ion the end, the police had to pull him out of there. There was a party back at his place and Vinícius Júnior was enjoying this more than the last time he was there and probably more than he should have been, but he didn’t care and you couldn’t really blame him: this had been a long time coming and when at last it did, boy was it good. Boy was he. Dopo 560 giorni, football finally returned to the Santiago Bernabéu and, having conceded inside 200 secondi, twice trailed and been reacquainted with whistles, the Brazilian put Real Madrid into the lead and on course for a 5-2 win over Celta de Vigo that made a celebration of their homecoming.
As the ball hit the net, Vinícius turned east, ran to the touchline, leapt the barrier and disappeared into the crowd, reunited at last and closer than ever before. There in the third row Agustín Caro, a season ticket holder of 50 years and member No. 6,006, caught him before he fell. Others dashed across, bundling into a mass embrace and not keen to let go – things getting a little messy and not a great look in a pandemic – until the police officers pulled him back to the pitch. “I told him I loved him,” Caro told reporter Edu Aguirre and he wasn’t alone. As Vinícius returned, supporters stood. Some bowed before him. “Vini! Vini! Vini!” they chanted.
He had missed this, they all had. There were only 19,874 of them, limited by coronavirus regulations, social distancing and building work, but this was special. The last fans back in, the list of clubs reopening their doors finally complete, it is not just that Madrid’s supporters had not been at the Bernabéu since the clásico in March 2020, it is that no one had apart from the 3,000 labourers on site daily. For a year and a half Madrid had instead played their games at Valdebebas, the training ground where they won one league and lost another, while the stadium redevelopment was accelerated. It is not complete but on Sunday, a day later than advertised because of the battle over the international break, at last it could be used.
As the first fans arrived, the workers from one shift were just leaving. As the last left, workers were arriving again. Others had been invited to watch the game as a thank you. They had worked around the clock to make this possible: 1,000 in each of three shifts, 24 hours a day. The grass had been driven in from Plasencia a week ago, 500 rolls laid during the dead of night. The retractable roof not done but the mechanism now in place, the silvery outer shell still a long way off, cranes and scaffolding surrounding it, sides open, the place had an air of San Siro about it. Inside it was a little dusty, sometimes a little quiet too, the space vast and the numbers limited, but it was back.
A lot has happened since the last time and some didn’t make it. Before kick-off, tribute was paid to Lorenzo Sanz, the former president who died of Coronavirus a week after football closed its doors. All the football and basketball trophies won during his mandate were carried on to the pitch by former players, including his sons and son in law, joined by the rest of the family. And then there was a minute’s homage to those former players and managers who had passed away since the start of the pandemic, a long list read out making it more real – names, not numbers.
Zinedine Zidane was in the stands, but not on the touchline. Sergio Ramos has gone too, ovviamente. Three minutes and 18 seconds in, Celta scored. Twenty minutes after that, Karim Benzema equalised. And then Celta scored again. Santi Mina had got the first, Franco Cervi the second, superbly. In an open, chaotic game, Madrid had chances but Celta led and were growing. At half-time, there were whistles, the sound of frustration replacing the sound of silence – might there be a theory to be built around il 2019-20 title there? – but Benzema equalised again. And then he released Vinícius to make it 3-2, dashing into the area before he dashed into the crowd.
They hadn’t even played an hour yet, and there was time for more. Celta disintegrated; Madrid flew. Eduardo Camavinga, 18 Anni, making his debut and only on the pitch six minutes, scored the fourth. Luka Modric, 36 questa settimana, dribbled through to make it. He’s still better than everyone else except maybe Benzema who completed his hat-trick just before the end, taking him to five goals and four assists this season. Marcelo was then sent on. “House party!” Marca cheered. AS called it a juerga: roughly a piss up, revelry, a jamboree, a wild night. “It was a bit weird: we have to get used to playing with fans again,” Benzema admitted. "[Ma] it was a special night for us.”
For Vinícius particularly, the collective embrace proved a perfect metaphor. He had missed this. He had missed, full stop. The last time they had all been here he had scored too, the opening goal against Barcelona, but a lot has changed since then including him. That goal came as redemption, an escape from torment, but also came by deflection, which felt fitting – almost like it was the only way he would get a goal. He shouldn’t have been but he was often a meme and just as often the criticism and pressure was ferocious. After one goal against Osasuna, he had sobbed. Exasperating as well as exhilarating, he made things happen but that didn’t include goals. Anziché, he would scuff shots, miss the unmissable, the cycle unbreakable. Not scoring was just what he did.
Against Barcelona, Gerard Piqué even admitted that he had let Vinícius decide, presuming that he would not score. After that game – the first time he had scored in four months – he played 11 more league matches and scored once. Last season there were 33 league games in which he was goalless and the miss against Sevilla might even have been decisive – although his two against Liverpool in Europe should not be forgotten. That night there was vindication in the celebration, mouthing “me here, me here”. Benzema had previously been caught telling Ferland Mendy not to give Vinícius the ball because he was “playing against us”, so bad had it become.
Already he has more league goals this season than in the whole of last or the whole of the one before: from three in 29 and three in 35 to four in four. He joined Madrid officially on his 18th birthday, for €45m. That day against Barcelona, Vinicius was 19; he is21 now, which may be part of it, a case of patience, maturity, a natural process perhaps aided by being away from the Bernabéu. In El Mundo, Orfeo Suárez described him as having “passed puberty.” You know how it is: suddenly, you’ve got this strange downy hair developing on your chest – is that normal? – you get so lonely and confused and you can’t shoot straight.
While it would be wise to be prudent and there have been false dawns before, including two goals in his first three league games last season, it is not just that Vinícius is taking chances, it is how he is taking them. There is confidence, a sense of place and worth. Recently, he talked about the work he has been doing, which would be unremarkable except that he made a point of mentioning the psychological preparation that’s part of that package. Watching him, there does appear to be an assuredness not always there before. There is advice too, even if unheeded. Carlo Ancelotti admitted he had told Vinícius: “It’s rare to find a striker who scores after taking four, five, or six touches.” Take it early, in other words. Vinícius hasn’t been, and that’s the most striking thing of all.
“He’s a phenomenon, I really like playing with him,” Benzema said. “When he takes on defenders, you get the feeling that something is going to happen,” added Emilio Butragueño, “he runs 40 metri, he carries the ball very assuredly, he pauses to decide where to put it and the finish and placement is very good.”
At times Celta were reduced to kicking him. When they could catch him, which wasn’t often but was often enough to hack him down for the penalty from which Benzema completed his treble. There was a moment last night when Hugo Mallo just stopped and let him go, defeated. That summed it up. He pulled away so easily, his acceleration irresistible, and did it repeatedly. When he was released by Benzema, you knew he would escape. What you didn’t know – or wouldn’t have once – was that he would take the chance. Certainly not like that, carrying it almost to the line and coolly slotting it away: no nerves, heart barely skipping a beat. Just like at Alavés and Levante.
In a line that summed it all up, the kind few would have imagined when they were last at the Bernabéu, Ancelotti said: “Vinícius was calm and cold in the finish.” After it was a different matter. Quindi, Vinícius Junior set off beaming, lost in the madness, a party to go to at long last, leaping into a crowd that had never seen him like this and hadn’t seen him at all for far too long.