Unless your overwhelming position is unqualified support for, and outrage on behalf of, Vinicius Junior after what happened to him in Valencia on Sunday, then you are part of the problem. From when he arrived at Mestalla to when he left to board Real Madrid‘s team bus, he was, once again, subjected to brutal, criminal levels of outright racism.
If there’s any kind of “but” forming in your mind, you’re simply wrong. Nothing Vinicius did in Valencia — and nothing he’s ever done on or off a football pitch — either explains or contextualises aggressive fans insulting him because of the colour of his skin. Nothing. (Real Madrid’s decision to file a hate crime complaint also confirms the senselessness of how Vinicius was treated.)
I’ve written about racism so often in my career. For ESPN, I covered the racist treatment Vinicius is receiving in Spain as recently as February. I’m not aware of how many people read the article, but I am aware that nearly a million people read the tweet with which I shared that column. I’m glad of that.
This is now a topic of worldwide attention. It remains an abuse of human rights and of human dignity that — and I can speak only for myself here — reduces me to a rage on behalf of Vinicius and all those who suffer racism. It’s a topic that can induce tears of impotent fury. Please: take just a few seconds to think of what this crime makes the men, women and children who suffer daily, casual and deliberate racism — at work, on the street, at play, in public or in private — feel like?
I confess that one’s first instinct is to channel the fury into words. To try to use articulacy, the public platforms I’m fortunate to enjoy, and this level of anger in order to catalyse awareness, more widespread support and, heaven help us, some successful action to begin to eradicate the idea that racism is just something we must tolerate in this space. LaLiga president Javier Tebas was quick to try and downplay what happened, noting that Vinicius was being unfair and that “cases of racism are an extremely rare occurrence,” but this is perhaps time for a more forensic, more clinical approach.
I want to focus on a few key points. First: There is categorical audio and visual evidence that Vinicius was targeted before and during the match by vast numbers of fans who were racially abusing him. Do not, under any circumstance, be fooled by apologists who believe there’s confusion on what was said or that it “wasn’t that bad,” either.
Second: I believe in the principle of evidence. So while I won’t accuse anyone of racial discrimination, if you were Vinicius or anyone who holds him dear, then you’d be forgiven for having a few extremely direct questions to ask.
After his absolutely sublime save to deny Toni Kroos‘ free kick, Valencia goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili commits a red-card offence, but is only booked. What happens? Well, the match is in added time, Valencia’s ultra-precious 1-0 win is being protected and Yunus Musah tries to waste a few seconds by holding on to the ball.
Madrid defender Antonio Rudiger wrestles it away from him and pushes Musah to the ground. Vinicius, who has been running up to help get the ball, stands over the prone Valencia youngster, and at this point, Mamardashvili sprints up to Vinicius and practically attacks him. It’s another red-card offence and a scuffle breaks out, one that eventually involves the majority of the players.
Another red-card offence is committed by Valencia forward Hugo Duro, who has Vinicius in an choke hold/armlock around his throat. Both his and Mamardashvili’s actions can be given context by the hugely vital nature of the three points, as shown by the tension at the end of the game: extreme bursts of aggression in an ultra-competitive environment, yes, but they’re both still red cards.
Vinicius then lashes out with his forearm, catches the Valencia striker and is correctly sent off once VAR has examined the incident. The entire thing was reviewed, but why was only Vinicius ejected? Why didn’t VAR advise that the two Valencia players have punishments imposed?
Only the on-pitch refereeing team and, most significantly, VAR official Ignacio Iglesias Villanueva can answer that adequately. But they were in the wrong, and in the context of all that’s happened, it’s not unfair to ask: was Vinicius of particular interest and focus during the review, to the detriment of the VAR and on-pitch officials assessing and acting on other transgressions?
Third: It might be outrageously optimistic of me, but I’m determined to believe that some good, positive advancement can come out of the absolute disgrace of what happened at Mestalla. Some of the routes to reducing and (hopefully) eradicating racist behaviour from football stadia are punishment, awareness and re-education.
It’s long overdue that racist incidents cause partial or complete stadium closure. Watch clubs and fan bases tailor their behaviour when draconian punishments that hurt the pocket (and damage their battle for LaLiga points) are repeatedly imposed.
It’s also long overdue that white teammates and bosses actively stand up for players who are racially abused. Overdue that they stand in unity, speak in unity and refuse to continue playing in matches dogged by racist abuse. So let’s turn to some of those who spoke out after the match.
In his “flash” interview after the game, Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti stated he had no interest “in talking about football.” Responding to the Movistar broadcaster, he said: “I think what’s gone on here is more important. More important than a defeat. What happened today, when a coach has to think about taking a player off because of that — something bad is going on in this league.
“Vinicius didn’t want to carry on the match and I said to him that I thought it was unfair that he had to stop the match because it wasn’t his fault, that he was the victim. So he played on, but this league has a problem. An incident of racism like this merits stopping the match in my view.
“This stadium was racially insulting a player: you have to stop the match, there’s no other solution, and I’d say the same had we been winning 3-0. I told the referee that and he talked about the protocol. There’s no ‘buts’ about this. Let’s see what happens now. Nothing, I think.
“This has happened often in other stadia and nothing happens. The situation is very serious.”
Total and outright solidarity from Vinicius’ boss. A 63-year-old multimillionaire who likely has never had to suffer racial abuse directly, but who is bristling with outrage, demanding attention to the problem, demanding punishments and offering unqualified support to his player. This will have an impact.
Then take Thibaut Courtois. After the match, also on live TV, the Real Madrid goalkeeper described complaining to the referee about the racist abuse his teammate was suffering, and the culture of vitriolic insults he sees every single week. Courtois pointed out that if the current “protocols” installed by LaLiga do not include taking the teams off the pitch and potentially abandoning the match, then they should be updated accordingly.
Jose Gaya and Justin Kluivert, two of Valencia’s heroes, eventually spoke out against the racist abuse, but the former tried to pull Vinicius away from identifying the guy behind the goal who was harassing him. The latter, a young Black player, at that very same moment was urging the fourth official that Vinicius be booked for time-wasting despite Madrid being 1-0 down.
Not everyone, in the heat of battle, is capable of doing or saying the right thing. Or wants to. On Sunday night, I feel Valencia noticeably misjudged the issue by putting out a statement more focused on the semantics of whether the entire stadium was chanting racist abuse or not. On Monday, their communique was far more relevant and appropriate. By lunch European time, they published: “Valencia CF will ban for life those who made racist gestures to Vinicius.”
Better, and late, but better late than never.
Vinicius’s management agency, TFM, were clear in representing how the Real Madrid star feels. “This is just another reflection of what has been seen throughout this LaLiga season, in which it became clear to the world that in entire Spain, they do not accept the role of a young black man, who do not accept that the most decisive and relevant athlete in LaLiga is a young black man.
“LaLiga’s veiled consent to all this discrimination was for months a message to all Spanish people, that it doesn’t want to have the best, if they are black.”
Let this trickle of forensic examination of what actually happens, not the myths or agendas, become a flood. Let players and managers, club owners and communication directors, fan groups and the media identify, criticise and condemn racist actions, comments or environments without fear or hesitation. Let them physically, morally and vocally stand with abused teammates. Every single time.
Change will be slow, but change can happen. (Seven arrests were made in relation to abuse against Vinicius, according to Spanish police on Tuesday.) The honest question, given how Vinicius is being victimised and even blamed, is whether he’ll still be in LaLiga to enjoy whatever reforms get made following the disgusting events at Mestalla on Sunday night.