Vinicius Jr has been left helpless and exposed by La Liga’s failure to tackle its racism problem

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How many times must this happen before significant punishments are handed out?

September 21, 2022 3:12 pm

Within minutes the footage hit social media. A group of Atletico Madrid fans, gathered outside the Metropolitano Stadium, repeated their grim chant until it became a frenzy: “Vinicius is a monkey”.

In the throng, one supporter climbed onto the shoulders of another and held up a racist doll wrapped in a Real Madrid scarf, to more cheers. Anything that followed: another Real Madrid win, another Atleti setback, the slight tinge of sporting justice that those supporters went home unhappy, meant nothing. Just another La Liga race storm.

Vinicius’s alleged crime is expressing joy. He dances when he scores, you see. After his goal during Real’s 4-1 win over Mallorca the previous Sunday, the confected outrage resurfaced. “La Liga has found itself in the eye of another storm because of Real Madrid forward Vinicius Junior’s method of marking a goal: with a dance,” one report read.

Which, with the greatest of respect, is complete bollocks. La Liga has found itself at the eye of another storm because a group of racists have manufactured an excuse to be racist. That is the only truth here. Everything else is window dressing.

By the middle of last week, Atleti captain Koke had warned Vinicius against dancing at the Metropolitano or risk “trouble”. Agent Pedro Bravo, who appears on the deliberately hyperbolic El Chiringuito football show, made a play to be the world patronising champion by telling Vinicius that “in Spain, you have to respect rivals” – except when it comes to racially abusing them, apparently. Bravo – a stab to the heart of nominative determinism – also advised the Brazilian to stop “playing the monkey”.

Bravo claimed that he was merely using a Spanish phrase that means fooling about (as in the English idiom “monkeying around”), but that fails to explain his stupidity. In the context of the treatment of Vinicius fuelled by racist tropes, it was an abysmal choice of words.

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If Bravo’s lamentable televised segment provoked statements from Real Madrid and Vinicius, it also allowed Atletico to – deliberately or otherwise – mitigate their own responsibility. Their statement, released 48 hours after the derby, offered no personal apology to the player and instead focused on “professionals from different fields generated an artificial campaign, lighting the fuse of controversy”.

That’s a permissible explanation, but it is no defence. If you have an element of your support that is prepared to hear an agent speak so brainlessly and use that as motivation to chant merciless, explicit racial abuse, they didn’t need the excuse in the first place.

Which brings us to the wider argument. Atletico Madrid have been here before. Spanish football has been here before. This is a club whose supporters chanted exactly the same phrase as they did at Vinicius to Marcelo in 2011, and racially abused Pape Diop in 2014. Did anything change then?

And this is a country where the national team manager implored Jose Antonio Reyes to “Tell that black shit [Thierry Henry] that you are much better than him. Don’t hold back, tell him. Tell him from me” and kept his job for another four years, where Mouctar Diakhaby walked off the pitch last year accusing an opponent of racial abuse and where no punishment has ever been handed down for on-pitch racism.

“As long as the colour of the skin is more important than the brightness of the eyes, there will be war,” is Vinicius’ view, and he’s right. The obligation is not on a 22-year-old footballer to broker peace when the enemy shows no intention of anything other than deliberate aggression. We should simply urge him – although he needs no invitation – to carry on dancing. If they cannot cope, more power to him.

But Vinicius, and everyone else who has suffered the same treatment, are allowed to demand better than bland epithets of “we must do more”. Statements and investigations have swiftly followed from Spain’s Prime Minister and La Liga respectively. Both are better than nothing but, for now, far closer to it than something meaningful.

Vinicius, like those victims before him, have heard it all before. In the meantime they are left helpless and exposed. As players in a professional league, they should demand protection in their working environment. Every celebration should not be a milepost in a cultural storm, simply an expression of joy and a celebration of their own excellence. He is a superstar; he is also a 22-year-old human being.

There must now be a reckoning, initiated by a shift in punishment culture. Players must be empowered to leave the field and stop matches without fear of harming their team. Clubs must face points deductions for the behaviour of supporters – the “these aren’t real fans” lament is entirely unhelpful and almost always untrue. Those who stir trouble should not be given a public platform until they have proven that they understand the impact of their grim mistakes. Otherwise, we’ll all meet back here in 12 months’ time to continue the same weary discussion.

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