THERE have been many attempts over decades to eradicate the problem of racism not only in football, but sport in general.

Sport has often been seen as the saviour for several complex social problems, of which racism has long been at the forefront.

Yet the problem has remained immune to several strategies aimed at its eradication. Indeed, some would argue that racism is on the rise.

Just ask Vinicius Junior.

It seems the problem amongst Spanish media and football fans has been his customary celebrations after scoring goals and assists for his La Liga side Real Madrid.

Vinicius Junior regularly goes to the corner post and performs a little dance, lasting a few seconds only. But it is long enough to cause much criticism amongst the audience.

Pedro Bravo, a top Spanish soccer agent, suggested as much on a popular TV show resulting in the controversy.

“Vinicius will have to respect the opponents,” Bravo said, according to multiple translations. “If you want to dance, go to the Sambadrome in Brazil. In Spain, you have to respect rivals and stop playing the monkey.”

To Vinicius and others, the message was clear. The “xenophobia and racism,” Vini said, were hurtful and nothing new. His subsequent video was both emotional and critical of the ongoing saga.

Over the ensuing 48 hours, on football pitches across Europe, he and other Brazilian stars also responded just as Vini promised they would: with joy, and with dancing.

Somewhat belatedly, Bravo apologized “sincerely,” and tweeted that his “intention was not to offend anyone.” Spaniard after Spaniard pointed out that “hacer el mono,” playing the monkey, is a Spanish idiom roughly synonymous with fooling around. Vini and countless Black men, though, had seen this “plot” play out before.

“I was a victim of xenophobia and racism in a single statement,” the 21-year-old Brazilian winger said in his video, as explicitly as could be. “But none of that started yesterday.

“A few weeks ago, they began to criminalize my dances,” he continued. “Dances that are not mine. They are from Ronaldinho, Neymar, [Lucas] Paqueta, [Antoine] Griezmann, Joao Felix, Matheus Cunha. They are funk artists, Brazilian sambistas, from Reggaeton artists, and from Black Americans. They are dances to celebrate the cultural diversity of the world.”

He spelled out what he felt was the reason for the criticism, that “happiness bothers [people]; the happiness of a Black Brazilian victorious in Europe bothers them much more.”

Vini acknowledged the apology, “but I repeat to you, racist: I will not stop dancing,” he vowed at the end of his two-minute video. “No matter if it is at the Sambadrome, at the Bernabeu or wherever it may be.”

And so he did at Atletico Madrid’s Estadio Metropolitano.

He danced with Rodrygo, his Brazilian Real Madrid teammate, after the 21-year-old scored a brilliant goal to put Real ahead of Atleti.

He danced his way into the penalty area and poked a shot off the post that led to Real’s second. He skipped across the field to celebrate with Federico Valverde, who’d scored it.

And he tweeted to Rodrygo after the game, a 2-1 win: “Dance wherever you want.”

That of course, lit the inevitable fuse for a societal response.

At the following match at the Metropolitano, the ugliness was there for all to see and hear. Thousands of Atletico Madrid fans proudly chanted: “Eres un mono, Vinicius, eres un mono!”

“You are a monkey, Vinicius, you are a monkey!”

Several damning videos ultimately emerged from inside and outside the stadium.

The problem, a societal one that manifests in European football, is one for footballing organisations and clubs have been grappling with for decades.

In this case, the responsibility should fall to La Liga and Spain’s soccer federation, who could impose sanctions. Hours after Sunday’s game, they had still not even publicly acknowledged widespread evidence of racist chanting and abuse.

Once again, the demand for change is deafening. The response all but mute.

But Vini cannot and should not have to change it. All he can do is fiercely maintain his joy. That’s what his fellow Brazilians encouraged him to do after Bravo’s comments stung.

“Dribble, dance and be you,” Neymar told him in an Instagram post.

Gabriel Jesus, another Black Brazilian star, recently scored for Arsenal and danced in celebration. “The celebration was for my guy Vinicius Jr.,” he said.

Even Pelé, Brazil’s most famous son, spoke up to offer his support. “Football is joy. It’s a dance. It’s a real party,” he said. “Although racism still exists, we will not allow that to stop us from continuing to smile.”

That’s what Vinicius did on Sunday. “We keep dancing!” he wrote in response to one of the thousands of supportive messages from back in Brazil.

When Neymar told him to do just that, he responded with the tweet: “Always!”

Neither Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti nor his Atletico counterpart Diego Simeone spoke during their post-game media duties about the chants outside the stadium beforehand, or the obvious targeting of Vinicius by Atletico fans throughout the evening.

Atletico representatives said that the club “condemn this type of attitude from a few who do not represent anyone, and we make clear that we are completely against racism”.

Madrid pointed toward the statement the club had released on Friday, which condemned “all types of racist and xenophobic language and behaviour in football, sport and life in general, such as the regrettable and unfortunate comments made against our player Vinicius Junior in the last few hours”.

“Football is the most global sport there is and should be a model of values and coexistence,” the club added.

Perhaps the issue of racism in Spanish football still does not appear to be taken as seriously as in other countries.

This is not the first time Spanish football has had to contend with accusations of racism. The most high-profile recent case came in April 2021, when Valencia defender Mouctar Diakhaby left the field after he said he had been racially abused by Cadiz centre-back Juan Cala. Cala denied he had said anything racist and, after La Liga and the Spanish federation launched investigations, no punishments of any kind were handed out.

It was significant that the issue returned to the spotlight in the run-up to a derby between the Spanish capital’s two biggest teams. Atletico’s hard right-wing Frente Atletico ultras have a long history of racist and neo-Nazi behaviour. Incidents have been highlighted in games going back decades — with former Madrid and Brazil players Roberto Carlos and Marcelo among the opponents to have been abused in past derbies.

Last March, monkey noises were directed at a 19-year-old Real Madrid player during a UEFA Youth League match against Atletico. UEFA fined Atletico €30,000 (£26,300; $29,900) and ruled their first game in this season’s competition must be played behind closed doors. UEFA’s control, ethics and disciplinary body also pointed out that although Atletico president Enrique Cerezo had condemned racism generally after that game, he had not specifically said anything about the behaviour of his own team’s fans.

Former Barcelona right-back Dani Alves is among many La Liga players of colour who have condemned repeated racist behaviour by opposition supporters in the past. However, action is rarely taken against those perpetuating the problem.

Madrid’s hierarchy have not always made a public defence when their players have suffered racist abuse. After Iker Bravo opened the scoring for Madrid’s Castilla youth side in their Primera RFEF game against San Sebastian de los Reyes on Saturday night, the 17-year-old pointedly danced alongside his Brazilian team-mate Vinicius Tobias during the goal celebration.

Referee Munuera Montero could have taken the players off the pitch as a reaction to racist chanting. The Spanish football federation’s regulations leave this decision in the referee’s hands.

Perhaps it should not, making it a rule to do so or suspend the match. Or worse.

Such action has never been taken in Spain before and there was no mention of chants in Munuera Montero’s official match report. The only allusion to trouble in the report was to say that during the celebrations of the first Madrid goal, “various lighters and bottles were thrown from the stands, without hitting any player. After a warning was given over the stadium megaphone the game restarted without any further incidents”.

The likelihood of any action being taken against any individuals appears very unlikely. Atletico have a lot more work to do to eradicate the influence of their “Frente” ultras, and Madrid and other clubs who largely avoid the issue due to its complexity.

Racism is one of the many scourges of society. It is inevitable it will find its way into sport. More must be done. But this can only be achieved when the problem of the individual, their anger and subsequent behaviour is understood better.


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