was not long into January 2014 that judicial questions started to be asked about the details of the transfer of Neymar from Santos to Barcelona. In time, the buying club would yield a huge fortune on the back of his talent and fame, but it had been costlier than Barca initially admitted to export Neymar from Brazil.

A decade on from the first investigations into exactly how, and for how much Neymar moved to European football, the legacy of that seismic transfer is still being felt.

Neymar, now 31 and enduring a long recuperation from the injury that has hampered the third big move of his storied club career – to Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia – has fetched combined fees in excess of €400 million. That’s a total that endorses predictions, made through his teenage years, that he would be the game’s leading standard-setter for his generation.

There will be various judgements, from Catalonia, and from Paris, where PSG set a lasting record when they triggered Neymar’s vast €222 million buyout clause to lure him from Barca, about how close Neymar has ever truly come to being among the very best individuals in his sport.

But at 21, as a wonderfully inventive, brave dribbler, he was close to the perfect epitome of what so many European superclubs desire in a new signing. He was young, he was heir to the great Brazilian tradition of flair and courage on the ball. And he was more intriguing for being a little unknown to European audiences.

There are hundreds of past stories of potential wunderkinds from Brazil failing to live up to expectations once across the Atlantic, but the seductive idea of such stars-in-the-making never wears out. The 2024 winter transfer window is only a few days old, and already its major headliners are boys from Brazil.

There’s Lucas Beraldo, recently turned 20 and signed by Paris Saint-Germain from Sao Paulo. He’s a central defender, so harder to hype up as a glamour purchase, but at a club whose rise over the last dozen years has had major roles for Thiago Silva and Marquinhos, Brazilian centre-backs have a cachet.

Far more fanfare has surrounded Vitor Roque, whose anticipated presentation to Barcelona supporters has been previewed by a noisy mixture of self-congratulation by the buying club, who have tracked him for years and have now signed him from Athletico Paranaense, and the usual anxiety about whether Barca’s taut finances allow him to be registered with La Liga.

Vitor Roque only turns 19 in February, has been a hot striking prospect through most of his teenagers, made his full Brazil debut last year and is easily imagined as the refreshing ingredient Barcelona needs, with the defence of their Liga title looking ragged and their chief source of goals Robert Lewandowski in irregular form. Lewandowski is 35; Vitor Roque carries dreams for the longer term.

He arrives at Barca 10 seasons after Neymar did, and 20 after the transformative signing of Ronaldinho. Those precedents apply their own pressure on a would-be wonder boy from Brazil, as does the regular comparison of Vitor Roque with Endrick, his compatriot, a hugely exciting forward with whom Real Madrid already have an agreement.

Endrick, of Palmeiras, will join Madrid in the summer, once he has turned 18, in the same way Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, two of Madrid’s finest recent recruits from Brazil, did.

Looming ahead for Vitor Roque and Endrick is a 2024 where their relative talents, their effectiveness in a new league and their marketability will all be measured within the context of the Barca-Madrid rivalry. That’s the same rivalry, the fierce desire of each club to look like the shrewder talent scouts that framed that first big move of Neymar’s career.

As various legal probes would later discover, the true costs of Neymar’s transfer – upwards of €80 million – from Santos to Barca were very steep. What was clear even before the player turned 18 was that all parties with a stake in selling him were in a powerful negotiating position. Real Madrid wanted him; so did their major rivals. The auctioning was determined.

Senior executives from both clubs acknowledged that in a courtroom in Catalonia years later. “We shook hands on a deal on a Friday, and then on the Monday we were told Real Madrid had offered more,” recalled Raul Sanllehi, then a senior Barca director. “We were interested,” Florentino Perez, the Madrid president said of a rare instance where his club were gazumped in the market.

The fee Barca later collected, even if they did not want to sell Neymar to PSG in 2017, caused more envy, although the careless ease with which Barcelona squandered that €222 million in subsequent transfer windows – well over half went on Philippe Coutinho, a very unhappy figure in the history of Camp Nou’s Brazilians – makes their Neymar legacy a bittersweet one.

But his long shadow still lingers. Vitor Roque will hear Neymar referenced often in his new home. And every youthful, hyped-up young superstar who makes that first journey from Brazil to Europe knows he travels with a special, heightened expectation.

Updated: January 04, 2024, 6:04 AM