Vinicius Junior. Rodrygo Goes. Eder Militao. And, from July 2024, Endrick Felipe.
Real Madrid have always been a club that attracted the best talent from Brazil — Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo Nazario, Robinho and Marcelo, Kaka and Casemiro have all flocked to the club over the years — but this new generation, and the tantalising possibility of an all-Brazilian front three in 18 months’ time, promises a dominance never before seen at the Bernabeu. The architect: Juni Calafat, Madrid’s low-profile, but increasingly influential, chief scout.
Calafat’s latest coup was the signing of Endrick, 16, from Palmeiras, last month. The teenage forward is one of football’s most exciting prospects, anywhere in the world. Everybody wanted his signature, from Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain to Madrid’s main LaLiga rivals Barcelona, whose coach Xavi told ESPN he had personally spoken with the player. Thanks to Calafat, Madrid came out on top.
The 50-year-old, born in the Spanish capital to a Brazilian mother and spending his childhood and youth in Brazil, has been at Real Madrid since 2014, with his status and remit growing behind the scenes ever since. He might lack the media exposure of other recruitment specialists in LaLiga — like Sevilla’s Monchi or Barcelona’s Mateu Alemany — but within the game, he is recognised as possessing a vast football knowledge and an unerring ability to assess talent.
From beating Barcelona to the signings of Vinicius, Rodrygo and Endrick, to spotting the explosive potential of a young Federico Valverde — as well as some costly mistakes — ESPN takes a look at the successes and failures of Juni Calafat, the most powerful football executive you’ve never heard of.
With additional reporting by Rodrigo Faez
Calafat is known for one quality above all else: the relationships he builds with players and their families. His routine involves travelling in person to meet a player multiple times before recommending his signing. The player’s family environment is just as important as their on-field profile, and earning the trust of all parties is fundamental to Calafat’s approach.
Calafat’s role in negotiations is constant and one particular story involving Vinicius Junior is illustrative. Before his €45 million transfer to Real Madrid was agreed in May 2017, Vinicius — 16 years old at the time — travelled to Madrid with his parents, an uncle and a representative to check out the club’s facilities and get a feel for the place. He had already done the same at Barcelona, who believed they were close to a deal.
When the family landed at Madrid’s Barajas Airport, it emerged that Vinicius’ mother’s suitcase had been lost in transit. Calafat took the family straight to a branch of El Corte Ingles, the high-end department store, giving each a voucher to spend on replacement clothing. It made a positive impression: To Vinicius and his family, Calafat had gone above and beyond to help them in the face of unforeseen circumstances.
Also, their trip to Madrid came after at least five by Calafat to Brazil where he met Vinicius and his family. Real Madrid knew they were competing with Barcelona, and the smallest details mattered.
Vinicius has since admitted that Barca came calling first. “The two clubs came looking for me,” he told Cadena SER’s El Larguero in November 2021. “I decided to go to Real Madrid because of the project, and what they did for me. I thought it was the best project — the club I felt most affinity with.”
Calafat’s flawless Portuguese means it’s easier for him to form strong relationships with Brazilian players and their families. The same level of attention to detail was required to sign Rodrygo from Santos in 2019, for the same fee that landed Vinicius.
The clubs had reached an agreement a year earlier when the forward was 17, still too young to move to Spain. The first contact was made with Rodrygo’s father Eric, himself a former footballer. Calafat acted as Eric’s translator when he first came to Madrid and in initial talks with club president, Florentino Perez.
“I was at home with my mother. My father had gone out in the morning and was talking with Juni,” Rodrygo told ESPN last year. “Everything had been signed with Barca … but my dream was always to play for Madrid. When [my father] came home, he walked past me and my mother, he went to my bedroom, picked up a Real Madrid shirt that I had, threw it to me and said: now you need to choose what you want, Barcelona or Madrid. I chose Madrid. I’ll always remember that moment.”
In the 12 months following the agreement — with Rodrygo still a Santos player at the time — Calafat travelled regularly to visit the family home in Osasco, Sao Paulo state, and was even there to celebrate Rodrygo’s 18th birthday on Jan. 9, 2019.
Real Madrid’s football operations are run by three people. Florentino Perez, naturally, is the figurehead. Below him is the universally popular managing director Jose Angel Sanchez, and then comes chief scout Calafat. It’s a lofty position for a man who got his first break working as a Brazilian football pundit on Spanish television. Three of his colleagues from those TV days have since followed him to Real Madrid. Even then, with no formal club role, Calafat was well connected and friendly with a number of Brazilian players, including Madrid’s Ronaldo Nazario and Kaka.
Through them he met Casemiro, whom he’d been monitoring while still a youth player in Sao Paulo. Calafat was not officially involved in the signing of the now Manchester United midfielder — he arrived at the club shortly after Casemiro did in 2014 — but the two became friends, and their families remain close. Over time, Calafat has moved beyond an initial remit focusing on South America to head Madrid’s scouting department, coordinating a team of analysts. But despite that promotion, Calafat insists on travelling in person to watch players and conduct talks.
Calafat also maintains an active role after a player has been signed. Contact with Vinicius and Rodrygo has been frequent and goes far beyond formal meetings at Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground or in the dressing room at the Bernabeu. Calafat was in Qatar during the World Cup, meeting with Vinicius’ family. He has a close relationship with TFM Agency, which manages Vinicius and Endrick — another crucial element to Real Madrid securing his signature — as well as up-and-coming Brazilian players like Arsenal forward Gabriel Martinelli and Wolves midfielder Matheus Nunes.
Sources close to Vinicius and Rodrygo told ESPN that the forwards view Calafat as an important figure they can turn to in both good times and bad. When each arrived in Madrid to begin their careers at Real, Calafat was able to recommend accountants, organise rental accommodation and help them assimilate. When Rodrygo was a frustrated unused substitute on his first involvement with Real Madrid’s first team squad in LaLiga — a 3-2 win over Levante on September 14, 2019 — Calafat spoke to the player immediately afterwards and ensured that he got a start for Madrid’s B-team, Real Madrid Castilla, later that same day.
In the summer of 2019 when Madrid were looking to sign a centre-back, Calafat was instrumental in shifting Florentino Perez’s thinking away from Matthijs de Ligt, then of Ajax, and point him towards Eder Militao instead.
De Ligt had been impressive for the Dutch champions in the Champions League and was the more glamorous choice befitting the club’s infamous “Galactico” (superstar) policy under Perez. Yet Calafat felt that modern football’s need for centre-backs with pace favoured Militao. His argument was clearly persuasive and in March 2019, Madrid agreed to pay FC Porto a €50 million fee for the chance to sign the former Sao Paulo defender.
Militao’s first two years at Madrid were unconvincing — he struggled for opportunities in the first team while stuck behind veterans Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane in the pecking order — but his form last season as Madrid won a LaLiga and Champions League double proved Calafat right. There was a similar debate before Rodrygo joined, with some voices at the club favouring a move for Joao Felix, then a promising teenager at Benfica, to strengthen the attack. Calafat preferred to take a chance on the Brazilian, and his opinion was decisive.
Over time, Perez came to trust more and more in Calafat’s choices. Some at the club questioned the laser focus on Brazilian talent, but the humility and hard-working attitude displayed by Vinicius and Rodrygo, combined with the examples of senior players Casemiro and Marcelo, helped make Calafat’s case.
Calafat’s sphere of influence has not been limited to Brazil, either. Across the southern border in Uruguay, he orchestrated the €5 million signing of Federico Valverde in 2016. Valverde had impressed at the youth levels for Penarol and Arsenal were also keen, but Calafat managed to convince the player and his family that Madrid was the best choice. Valverde has been a slow-burning success at the Bernabeu, erupting into one of Europe’s most effective attacking midfielders in the past 12 months, including an assist in the Champions League final. He was also an important figure in persuading Norwegian prodigy Martin Odegaard, 16 years old at the time, to choose Madrid in 2015 ahead of interest from Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Arsenal.
Yet there were some glaring mistakes. The most notorious was midfielder Lucas Silva, signed for €14 million from Cruzeiro in 2015 as one of the best players in Brazil, and sent home two years later having made just four starts and frustratingly little impact.
Reinier Jesus, a playmaker signed from Flamengo for €30 million in August 2020, was supposed to be the latest Brazilian sensation to follow in the footsteps of Vinicius and Rodrygo. He has never played for Madrid’s first team, failed to impress in two years on loan at Borussia Dortmund, and is now rebuilding his career at Girona.
Forward Willian Jose was unable to establish himself at the club after arriving in 2014, but has gone on to succeed at Real Sociedad and Real Betis. Low-cost academy recruits Abner, Augusto Galvan, Pablo Felipe and Rodrigo Farofa did not develop as expected and can now be found rebuilding their careers elsewhere.
Shaka Hislop says LaLiga chief Javier Tebas “has to do better” after his response to Vinícius Junior receiving racist taunts during Real Madrid’s 2-0 win at Valladolid.
There have also been non-Brazilian mistakes during Calafat’s tenure. Luka Jovic, signed for a €60m fee from Eintracht Frankfurt in 2019 and released on a free transfer last summer, was the most expensive, while Paraguayan forward Sergio Diaz was another flop in 2016. For every failure though, there are multiple successes. Eduardo Camavinga, signed from Rennes on deadline day in 2021, and Aurelien Tchouameni, who joined from Monaco last June, are two of the most recent. Calafat even flew direct from Brazil — where he was laying the groundwork for the Endrick move — to Monte Carlo where he directed talks over Tchouameni in January 2022.
Calafat’s hands-on, globe-trotting style has seen him crop up in the most unexpected places. In July 2019, Vinicius and his representatives were en route to Japan on business when they were surprised to discover that Calafat was already there. Days later, news emerged of Real Madrid’s agreement to sign winger Takefusa Kubo from FC Tokyo, beating Barcelona to that deal as well.
For a man who IS considered the third-most powerful football executive at arguably the biggest club in the world, Juni Calafat is not, by any measure, “famous.” He hasn’t tweeted since May 2020 and while busier on Instagram, his posts are more personal than professional. (It doesn’t stop fans trying to talk business, though: a recent snap with friends on Dec. 27 was met with comments pleading with him to complete deals for Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham, Palmeiras midfielder Danilo and Flamengo’s latest star-in-the-making, Joao Gomes.)
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (U.S.)
While he did go to Dubai in November for a rare public appearance, receiving the “Scout of the Year” prize at the Globe Soccer Awards, Calafat is more comfortable out of the spotlight and does his best to stay that way; he knows as well as anyone that in this profession, discretion is a distinct advantage. His day-to-day life consists of hours of video analysis, travelling to meet promising young players and playing padel (a form of tennis hugely popular in Spain) in his spare time. In recent months there has been talk of interest from other clubs, but he has no plans to move on.
Heading into 2023, Endrick is the latest puzzle piece now waiting to be fitted into this new Real Madrid team, with Vinicius, Rodrygo and Militao already established as three of its pillars. The Brazilian trio’s pivotal role in last season’s Champions League — Militao started 12 of Madrid’s 13 games, Rodrygo scored against Chelsea and Manchester City, and Vinicius’ goal won the final against Liverpool — was a vindication for Calafat’s talent-spotting, but at Madrid the most important trophy is always the next one. Calafat’s job is to focus on the future, not the present, and the work is never done.