Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on March 15, 2023. It has been updated to reflect the persistent racist abuse that Vinicius Jr. was subjected to during Real Madrid’s 1-0 defeat by Valencia on May 21, 2023.
Vinícius Jr scored the goal that secured Real Madrid’s 14th European Cup last May, and this season his brilliance has continued to light up the team’s Champions League campaign.
The supremely talented 22-year-old – widely considered one of the world’s best players – has six goals in seven matches in Europe and another eight in LaLiga, but he has also become a repeated victim of “hate crimes” in Spain, according to a players’ union.
Ahead of the derby against Atlético Madrid in January, an effigy of Vinícius was hanged from a bridge in Madrid, while racist slurs have been caught on camera during Real’s matches at Osasuna, Mallorca, Real Valladolid and Atlético.
As of yet, there have been no punishments handed down by Spain’s leading football authority – the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) – or any local prosecutors, but investigations into some cases are still ongoing.
Instead, LaLiga can only pass on any incidents of abuse to RFEF committees or regional prosecutors, who deal with them as legal cases before sporting punishments are handed out.
LaLiga says it gives out the ‘Fan’s Handbook,’ written in collaboration with the Club Supporters’ Federation, in stadiums before each season starts, highlighting which practices should “represent the values” of football.
It also sends a ‘Player’s Handbook’ to every player before the start of the season, encouraging them to be respectful and to report any racist or violent behavior they witness.
“So it is the State, the Justice and the Security Forces [police and Civil Guard] who must investigate and act immediately in the face of this type of event,” the AFE said. “Then, within the sports field, there is a disciplinary code that also contemplates possible sanctions for this type of conduct. We want to insist that what happened with Vinícius is a hate crime, which is criminally prosecuted.”
Piara Powar, the executive director of the Fare Network, an organization set up to combat discrimination across European football, says football leagues and authorities in Spain are “washing their hands” of these incidents.
Then, either through disinterest or a lack of understanding of football and the gravity of these incidents, local prosecutors are not adequately dealing with the investigations, Powar says.
“In Spain, this structure has been allowed to develop over the years and it hasn’t been challenged,” he says. “You often have an individual judge, who is linked to a local authority or a regional authority, who then sits as a quasi-judicial figure instead of a disciplinary committee or regulatory commission, which is what happens in other countries.
“Often, the individuals taking them are then completely disconnected from football and completely disconnected from the implications of their decisions, and often apply a mixed standard of evidence to them based partly on a criminal standard and partly on a civil standard – and the two standards are very different.
“So you have these cases that are being constantly dismissed and when they are passing the judgment on them, the sanction is usually a minor fine that has no impact at all.”
Powar says the way football and legal authorities in Spain deal with incidents of racist abuse at matches has led to the “system falling apart” in the country.
“It’s not effective, it has never been effective and some people treat it as a joke, but nobody relies on it as a reliable intervention that’s going to create a change,” he adds.
“I think you genuinely have an FA [RFEF], who either through disinterest or just through not understanding what they need to do, who are not doing anything themselves.
“We now need to move to a centralized template to assist the way UEFA is looking at how FAs are conducting the disciplinary regulations, how they’re enforcing them and making sure that the processes are fit for purpose.”
‘Racist campaign against Vinícius’
Incidents of players being racially abused by fans have tarred numerous LaLiga matches this season.
Instances of racist abuse directed at Vinícius make up eight of these cases and four – including three involving the Real star and one involving Athletic Bilbao’s Nico Williams – have been archived without a punishment being handed out.
On May 21, Vinícius was again subjected to racist abuse from the stands, this time during Real’s match against Valencia at the Mestalla stadium.
The referee’s official report from the game described the incident, noting a fan had shouted “monkey, monkey” at Vinícius during the second half. Video footage of the match from DAZN España also shows that the Real Madrid star was subjected to various other racist insults throughout the game.
LaLiga says it is investigating the incident.
In addition to the local Madrid prosecutor choosing not to issue any punishments because they only “lasted for a few seconds,” other reasons from regional prosecutors for not trying cases include “could not identify the perpetrators,” “does not seem to be” covered by the penal code and “do not cross the line for a penal breach,” LaLiga said.
When asked to explain how it failed to identify the fans who racially abused Vinícius at FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium on October 24, 2021, the Barcelona prosecutor said they are not able to reveal details as the investigation is private.
“In other cases, the investigation has been successful, such as the racist insults to Iñaki Williams [in January 2020] where the prosecution, after the investigation was carried out, filed a complaint and described it as a hate crime. It is currently awaiting a trial date.”
Powar says for a football regulatory case to take three years, “particularly a very simple one,” proves how “the system is failing in Spain.”
“These hearings should be heard by a committee of the FA, independently appointed, and they should be heard within days, if not weeks,” he adds.
“That is how this system should operate and then the sanction that results is implemented during the season, very quickly and the principles of natural justice are respected, but as it is, the victims are being failed.”
The painstakingly slow process in Spain appears all the more convoluted when compared to a recent case in England, in which a local court handed down a three-year ban to a fan just three months after he had shouted a racist slur at Chelsea’s Raheem Sterling.
Esteban Ibarra, the president of the Movement Against Intolerance, a Spanish organization that aims to educate on discrimination and track incidents of racist abuse in football, called the archiving of the Vinícius case at the Camp Nou by local authorities “inconceivable.”
“We flatly deny that Spain is a racist country, but we affirm that there are numerous racist behaviors in our country,” Ibarra added in a statement on the organization’s website.
“We maintain that there are plenty of racist incidents, which have not been stopped when there is relevant legislation and sufficient law, policing and institutional capacity to put an end to this ignominious behavior.
“The racist campaign against Vinícius began a long time ago.”
The Spanish Penal Code says racist acts – relating to ethnicity, race or national origin – that “harm the dignity of people” through “contempt” or “humiliation” can carry a punishment of six months to two years in prison.
Spain reports its hate crimes to the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), whose records show there were 1,802 hate crimes recorded by police in 2021 – the most recent data available – with 192 cases leading to prosecutions and 91 to sentences.
Compare that to England and Wales, where there were 155,841 hate crimes recorded by the police in the year ending March 2022, a 26% increase on the previous year.
Another case that has been “provisionally archived” is that of Vinícius at Mallorca on March 14, 2022, in which the Mallorca prosecutor says it was unable to identify the perpetrator.
The prosecutor explains that while cases of racist abuse are “absolutely rejectable” and “typical of profane and despicable attitudes,” under Spanish law incidents “do not always inevitably entail a criminal response.”
However, the prosecutor pointed to two cases in 2023 – another involving Vinícius and one involving Villarreal’s Samu Chukwueze – in which they have successfully identified the offender and are currently in the “judicial investigation phase.”
“When this phase is completed, the existing incriminating elements will be evaluated and the existence or not of a possible crime of discrimination will be specified,” they said.
Last month, the National Sports Council of Spain proposed a €4,000 fine and a 12-month ban from entering football stadiums for the Mallorca fan identified for abusing Vinicius at the match on February 5 this year, but the punishment is yet to be handed out.
Mallorca has also suspended the fan’s club membership for three years.
“We understand that these types of events must be prosecuted and condemned,” the AFE said.
“We are in favor of penalizing this behavior. Society in general reproaches this type of behavior. The culprits must be found, brought to trial and sentenced.”
Individual clubs can take action against any supporters they believe to be guilty of directing abuse towards players, but these instances are rare.
This season, only Valladolid has taken such action, suspending the season tickets of a dozen members it identified with the help of the police.
In a statement, Valladolid said the events that occurred were “typified as racist and intolerant,” but the club still insisted that it “does not consider its fans to be racist.”
Vinícius has used his platform numerous times this season to call for more action to be taken by authorities, but his pleas have so far fallen on deaf ears.
“‘As long as skin color is more important than the brightness of the eyes, there will be war.’ I have this sentence tattooed on my body,” Vinicius Jr posted on Instagram earlier this season in response to what he described as racist criticism from a TV pundit.
“You can’t even imagine. I was a victim of xenophobia and racism in a single statement. But none of this started yesterday.
“The script always ends with an apology and an ‘I’ve been misunderstood,’” he said. “But I’ll repeat it for you, racist[s]: I will not stop dancing. Whether it’s in the Sambadrome, in the Bernabéu or wherever.”
Powar says he has noticed a theme in the Spanish media that intends to apportion part of the blame for the racist abuse to Vinícius himself, which often insinuates that the Brazilian “brings it upon himself” with the way he plays or celebrates goals.
Last September, Pedro Bravo – a leading agent and president of the Association of Spanish Agents – compared Vinícius to a monkey on a football program.
And earlier this month, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was left dumbfounded when a reporter asked him if he thought Vinícius’ “provocative behavior” on the pitch had led to the racist abuse.
Still only 22, Vinícius has quickly developed into one of the world’s most talented players.
Known for his dazzling skill and flair, Vinícius’ dancing goal celebrations have also become famous in Spain and in his native Brazil.
It was after another one of these celebrations that Bravo said Vinícius should “stop playing the monkey.” In response, the Madrid superstar insisted he was “not going to stop” celebrating his goals with dancing.
“Part of the discourse – and I’ve seen that in editorials in Spanish newspapers in the last months – is that people say what’s happening is wrong, but he also has to carry some of the blame,” Powar says.
“That has fed itself and Vinícius is now getting racially abused very explicitly at every match.”
The AFE says racism should be viewed as a societal issue in Spain, rather than one that just concerns football and last month held a meeting with the Movement Against Intolerance to begin forming a plan on how to tackle racist abuse at matches moving forward.
In a mission statement, the two organizations said they will begin working together on campaigns and training to educate and raise awareness about the “scourge” of racism in football.
Additionally, they will also appear jointly in criminal cases against incidents of racist abuse and report incidents that they believe should be investigated to the Hate Crimes Prosecutor.
Given the convoluted nature of the process in Spain and a system “riddled with a sense of issues being kicked into touch,” Powar says, it seems – for now at least – players will be left waiting for some time to receive justice. If it ever arrives.