It used to be that Real Madrid were the only club capable of shelling out the sort of money that took Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo to the Santiago Bernabeu. But with the rise of competition from clubs backed by multibillionaire businesspeople and petrostates, the 13-time European champions have been forced to change their tack in the transfer market.
Galacticos? Not anymore, thanks. Over the past decade, and increasingly in the last few years, the strategy has morphed. Less outlandish fees are being paid, players being brought in that, instead of being Galacticos, will hopefully someday become ones. And with the signing of Reinier Jesus from Flamengo, it is clear that Brazil is the focus of Madrid’s search for these unpolished gems.
Florentino Perez, Real’s president since 2009, has not completely restricted his scouts to South America’s biggest country. Spaniard Brahim Diaz was brought in from Manchester City in January 2019 and Japanese midfielder Takefusa Kubo from Tokyo FC in June. Luka Jovic and Eder Militao, both 21 when they signed from Benfica and Porto respectively, also fall into this category. And they were added to others, like Isco, Casemiro, Marco Asensio and Federico Valverde, who were bought at a tender age and have grown in stature during their time at the club.
But the real intrigue lies in the signings of Brazilians Vinicius Jr., Rodrygo and now Reinier.
They are all very different players. Vinicius is more of an out-and-out winger, quick, skilful and determined to go past his man. Rodrygo is more subtle. He prefers to start out wide but drifts in search of space and ghosts into the box at the opportune moment.
As Zidane said of him after Real Madrid's 6-0 win over Galatasaray in the Champions League back in November, “He has everything, but to choose one thing, I’ll go with his intelligence. He learns very quickly… he is very good technically.” Reinier, meanwhile, is a classic central attacking midfielder, tall and elegant, with dexterity, power and technique in equal measure.
Coming as a trio they are proof of the enduring lure of a Brazilian attacker. And since they missed out on Neymar in 2013, that lure has proved irresistible for Real. So determined is Pérez not to lose out again that he has now gambled a reported €120m on three 18-year-olds from Brazil in the last 18 months. And a gamble they remain. The talent is clearly there, and in abundance. But you are never sure whether a player will develop as expected or how they will adapt to different surroundings.
Yet Real have decided that is a risk worth taking. They clearly feel that the younger they can take players across the Atlantic to school them in the winning mentality and technical excellence that are required at one of the world’s most powerful clubs, the better chance they stand in the long run. If they were to leave them in Brazil any longer, the thinking goes, they run a double risk: first, that the player will be snapped up by a rival; second, that they will develop the bad habits and poor technique that come from playing too regularly against weak opposition.
So far, the strategy appears to be paying off. Rodrygo’s hat-trick against Galatasaray in the Champions League was a tantalizing glimpse of the player he might become and while Vinicius has not exploded into the team as some expected last season, he still managed a fine finish to put Real 2-1 up in their last group game against Club Brugge. Reinier will be hoping to have a similarly quick impact upon arrival, but even if he does not, he has time on his side.
“I understand the transfer policy of the club”, proffered chief Real writer Tomas Roncero in the Madrid-based sports daily AS. “For the star of the moment you are asked for indecent sums, within reach only for club-states like PSG and Manchester City. So, it is better to invert [that approach] in future. Valverde, the Uruguayan, cost only five million Euros, but would now cost 100. Rodrygo and Vinicius have also doubled their market values. You can obviously make mistakes, but it is better if those errors are at a reasonable cost”.
There have been reports in Brazil that Real are not done yet, either. During the recent U17 World Cup, Perez sent scouts to watch Gabriel Veron, the Palmeiras academy graduate who lit up the tournament as Brazil took the trophy on home soil.
Eden Hazard is Real’s only Galactico signing in recent years, but, so far at least, it is not working out. With Valverde and Rodrygo playing regularly, Vinicius always an option from the bench and the ability of Reinier Jesus incoming, Real’s future lies instead at the feet of youth. And those feet will make sure Madrid dances to a South America beat.