In the summer of 2018, two South American teenagers arrived in Spain with wildly different expectations. Vinicius Jr. had been the subject of a headline-grabbing transfer tug-of-war between Real Madrid and Barcelona, eventually joining the former in a deal worth around €46 million. Both clubs also tried to sign Ronald Araujo, although no one really knew about it -- or him -- at the time.
Barca landed the Uruguayan defender for an initial €1.7m, rising to over €4m, and he slotted into their reserve team in the Spanish third division. Five years later, Araujo is making a case to be considered among the best defenders in the world and his battles with Vinicius have characterised recent Clasicos.
In a move previously reserved for Madrid when seeking ways to keep Lionel Messi quiet, Barca coach Xavi Hernandez has deployed Araujo in a special "anti-Vinicius" role. Araujo is a centre-back except against Madrid, when he shifts across to right-back.
Xavi's tactical tweak has had great success. Araujo has played in three of the past four Clasicos, and Barca have won those matches with an aggregate score of 8-1. Araujo even scored one of the goals. The one game Araujo missed through injury, last October's LaLiga fixture at the Santiago Bernabeu, Barca lost 3-1.
It's worth noting, too, that keeping Vinicius quiet on Madrid's left flank is no easy feat. The Brazilian has scored 19 goals across 39 appearances in all competitions this season, with a per-90 xG of 0.44. Araujo, though, has proved to be his kryptonite: Vinicius' combined xG in their past three meetings is 0.19.
It's not just Vinicius whom Araujo is keeping quiet, either: he is shutting out most teams. Of the 30 goals Barca have conceded this season, only 11 have come with Araujo on the pitch, and it's no coincidence their early Champions League exit coincided with him being injured.
People at the club are championing him as the best defender in the world right now. On Sunday, in the second of three Clasicos in a month, he has another chance to show why.
It's fair to say that not many people predicted Araujo's ascent to this level. Vinicius joined Madrid as Brazil's "next Neymar" in 2018, having agreed to make the move a year earlier. At the same time Vinicius was signing for Los Blancos, Araujo was playing as a forward in the Uruguayan second division.
A social media post from one of Araujo's former clubs, Rentistas, on June 17, 2017, shows him clutching the match ball after scoring a hat-trick in a 3-2 win over Villa Espanola. Araujo is being interviewed by a solitary reporter, with a ramshackle pitch in the background and an empty, decrepit stand.
Araujo had started out as an attacker at his local club, Huracan de Rivera, on the Uruguay-Brazil border, where he grew up speaking what he refers to as "Portuñol" -- a mix of Portuguese and Spanish. By the time he played for Boston River (via Rentistas) in Montevideo, he had been converted into a centre-back.
With Araujo almost 6-foot-3 and possessing great acceleration and fitness, it quickly became clear he was a player who could have a future in Europe -- even if he had only ever played for relatively modest clubs in his homeland. Sources close to him credit sprint and marathon training as an adolescent for the "tremendous physique and stamina" that soon caught the attention of a handful of Spanish sides.
His coach in 2018 at Boston River was Sergio Cabrera, the father of Espanyol defender Leandro, who was playing for LaLiga side Getafe back then. Cabrera tipped off Ramon Planes, Getafe's sporting director at the time, about Araujo.
"When I was at Getafe, his first professional coach told me about his huge potential," Planes told ESPN. "I went to watch him, and I liked what I saw. The idea was to sign him for Getafe." However, a few months later, Planes moved to Barca, changing the course of Araujo's career.
"The proposal arrived from Barca, and I decided to take a chance on Araujo there," Planes added. "At that time, it was for the B-team, mind. He was not ready for the first team."
Sources have confirmed to ESPN that Madrid were also interested, and Sevilla sporting director Monchi also thought he had a deal lined up at one point. Cabrera has since said Atletico Madrid were keen as well, but Planes' long-standing interest helped Barca complete the signing. And all of this happened in the year after that social media post by Rentistas.
Despite the caliber of teams interested in Araujo, his arrival in Catalonia was low-key, and sources admit there were early doubts about his suitability to Barca's style of play in those early months, notably his ability on the ball. In various interviews with ESPN, Araujo has admitted that it was the hardest part of joining Barca. He would feel out of place in the rondo passing drills, his touch letting him down against players who had spent 10 years honing their technique at Barca's La Masia academy.
If there is one thing that has set Araujo apart at Barca, though, it is his capacity to overcome obstacles. And as he has done throughout his career, he worked on his weaknesses. Before or after training -- sometimes both -- he would spend hours working in what is known at Barca as the "bullring," a small cage that spits out balls and forces you to tirelessly receive and return passes, all in an effort to perfect his close control.
"In general, we are not used to playing out from the back in Uruguay," Araujo told ESPN last year. "That is changing now, but I was not used to playing that way, breaking the lines, finding the free man. That is what I struggled with at first, with the philosophy at Barca. I had to adapt quickly. With a lot of hard work, I was able to show I can play for this club."
While he improved with the ball, he caught the attention for his other attributes. His recovery pace meant Barca B could play with a high line. He rarely lost a challenge, and he was also a major threat in the air from set plays at the attacking end. Before long, he was training with the first team and, on Oct. 6, 2019, he made his debut under then-manager Ernesto Valverde.
That debut ended with a red card, but it didn't halt his progress. As Gerard Pique aged, Samuel Umtiti struggled with injuries and Clement Lenglet's form dipped, a window of opportunity opened for Araujo. He became a regular under Ronald Koeman and has kept his place under Xavi, recently celebrating 100 games for the club. But for injuries, he would have played many more matches, too.
Araujo's response to those injury setbacks has been the same as his reaction to the realisation that he was not making the grade technically or the red card on his debut: to work harder. In addition to Araujo improving on the ball and better understanding the technical concepts Xavi demands from him, sources say he is also doing extra injury prevention work now.
With Araujo now a first-team fixture, Barca handed him a new contract last year that runs through 2026. His release clause was increased to €1 billion amid interest from Premier League sides, including Liverpool. "I had big financial offers abroad," he told ESPN after signing his renewal. "But money was never the most important thing.
"I have always been happy in Barcelona, and I have a lot of belief in this team."
Barca began the 2022-23 season with five first-team centre-backs, but Pique's retirement took them down to four. Araujo and Andreas Christensen have emerged as the first-choice combination, with Jules Kounde filling in at right-back, and, at the age of 24, Araujo has become one of the leaders of Xavi's young side.
Soft-spoken off the pitch, he has a booming voice on it that can be heard barking instructions. It has always been that way. He told ESPN that shouting orders and organising "comes naturally, even if it [means yelling] at veterans." It has led to comparisons with legendary former Barcelona captain Carles Puyol, someone he classes as "an idol."
In the dressing room, sources say he is the one who looks out for younger players when they come up to train with the first team, too. After all, that was him not so long ago.
Araujo is developing into the perfect defender for this Barca side, who often rely on his pace to save them if they lose the ball in transition. Under Xavi, he has continued to improve in possession as well, although the statistics don't paint the full picture.
In the 2022-23 season, Araujo is averaging fewer passes per 90 (59.9) than in the two previous seasons (63.71 and 63.52), and his accuracy is also down (88.7% vs. 90.2% and 91.8%). However, what he is doing with the ball now and the confidence he displays with it is far different. He is averaging 7.75 passes into the final third per 90 compared with 4.29 in 2020-21, proof that all his work in the bullring and after-hours video analysis is paying off.
Ultimately, though, he is a defender, and that is where he excels. Barca have conceded just twice with him on the pitch in LaLiga this season, versus six times when he has been absent. In all competitions, that extends to 11 conceded with Araujo in 1,741 minutes with him and 19 in 1,799 minutes without.
On Sunday, he is expected to be back at right-back and get reacquainted with Vinicius. Araujo won the battle when they met two weeks ago in the Copa del Rey semifinal first leg, with Barca winning 1-0, but Vinicius has two chances to change the narrative, at Camp Nou in LaLiga this weekend and then again in the second leg of the Copa semifinal on Apr. 5. Just don't expect the Barcelona defender to give in.