With the World Cup now just a matter of weeks away, fans and pundits the world over are starting to consider who should be their picks to lift the trophy on December 18. The consensus pick right now seems to be Brazil.
The record five-time winners head to Qatar with perhaps the deepest squad of any country, and it is likely that there will be players who miss out on being called-up by Tite who would probably start for the majority of the other nations at the tournament.
But if you thought selection might be about to get easier for Brazilian coaches of the future, then think again. The country’s current generation of 16-19-year-olds is regarded as the best anywhere on the planet, with a number having already begun making their mark on first teams both at home and, in some cases, abroad.
It was perhaps no surprise, then, when five Brazilians appeared among the top 11 names on the CIES Football Observatory’s list of the best footballers aged 18 and under back in September.
The highest-ranked was Flamengo midfielder Victor Hugo, who placed fourth, having grown into the Brasilerao’s most impactful young players.
But what makes him so special? NXGN explains all…
Where it all began
Victor Hugo was born in Bento Ribeiro, a neighbourhood in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro that is perhaps best known for also being the birthplace of ‘O Fenomeno’, Ronaldo.
And it soon became clear that Victor Hugo had the potential to follow a similar path to the legendary striker, with his father, Welington, having begun placing a ball at his son’s feet from the age of three.
“Since he was a child, one of the main pillars that we passed on to him was discipline and determination, and that he would have to give up some things,” Welington tells GOAL.
“For example, when he was younger, he had to give up parties and his friends’ birthdays, because the next day he would have to wake up very early, whether to train or even play.”
By the age of six, the boy was showing enough ability with his left foot that he joined the Madureira futsal team, before being picked up by Vasco da Gama.
There he played as a left-back as he made his first steps from the futsal court to the football pitch, before Flamengo swooped in at the age of 12 to bring Victor Hugo across Rio.
The big break
Flamengo were keen for Victor Hugo to play further forward, and handed him the No.10 shirt during his development as he won countless trophies for the club’s age-group team.
He was also called-up to numerous Brazili youth squads before catching the eye of Flamengo manager Paulo Sousa, who in turn handed the midfielder his first-team debut in May against Altos in the third round of the Copa do Brasil.
Introduced for the final 20 minutes, Victor Hugo laid on the assist for Joao Gomes to net the winner in Flamengo’s 2-1 victory, though it was in the second leg that he truly announced himself to the wider public.
On the day of his 18th birthday, the teenager scored with an 86th-minute header to seal his side’s progression in a competition that they would win five months later.
How it’s going
Sousa was actually sacked a month after Victor Hugo’s debut, but his replacement, Dorival Junior, has certainly taken a liking to the youngster over the course of the campaign.
Rather than play him as a No.10, Dorival has chosen to move Victor Hugo back into a more conventional midfield position, in part to cover for the loss of Andreas Pereira, after he joined Fulham following his loan spell in Brazil.
He has thrived in the role, becoming a regular starter in the Brasilerao as well as contributing to both Flamengo’s Copa do Brasil and, most recently, Copa Libertadores triumphs.
“The role he has been playing is fundamental to my style,” Dorival, who previously coached a young Neymar, said of Victor Hugo’s impact. “He has been brilliant in every way.”
“He has good ability to interpret spaces, plays well with his back to goal and physically he has good explosiveness,” Sousa said of Victor Hugo before he left the Maracana.
“He has a very good reading of the game and is a player who can make his presence known in the area with a goal.”
Being moved back by Dorival since Sousa’s exit might be a reason why Victor Hugo has scored just twice in the league this season, but all of those other attributes are clear when you watch him play.
The quintessential Brazilian midfielder player, he is technically gifted and possesses excellent close control and a good passing range.
Room for improvement
Victor Hugo himself has spoken of his desire to improve his decision-making, particularly in the final third, where he has provided just three assists in his professional career thus far.
There are also physical issues that will have to be overcome, but there are few other concerns regarding his capability of reaching the very highest level.
The next… Lucas Paqueta?
Despite sharing his birthplace with Ronaldo and having admitted to idolising Neymar and Vinicius Junior while growing up, there is another current Brazil star who most Flamengo fans believe Victor Hugo can emulate.
Due to his versatility and creative mindset, many see plenty of Lucas Paqueta in the way that Victor Hugo plays.
Paqueta came through the ranks at Flamengo before moving to Europe, where he shone for Lyon and is starting to make a similar impact at West Ham following his summer transfer to the Premier League.
He is also set to start for the Selecao at the World Cup in the coming weeks, and there is hope among Flamengo fans that another of their own can follow a similar path in the coming years.
What comes next?
As with all young talents that emerge in Brazilian football, transfer rumours are never far away, and Victor Hugo is no different in that regard.
Since making his breakthrough into the Flamengo first team he has been linked with both Real Madrid and Barcelona, while he is among the number of young South Americans who are reportedly on Newcastle’s radar.
There was a suggestion that the Magpies were considering a £12 million ($13.4m) bid for the teenager over the summer, but it remains to be seen how much European suitors will have to pay.
Victor Hugo has a €100m (£87m/$97.5m) release clause in the five-year contract he signed before even making his professional debut. Source: goal.com