Vinícius Júnior, Real Madrid and soccer’s racism scandal, explained

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The soccer world is again grappling with racism in the sport after Real Madrid star Vinícius Júnior was targeted by abuse at a recent game.

“It wasn’t the first time, nor the second, nor the third. Racism is normal in La Liga,” wrote the Black Brazilian player, who has faced racism from officials as well as rival fans since arriving in Spain in 2018 — including earlier this year, when an effigy of him was hung from a bridge in Madrid.

The latest scandal has prompted support and backlash against the soccer star, as well as several arrests. Here’s what to know.

During a Sunday match between Vinícius’s team, Real Madrid, and Valencia, Vinícius — also known as Vini Jr. — went toward the stands behind Valencia’s goal and pointed to where he said fans were shouting racial abuse at him. The match came to a brief halt, with referees activating an anti-racism protocol and warning the fans that the match would be suspended if they continued.

Following the match, the 22-year-old Brazilian winger wrote on Instagram that racism had become normalized in La Liga, Spain’s top soccer league.

“The championship that once belonged to Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Cristiano and Messi today belongs to racists,” he wrote in Portuguese.

“I’m sorry for the Spaniards who don’t agree, but today, in Brazil, Spain is known as a country of racists.”

Real Madrid’s Vinícius Júnior says ‘racism is normal’ in Spain’s La Liga

Real Madrid filed a hate-crime complaint with the Spanish state attorney general’s office, as did the Spain-based Movement Against Intolerance and the Association of Spanish Soccer Players.

Spain’s national police since arrested seven people in connection with two incidents of racist abuse targeting Vinícius, three of whom were related to chants and other abuse during the Valencia match. Police said the investigation to identify any other possible perpetrators remained open.

How have people responded?

Support for Vinícius poured in from around the world, including his home country of Brazil, as did backlash.

“Zero tolerance for racism in football,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez wrote on Twitter. “Hate and xenophobia should have no place in our football or our society.”

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva tweeted that he “wanted to make a gesture of solidarity” with Vinícius, whom he described as “a young man who is certainly Real Madrid’s best player, and who suffers repeated offenses.”

The lights of the Christ the Redeemer statue, which overlooks Rio de Janeiro, were turned off for an hour “in solidarity with the player and with all who suffer prejudice around the world.”

Vinícius said he was “moved” by the gesture and thanked his supporters, writing on Twitter: “If I have to suffer more and more so that future generations don’t have to go through similar situations, I’m ready and prepared.”

At a Wednesday match, which Vinícius skipped because of what the club said was knee pain, his Real Madrid teammates walked onto the pitch wearing his number 20 shirt in a show of solidarity.

Sports giant Nike also posted an image of Vinícius on Instagram alongside the words: “Stop looking the other way.”

Following his comments, several high-profile Spanish figures sought to deny or minimize the existence of racism in the country. Some even appeared to blame Vinícius for the insults he had received.

Spanish sports journalist Pipi Estrada repeatedly said “there is no racism in Spain,” telling a radio show that Black people are able to “walk freely” and that “I have Black friends.” according to Spanish media.

And while La Liga said it would continue to support Vinícius and any other players who suffer racist attacks, its president, Javier Tebas Medrano, said on Twitter that it was “unfair” to describe the country or the league as racist.

“Instead of criticizing racists, the president of La Liga appears on social media to attack me,” Vinícius replied.

What does this show about racism in soccer?

Racism in sports, especially soccer, “is a reflection” of society, said Raúl Martínez-Corcuera, a professor who researches hate speech in the media at Spain’s University of Vic.

“In the Spanish case, we have been criticizing for a long time the fact that football has normalized hate speech,” including racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ sentiments, he wrote in emailed comments Thursday.

Academic studies have long recognized soccer “as a space for heteronormative white men, and everything that does not respond to these characteristics is attacked,” he said, adding that hate speech and other forms of prejudice are “are all too common in all stadiums, by fans of all football teams. And they are acts that are rarely censored or sanctioned by sports institutions or the media.”

Esteban Ibarra, president of Movement Against Intolerance, wrote that while Spanish legislation outlaws racism and other forms of intolerance, including in sports, the law is not applied equally.

He told Spanish newspaper El Mundo that he doesn’t believe his country is racist: “Spain, according to surveys, has one of the highest levels of tolerance in the European Union. What there is is racist behavior.”

However, he said, “there are many commentators, journalists and users of social networks who are contributing to a climate of intolerance.”

Is this a global problem?

But racism in soccer, or in sports more broadly, is not unique to Spain.

In December last year, three Black French soccer players said they received racist abuse online after their team lost to Argentina in the World Cup final.

The same month, Italian rugby star Cherif Traore revealed he received a banana during a “Secret Santa” gift exchange with teammates. The 28-year-old, who was born in Guinea and moved to Italy when he was 7, said the most difficult part of the incident was “seeing most of my mates present laughing. As if everything is normal.”

And in 2021, three Black soccer players had to deal with racist attacks after missing penalty kicks in the European Championship final.

Black rugby star given banana for Christmas by teammate calls out racism

Cindy Boren and Des Bieler contributed reporting.

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