Vinicius Junior is right to lose his rag at Spanish football’s racism mitigation

Ian King
Vinicius Junior confronts Valencia fans during their La Liga match against Real Madrid

Vinicius Junior has been subject to vicious racism all season, but no-one in Spain seems to want to do anything about it. If anything, quite the opposite.


Small wonder he lost his temper. At the end of Real Madrid’s game at Valencia in La Liga on Sunday evening, Vinicius Junior’s patience finally ran out. The forward has been followed by a cloud of noxious abuse all season, and at the end of this latest match he was sent off for a shove on Valencia’s Hugo Duro.

But if what was left of the Brazilian forward’s patience snapped completely at the end of this particular match, it is completely understandable. A little over 20 minutes earlier had come yet another perfect example of how things came to a head.

With Valencia leading 1-0, Vinicius chased down the left-hand side with the ball at his feet and a marker on his shoulder. But as he cut into the Valencia penalty area, defender Eray Comert spotted a second ball on the pitch and seemed to deliberately kick it at the ball that Vinicius was running with, knocking it out of play. In the ensuing melee Comert was booked, but the game was delayed for ten minutes after yet another incident of racist abuse from the crowd. 

So an all-too familiar scene begins again. An announcement over the stadium public address system. A black player talking animatedly to match officials and his own coaching staff. A lengthy delay as just about the most ineffectual protocol imaginable sweeps into action. The player on the receiving end of this running out of patience and getting sent off, on this occasion for pushing back after being grabbed around the neck.

And then, after the game, a familiar round of blame-passing in which somehow the player who has been on the end of some pretty despicable abuse throughout the whole of this season once again finds himself being blamed for the abuse that he repeatedly receives.

“Well, if he wasn’t so black in the first place, perhaps he wouldn’t receive so much abuse,” is what you half-expect a pundit to vomit forth. Because it really does feel like that’s what quite a lot of officials and media commentators in Spain would really quite like to say whenever something like this happens. Not content with doing as little as humanly possible about it; it also has to be mitigated and minimised. After the match, for example, came a statement from Valencia CF:

‘Valencia CF wish to publicly condemn insults and attacks of all kinds in football.

‘The club have a firm commitment to the values of respect and sportsmanship, and reiterate our position against physical and verbal violence in stadiums. Thus, we are saddened by the events that occurred during the LaLiga Matchday 35 match against Real Madrid.

‘Although this is an isolated episode, insults to any opposing players have no place in football and do not fit with the values and identity of Valencia CF. The club are investigating what occurred and will take the most severe measures against the perpetrators. Valencia CF also condemn any offence and request the utmost respect for our fans.

‘Whilst strongly denouncing these isolated incidents, Valencia CF would like to thank the more than 46,000 fans in attendance for their support for the team.’

Well goodness, aren’t they keen to ensure that we all understand just how ‘isolated’ this incident was? After all, in the space of just 140 words they used that one twice, which is twice more than they mentioned racism or apologised to the player on the receiving end of it. 

But we probably shouldn’t be that surprised. Spanish football has expended considerable energy on telling an increasingly disgusted watching world just how ‘isolated’ this all is while also continually examining Vinicius Junior’s body language under an electron microscope. For their part, La Liga later released a statement in which they stated that they would take ‘appropriate legal action’ if ‘any hate crime is detected’.

This is the ninth time over the last two seasons that Real Madrid have filed a complaint. In September, Atletico Madrid supporters sang, “Vinicius you’re a monkey” while making monkey noises. At the start of December, the Madrid prosecutor’s office determined that the chanting, while ‘unpleasant’ and ‘disrespectful’, was not a criminal offence. The prosecutor found that there was no law under which this could be found illegal and that racist language in the context of a ‘fiercely contested’ football match ‘would not constitute a crime against the dignity’ of the player.

A week after this verdict was reported, the Cadiz winger Ivan Alejo tweeted out laughing faces and monkey emojis after Brazil were knocked out of the World Cup on penalties by Croatia. After being called out on it, he deleted the tweet and sent out a boilerplate non-apology in which he claimed, as they always do (because one of the key defining features of racism is its cowardliness and inability to publicly front up to what it is), that ‘an interpretation has been made that was not what I wanted to convey’. The Twitter account has since been deleted.

At the end of January when Real played Atletico in the Copa del Rey, a group of Atletico supporters hung an effigy of Vinicius from a bridge near Real’s training ground. No action appears to have been taken. A week later, a fan was clearly heard shouting, “Vinicius, mono” (“Vinicious, monkey”) during an away game at Mallorca. A further complaint was made following their match at Barcelona.  

Sections of the Spanish media have hardly covered themselves in glory on this subject, either. Two weeks after the Mallorca incident, at a press conference prior to Liverpool’s Champions League match against Real Madrid, Jurgen Klopp couldn’t disguise his disbelief at being asked by a Spanish journalist whether he found the player’s behaviour to be provocative. And even at the end of the Valencia match, the commentator for La Liga TV said, “We must stand against the racial abuse of Vinicius. But he is not a saint. He is provoking fans and that is not right.” Again with the equivocation and mitigation. 

There has been a constant undercurrent of victim-blaming against him all season, as though there is something in the way in which he behaves which justifies the abuse that he gets. Alejo had heavily implied precisely this five weeks before his racist tweet. Small wonder he felt sufficiently emboldened to feel misunderstood, a week after the Madrid prosecutor’s office had stated that racism is bad but understandable in the the context of a football match.

If this isn’t swiftly dealt with, the ramifications for Spanish football could be substantial. Javier Tebas of La Liga has spoken at great length about the gulf in television revenue with the Premier League. Well… this sort of thing doesn’t help. ITV hold its UK rights until 2025, but for how much longer are they going to to want to broadcast a league in which there’s a one in four chance that there’ll be a ten-minute delay during a match for racist abuse? The Premier League has grown fat off becoming a global brand. La Liga simply cannot afford to be this insular.

If you were a black player about to consider their options for the summer transfer window, how seriously would you take an offer from a club in a country where not only will you have to undergo racist abuse, but see no substantive action taken, while people openly question whether you have brought all this on yourself.

What must Jude Bellingham be thinking right now? Or, for that matter, Kylian Mbappe? Even if taken at an entirely pragmatic and practical level alone, La Liga may well end up cutting itself off from a number of those players who would actually increase its value.

It is true to say that Spain is not alone in this. It is also true to say that other European leagues – up to and including both the EFL and Premier League – have had their issues with racism too. But just to say ‘physician heal thyself’ in an attempt to close down this debate is insufficient.

For both ethical and practical reasons, Spanish football needs to act meaningfully over this, in a way that doesn’t involve any equivocation whatsoever, before it finds itself stuck with a reputation that proves extremely difficult to shake off.

After the match, on Instagram, Vinicius Junior wrote: ‘The prize that racists have won was my expulsion. It’s not football, it’s La Liga.’ The second part of that statement is the league’s own global advertising slogan. If Spanish club football does end up with its brand tarnished, it will only have itself to blame.