Vinicius Junior saga highlights present state of South American club soccer
Everything seemed to be going so well.
Inside the last 20 minutes, Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo were a goal up in their final Copa Libertadores group game away to San Lorenzo of Argentina. At that point, they would make it through to the knockout stage even in defeat. For Flamengo to suffer early elimination, they had to lose and fellow Brazilians Atletico Paranaense had to win away to Universidad Catolica of Chile.
In a game that kicked off at the same time, Catolica were a goal ahead. Something would have to go badly wrong quickly in two matches for Flamengo to fall at this first hurdle.
San Lorenzo equalised. Still Flamengo were safe. Atletico found two goals in quick succession, but Flamengo were safe -- safer still when Catolica equalised. But the game in Santiago was alarmingly open. Atletico scored a late winner. Flamengo had to avoid defeat -- and they failed to do so.
They paid the price for being penned back in their own box, conceded a second goal in stoppage time and -- once again -- crashed embarrassingly out of the competition. The Libertadores is becoming a source of constant frustration for Brazil's most popular club, who were widely seen as candidates for the title.
All this made for super drama. But in the global press it is eclipsed by another story -- an indication of just how far down the line South American football has fallen, to the point of being an export industry.
Flamengo have 16-year-old Vinicius Junior, whose services Real Madrid are apparently prepared to pay an absolute fortune for -- sums of around $50 million are being bandied about. Flamengo have just extended his contract until 2022, but paradoxically, it appears they are extending in order to sell. Having Vinicius Junior under contract gives the club extra insurance that a massive transfer fee is coming their way.
As for the adolescent at the centre of the attention? Vinicius Junior recently enjoyed a magnificent South American Under-17 Championships, cutting in from wide on the left, the Neymar position, to great effect. There is, though, a world of difference between Under-17 and senior football.
For example, 10 years ago Brazil had a wonderkid at an identical stage in his career named Lulinha, an attacking midfielder who was giving master classes in finishing at youth level. He was linked with Chelsea and a host of giant clubs. A decade on, after never coming remotely close to fulfilling the hopes of 2007, he is in South Korea with Pohang Steelers.
To give an opposite example, Brazil's most embarrassing recent failure at Under-17 level came in the 2009 World Cup, when they managed the feat of being one of only eight teams eliminated at the group phase. They played two dismal 1-0 defeats, and could not buy a goal when they needed it most.
The front pair? Neymar and Philippe Coutinho. Whatever happened to them?
The point is, there are very few guarantees that youth stardom will translate to senior level. It could well be that youth stardom harms the process, creating unrealistic expectations and undue attention. Vinicius Junior will certainly have to deal with these problems.
He was treated like a superstar last Saturday before he had even kicked a ball for his club's first team. Flamengo named him to their squad for the home match against Atletico Mineiro in the opening round of the Brazilian Championship. A big crowd went along to the Maracana Stadium, and they roared their approval when the teams were announced and his photo appeared on the scoreboard in the list of substitutes.
As the second half wore on, and Atletico equalised, the fans became restless to see him on the field. The loudest cheer of the afternoon came when it was clear that he was going to come on with just over 10 minutes to play.
Not even Pele would have been able to live up to this kind of debut billing. The 12 minutes he played even took on a comical air. Vinicius Junior ran through a few tricks -- and nothing came off.
There was miscontrol, a misdirected cross, a misplaced backheel. He clearly is blessed with special talent, and, to his credit, was full of confidence to show what he could do. But he looked a little bit like a ball boy who had run onto the field when no one was looking. In future years none of the crowd will be able to treasure golden memories of being there when Vinicius Junior made his debut.
Hopefully there is a genuine budding superstar in his 16-year-old frame. And thankfully he cannot move abroad until he is at least 18. So there is time ahead for Flamengo fans to collect some mental souvenirs of watching him in the famous red-and-black shirt. There may even be time for Vinicius Junior to help end the club's nightmare run in the Libertadores.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.