In 1997, Roberto Carlos was racially abused while playing his first clásico for Real Madrid. Barcelona fans made monkey chants every time he touched the ball, held up racist banners and even scratched the word “monkey” on his car as a special treat for him to find later.
No charges or punishments were issued and if, after complaining publicly, Carlos was hoping for a little professional solidarity at this most harrowing of moments, he was out of luck. “This man talks a lot, he talks too much, he doesn’t know our fans and he hasn’t been here for long enough to justify these things,” Barcelona’s central midfielder retorted that day, a Spain international by the name of Pep Guardiola.
It would be nice to imagine we have made some progress in the intervening quarter-century: that black footballers would be able to go about their business in one of the world’s biggest leagues without having to negotiate the horrific obstacle course of racism, that the game itself would not be quite so eager to play it down. And yet there are times, when watching the case of Vinícius Júnior, when you begin to wonder.
It’s hard to pinpoint when Vinícius started being targeted by opposition fans for abuse. There were some monkey chants at Mallorca’s Son Moix stadium this month, a few shouts from the Osasuna end during the minute’s silence for the Turkey and Syria earthquake, the effigy hung from a motorway bridge near Real’s training ground last month, bedecked in the red and white of Atlético Madrid.
But this has been going on for more than a year, a grisly gauntlet of othering and dehumanisation that seems to have taken on a horrific performative quality. Somehow, the longer it continues, the more routine it becomes, the more and less shocking it becomes. You sense Carlo Ancelotti’s heart breaking a little more every time he has to talk about it. And so most weekends Vinícius simply sighs, laces up his boots and braces himself for what comes next.
While the individual incidents continue to gain coverage in the Spanish media, there seems to be precious little sense of the broader picture, precious little of the anger and urgency and introspection that could drive change. One of the world’s greatest footballers is essentially being sacrificed on a weekly basis, hunted and hounded for sport.
Who, exactly, do we see about this? Where are the points deductions, the stadium bans, the bone‑shattering fines? Where are Uefa and Fifa, who are quite happy to mine Vinícius’s talent to promote their own competitions but have had nothing to say about this?
There have been the usual beige statements, the usual buck-passing, the usual equivocation. La Liga argues it is powerless to enforce sporting sanctions and instead refers all cases to the justice system, which has proven itself a wholly inadequate arbiter. After Atlético fans were filmed chanting “Vinícius, you are a monkey” at a fixture against Real in September, the Madrid prosecutor’s office declined to bring any charges, arguing the chanting had been “disrespectful” but lasted only a few seconds and needed to be seen in the context of the “fierce rivalry” between the clubs.
For large parts of Spanish society, this remains a curiously prevalent mindset: that racist abuse is somehow mitigated by its sporting context or is just a particularly impolite form of booing. You will still see the view expressed that opposition fans are simply trying to gain a competitive edge by trying to rile Vinícius into a reaction, which they occasionally get. (Racism: the original marginal gain.)
Adjacent to this is the idea that Vinícius provokes these strong feelings through his showboating, his behaviour on the pitch, his dancing celebrations. In September a guest on the popular television show El Chiringuito de Jugones said, with either maximum irony or none at all, that Vinícius should “stop playing the monkey”.
Atlético’s condemnation of their own fans came with a caveat that it was “the responsibility of everyone” to ensure harmonious relations between the two clubs. On television and radio shows, coverage of Vinícius’s behaviour is often given as much attention than the abuse he receives, as if these were two equal sides of an argument, as if the basic humanity of Vinícius were no more than a phone-in debate.
This is, in many ways, a textbook example of how the victims of racism are often gaslit: abused and then made to accept complicity in their own abuse. There has been some idle speculation – because no football story really exists unless it has a transfer angle – that Vinícius may tire of his treatment and leave La Liga. But to isolate this as a purely Spanish disease is to misunderstand the nature of the problem. Besides, given the frequent online abuse of prominent black Premier League players, there seems little point in holding England as any kind of a gold standard.
And so every week the stakeholders wring their hands and insist something must be done. And every week Vinícius plays on, to a chorus of boos and whistles and usually something far more sinister. Racism has always chosen its targets unequally and on some level we should expect his talent and fame and wealth to offer him a certain protection. His treatment instead poses a burning question: if football can’t protect Vinícius, what chance does it have with anyone else?