Vinicius Jr. is a star for Real Madrid, but how will he handle being a target?

Real Madrid continue their winning start to in the LaLiga with 4-1 win against Mallorca, taking 3 points. (2:14)

You may not remember all of them, but let me assure you that Spanish football has been witness to some of the great retaliation extravaganzas of all time.

Diego Maradona, when he was at Barcelona, Kung Fu-kicking Athletic Club‘s Miguel De Andres at the end of the 1984 Copa del Rey final. Real Madrid’s legendary winger Juanito stamping on the back, and then the head, of Bayern Munich‘s Lothar Matthaus in the 1987 European Cup semifinal. Brazilian magician Djalminha snapping and headbutting his own Deportivo La Coruna coach, Javier Irureta, in the midst of receiving a huge rollicking during training. Diego Costa and Sergio Ramos spitting on one another during a Madrid Derbi. Madrid defender Pepe swinging a wild boot at a prone Javi Casquero, then raking his studs down the Getafe player’s back when Madrid looked like they were going to drop points at home in 2009. The list goes on.

At one time these hot-tempered bursts of retribution leading to sendings off were so “in fashion” in Spain that Pablo Alfaro, Sevilla‘s infamous defender — second only to Sergio Ramos in LaLiga red cards — once said: “Admittedly I’m not a Saint! But it feels like media coverage of me being sent off has become a national sport!”

Vinicius Junior’s name is not currently on that list of high-profile, perpetually-targeted footballers who succumb to provocation, frustration, red mist, or who simply have a bit of mala leche (badness) running through their veins. The 22-year-old Brazilian is so far opting for the Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo school of “don’t make me angry because I won’t punch or kick you in retaliation … I’ll just score, or create, more goals against you.”

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Messi played nearly 800 matches for Barcelona so if he’d been fouled, on average, an extremely conservative six times per 90 minutes that would mean he was kicked, barged, obstructed, tripped, knocked over, hacked down nearly 5,000 times. Wouldn’t you react? Most of us would.

Only twice did Messi properly teeter on the verge of complete red mist on club duty. In the 2009 UEFA Super Cup final against Shakhtar Donetsk when he moved his forehead perilously close to Darijo Srna’s nose, no action was taken from the ref. And then in the 2021 Spanish Super Cup defeat to Athletic Club when, having been bodychecked all night, he swung a petulant right hook at the back of Asier Villalibre‘s neck and was, correctly, red-carded for the only time in his long Barcelona career.

Ronaldo’s four red cards for Madrid, mostly expulsions for momentary losses of temper and some kind of lashing out, exclude him from being branded “Mary Poppins-exemplary.” But given the treatment he, too, was handed out while inspiring Madrid to vast achievements domestically and internationally, his self-restraint, and ability to re-divert anger towards scoring and winning, were definitely to be admired.

The context for this is that Vinicius is approaching a crossroads. He is increasingly going to be forced to choose how he channels and uses the anger and heated feelings of injustice which are heading his way. Can he harness them as fuel to scorch the opposition? Or will he seek out the kind of natural, but punishable, personal retribution which brings media opprobrium, bookings, red cards and suspensions?

Even though he’s only 22, the ultra-talented Brazilian is fast becoming someone who can genuinely be considered as one of the world’s top five or six footballers. Pound-for-pound at least.

LaLiga title-winner, winning goal scorer in a Champions League final, partner with Karim Benzema in a 111 goal/assist production line last season alone, and now he has hit the net in the last five Madrid matches for the first time in his career. Two of which, importantly enough, coming while Benzema was absent injured.

It’s a natural, if unfortunate by-product that opponents are targeting him. Coaches plan it, their players, usually from lesser talented teams, carry out the provocation, bullying and intimidation.

It happened again, not by coincidence, against Mallorca at the weekend — to the extent that teammate Toni Kroos had to go and persuade Vinicius to end his tirade at opposition coach Javier Aguirre and Carlo Ancelotti was asked to defend his winger following Madrid’s impressive 4-1 win. It wasn’t a coincidence because there were clear traces of bad blood and vendetta (held over from the last time these two played each other) during the Spanish champions’ comeback win over the Islanders.

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Pablo Maffeo went after Vinicius — kicks, trips, barges, confrontations. It was deliberate, it was a strategy and it was a small sample of the dark arts which will now pursue this rare talent for the rest of his career.

The reason for the extra heat in this confrontation was that, back in March at the Visit Mallorca Stadium, Maffeo scythed through Vinicius taking right leg, and left knee, with a ridiculous challenge which referee Sanchez Martinez didn’t even book. A lamentable mistake. Maffeo, with the eager help of Martin Valjent as henchman, went for Round Two of his intimidation mission.

Frankly, Vinicius’ reactions were absolutely spot on. He’s already the third most-fouled player in LaLiga this season, he was violently bodychecked by Maffeo before a quarter of an hour had passed, and manhandled to the ground twice in the second half with the game balanced at 2-1 — but he used his fury at the referee’s laissez-faire attitude to good purpose.

With time running out, Vinicius was brave enough to take the ball, over and again, then drag possession into the corner of the pitch where Maffeo lunged, missed and then Valjent smashed him down — earning a booking, giving away a free kick and wasting valuable time which Mallorca needed if they were to have any remote chance of getting an equaliser.

Vinicius picked himself up, gave a clarion call for an already outraged crowd to raise their decibel levels on a sleepy Sunday afternoon and let his two opponents know, pointing to his badge, that if they wanted to come after him again he was ready. With the smell of battle in his nostrils he pressed Valjent, blocked a clearance and howled in triumph (despite it being the merest of positives for his team which were by then winning 3-1, but the hero of this story was still burning fury as fuel.)

For so long as it stays that way, fine.

What sparked some minor controversy, and caused Ancelotti to be grilled postmatch, was when Maffeo had one, last, despairing attempt to chip away at Vinicius’ ankle and Mallorca’s coach, Aguirre, vocally praised his full-back. The Brazilian stormed over to admonish the bullish Mexican 63-year-old manager — at which point things threatened to spill over. But, crucially, they didn’t.

Madrid coach Ancelotti argued afterward: “Vinicius is special for how he plays. Opponents can get angry because of him dribbling past them and they’re angrier than ever when they’re losing. But that’s football. Vinicius has huge quality and talent and he shouldn’t ever change. I think he shows respect for referee and rivals and if ever he didn’t I’d remind him to do so.”

Across my career I’ve pretty much seen it all in terms of provocation and retaliation while reporting at matches: Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, Dennis Wise reaching into Nicky Butt’s shorts, when Chelsea defeated Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in 1999, plucking at a leg hair and the United midfielder reacting with violent anger before being red-carded during a 5-0 defeat. Even calm, placid Andres Iniesta admitting that he kicked out in frustration at ex-teammate Mark van Bommel during the 2010 World Cup final, when Spain were being consistently booted from pillar to post by Netherlands, and could have been sent off.

Which route will Vinicius choose now? The elite, hard-headed “winners” path, where only minor losses of temper blemish a long, beautiful career? Or the angry, hot-headed, “taking the law into his own hands” which so many naturally flamboyant, entertainers find it impossible to resist when they are kicked, abused and provoked? His eventual status as a genuine great and his prospects of lifting the Ballon d’Or may rest on the answer.