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Vitor Roque: the future of Barcelona, built by Brazil's past
It's been a long time since Brazil had an iconic nine. It's only right the next emerges from Barcelona.
Ronaldo, Pelé, Romário: much of Brazil’s extraordinary footballing history has been anchored around a classic attacking fulcrum.
More than a decade since Ronaldo’s last cap for the national side, a new star walks the same fabled path to Barcelona. Is Vitor Roque ready for what comes next?
Few football debates these days are as fervent as discussions of the traditional ‘nine’.
The topic reared its head again upon the arrival of Erling Haaland in the Premier League: despite the Norwegian plundering goals in his first season in Europe’s top league, questions consistently raged around his validity as a presence that made Manchester City better.
Imagine such a debate applied to an entire footballing nation. Imagine the questions raised when a country goes years without the kind of traditional forward presence upon which it built its history.
By now, Brazil knows such questions well. Pelé, Ronaldo, Romário - few players are more synonymous with the number nine. While each was utterly unique, all did one thing better than anyone else: goalscoring. And each of their legends has stood the test of time; Pelé is considered one of the greatest footballers ever, Ronaldo is the iconic nine, Romário is a cult figure and pioneer who revolutionised what it meant to be a striker.
Pertinent to our story, while Pelé never left his native Brazil, Romário played for Barcelona - and Ronaldo, famously, lined up on both sides of El Clásico.
The best contemporary approximation of the Brazilian icon is undeniably Neymar. Whether he’s remembered as fondly as the above trio remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: he’s not and has never been a nine. His goalscoring feats in Europe — which reached their peak when he formed part of ‘MSN’ at Barcelona — largely came from a second striker role. He’s always been best as a winger, but a winger allowed to drift and attack space on a whim.
As the lights that spell Neymar’s name dim in the Saudi sky, his would-be successor, Vinícius Jr, is fast becoming the face of Brazilian football, both at home and in Europe. And like Neymar, he’s a winger. While he offers similar versatility and is clearly influenced by Neymar’s game, he’s no central attacking threat.
Brazil, despite their abundance of talent, have craved the emergence of an iconic nine since Ronaldo earned his final cap over a decade ago. They’ve used Robinho, Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino and Richarlison. They have waited. And now they have Vitor Roque.
Vitor Roque’s shape is perhaps one of the most interesting facets of his profile: the 18-year-old is a stocky, barrel-chested presence. This might be why he began his footballing career as a defensive midfielder, albeit one with a tendency to drift forward. His attacking instincts were obvious from his first foray into football as a six-year-old at the Cruizerinho football school, located around 247km from Belo Horizonte; from a deep-lying midfield position he still weighed in with goals despite, as Roque joked in an old interview, “only being allowed to press up when we were winning 4-0”.
It wasn’t until years later, at Cruzeiro, that he found his eventual true role as a striker.
“In my first professional game, something happened that made me feel tired, I was very anxious and nervous. This treatment has helped me a lot to control anxiety, breathing, to be calm.”
Vitor Roque on working with a mental health coach
The transfer to get him there from America-MG was hardly smooth: his new club struck a deal via an agent, the transaction wasn’t approved by FIFA and it ended up with lawsuits and Cruzeiro suspended from a variety of significant youth tournaments. When finally able to play with his new club at U-17 level, Roque was the top scorer in two prestigious tournaments: the Mineiro Championship with 11 goals and the U-17 Championship with another 10 in just 12 games.
Then an interesting story emerged from behind the scenes. Despite his tender years, Roque had shown a desire to spend time with a mental health coach. This is rare in senior football at the top level and was unheard of at 17 years old. Each week, Roque’s hour-long sessions explored a variety of things: concentration and focus both on and off the field, nutritional habits, improving sleep and an issue more pertinent than ever in sports these days, dealing with social media harassment.
“I started working with someone,” Roque said, “to adapt and get used to being a professional. In my first professional game, something happened that made me feel tired, I was very anxious and nervous. This treatment has helped me a lot to control anxiety, breathing, to be calm.”
A move to Athletico Paranaense would only increase the intensity of the pressure. The deal was again anything but smooth: in April 2022, Roque finished a day of training with Cruizero, boarded a flight and emailed the club to effect a unilateral terminational of his deal. At R$ 24m, equivalent to just under £4m, it was the biggest deal in Athletico’s history. Upon arrival, he took the number 39 jersey previously occupied by Bruno Guimarães.
Roque immediately shone at Athletico and quickly became known for his bulldozing performances at the spearhead of the attack. Strong, powerful and quick, he had precision in his finishing and a natural eye for goal. His ability to drift into the channels and into deeper areas was notable but he truly came alive when driving through the middle, be it latching onto a through ball or taking on opponents himself. His physique allowed him to handle the step up from youth level to senior; he had that Romario or Sergio Aguero-esque ability to back into defenders and use his upper-body strength to protect the ball.
2022 was a whirlwind year, especially in the Copa Libertadores. Athletico’s somewhat fairytale run saw them reach the final, in large part down to the emergence of their young star. Roque’s two goals across seven games stood out and he was named in the team of the tournament, despite a defeat in the showpiece to a powerful Flamengo side.
At the time of writing, Roque is currently the second top scorer in Brazil’s Serie A, with 9 goals in 19 appearances. He managed another four in the Libertadores before Athletico were dumped out. But his personal achievements have been eclipsed by July’s ground-shaking news of an agreement to join Barcelona for €40m. Fortunately, this time around the deal garnered considerably less controversy than those of his youth career. But the pressure has ramped up once again.
It’s expected that Roque will stay in Brazil for now and move to Catalunya in January, a plan that seems best for a young man truly breaking out in his native country. Moving too early might stall his natural development and with Barca encountering a period of transition themselves there’s no guarantee Roque would be offered the minutes he’s currently enjoying at Athletico.
But a path is clearing for him. Robert Lewandowski, long peerless in European striking pedigree, is finally showing signs of decline. Xavi has a young but hungry Barca squad and Roque fits that mentality both on and off the field.
Neymar’s star has faded and those of Vini Jr and Rodrygo are rising to take its place. But every attack needs a focal point, every Ronaldinho needs a Ronaldo, every classic Brazil iteration needs its classic nine.
Brazil already have two world-beating Galacticos leading the line, clad in the famous white. History says they need one more in blaugrana to complete the set.