Vinicius Junior and racism in Spanish football: Why is it so bad? Is there hope for change?

We are now five days on from the shocking events of Sunday, when Vinicius Junior was racially abused by Valencia fans.

It was far from the first time Real Madrid’s star winger has been targeted at a Spanish football ground. La Liga has filed nine legal complaints relating to such abuse since October 2021. In January, an effigy of the Brazil international was hung from a motorway bridge near Real’s training ground.

After the match on Sunday — during which he confronted Valencia fans — Vinicius Jr posted on social media: “The championship that once belonged to Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, today belongs to racists.”

Since then, there has been a huge global reaction and the problem of racism within Spanish football has come under the spotlight like never before.

Here, The Athletic speaks to four expert observers who share their reactions to what happened and asks for their thoughts on why Spain was described by Vinicius Jr as “a racist country”.

They are:

  • Moha Gerehou, a Spanish writer and Valencia supporter, who says: “Valencia’s fans aren’t more or less racist than others, they are just as racist as Spanish society in general.”
  • Marcos Senna, a former Spain international, who says: “People here say Vinicius Jr is provoking it. To provoke is one thing. Racist insults are crimes.”
  • Alberto Edjogo-Owono, a Spanish TV pundit and commentator, who says: “I am fed up of hearing and watching white people talking about black issues on TV.”
  • Piara Powar, executive director of FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) network, who says: “The sanction on Valencia is what we think authorities should have been doing before.”

‘When you denounce racism, they blame the victim — as we are seeing’

Spanish writer and Valencia fan Moha Gerehou was not watching the game on Sunday, but became aware of what happened when Vinicius Jr posted on social media afterwards.

I thought: “Oh no, it’s happened again.” It’s not the first time, nor the second, nor the third, that Vinicius Jr is the victim of a racist situation. I heard they’d shouted ‘monkey’ at him, then I saw the images.

This time was different, for his reaction. And for speaking so clearly, with such a strong message, saying that Spain was a racist country. That was when the Spanish people felt offended. That is what started all this debate.

It is important to understand the Spanish context. There is no recognition of racism in this country. The Spanish understanding of racism is marked by three ideas — slavery in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, and Adolf Hitler. When you denounce a situation of racism, but it does not reach those levels, automatically it is minimised. They say it is an isolated case or the exception.

The truth is racism in Spain is not so rare or isolated, it is something that happens to us every day, something structural that affects everything — migration policy, housing policy, education. Everything Vinicius Jr is experiencing, all black people who have tried to raise their voices have experienced the same.

We have all passed through moments in our life, situations where you denounce an episode of racism and instead of understanding and accompanying you, the reaction is to question your experience. Or they blame the victim, as we are seeing.



The night Vinicius Jr decided enough is enough – he now doubts his Real Madrid future

People say Vinicius Jr is a provocateur. It is more about who is the ‘good’ black person and the ‘bad’ black person. In Spain, when you see a black person who behaves according to the standards considered acceptable by white society, that is OK. But in the moment, you don’t stick to those standards — for example, when you raise your voice and say there is racism and injustice, or you appear in a place they do not expect to see you — then the problems start.

Spanish football has players from all countries and all colours, many black players — the La Liga president has said there are more than 200. But that is the only representation. It mirrors what happens in society at large; there are some places where black people are expected to be seen, like a football pitch as a player. But we are not expected to take up roles like coaches or directors, making decisions. It is more likely that we are working as cleaners after games, as my father did in a football stadium for many years. That mentality and representation have to change.

Vinicius Junior confronted abusive Valencia fans (Photo: Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

‘Before this, there was not the same reaction. I hope he decides to stay’

In the Spanish media, Vinicius Junior is often portrayed in a negative light, as tempestuous, unruly or disrespectful. Often, more airtime is given to this than the racist abuse he receives. This was a feature of some of Sunday’s post-match reaction, too. Many commentators and major media outlets qualified their condemnation of racist abuse with references to gestures Vinicius Jr made towards the crowd. At several points he held up two fingers, symbolising Spain’s second division — Valencia are still in danger of relegation despite Sunday’s 1-0 win.

Brazil-born Marcos Senna won the 2008 European Championship as a Spain player. He played 28 times for Spain during an 18-year career that came to an end at New York Cosmos. He is now the director of institutional relations at La Liga side Villarreal.

The people here in Spain always say Vinicius Jr is provoking it. To provoke is one thing, to insult is another. Racist insults are crimes. Everything that happened was lamentable. That should never happen in a football stadium, outside, anywhere, ever. Of course, I identified with Vinicius Jr. I am black. If they insult him, it is like insulting me, too.



The shocking abuse Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr faced at Valencia revealed in new report

Spain is not a racist country, in my experience. I represent the image of a very important club like Villarreal and I am black. I played with Spain at a World Cup and Euros. My friends here that are Spanish are fantastic people. But there are racists, just as there are in Brazil, in Germany, in the United Kingdom.

The authorities needed to be much stronger. It is very good now that people support anti-racist messages and all that, but if they do not take real action, the same thing keeps happening. If the authorities do nothing, the racists feel comfortable.

It does seem that, finally, things are moving forward. The authorities have decided to move. There is a lot of noise around the issue. They have made the first step, which was punishing the club, so that at least gives the feeling that they are taking it more seriously.

Marcos Senna (Photo: Oscar J. Barroso/AFP7/Europa Press Sports via Getty Images)

In the end, he (Vinicius Jr) is a kid of 22 years old. I have empathy for him. I put myself in his shoes and know it is difficult. I am very much in solidarity with him.

In my personal opinion, he will not leave Real Madrid. He has realised that this was the final straw, he has had mass support from Brazil and also here in Spain. Before this happened, there was not the same reaction as now. I hope he decides to stay and continue his life here.

Vinicius Jr is far from the only player to have been targeted by racist abuse in a Spanish football stadium. In 2020, Brazil-born midfielder Donato and former Levante midfielder Pape Diop were among those to share their experiences with The Athletic, while over the past two decades, there have also been very high-profile incidents in which players including Roberto Carlos, Samuel Eto’o and Marcelo have been targeted.

In April 2014, Barcelona right-back Dani Alves had a banana thrown at him by a Villarreal fan, who was identified and banned for life from their stadium.

Senna: Villarreal is an exemplary club. When it (the Alves incident) happened, it was a kid. He was taken out of the stadium and never been allowed back in. We are completely against that type of attitude, and work so that people have the education that they need to have.

(Photo: Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

‘Maybe this will become the breakthrough event’

Alberto Edjogo-Owono is a Spanish TV pundit and commentator who played for Espanyol’s youth teams before joining Sabadell in Spain’s third tier in the 2000s.

I am from a football family. My father is a very passionate Atletico Madrid fan. When he arrived in Spain in the early 1970s, he got a season ticket to watch Luis Aragones. I have two older brothers that play football and my father always told us: “If you want to play, you have to assume that this (racism) can happen.”

In Spain, we don’t have the mix of cultures and ethnicities of the UK, France or Belgium. We didn’t have these colonies. We have Equatorial Guinea (in west Africa), where I come from, where my father was born — I was the only black guy in my school.

This week for me has been very difficult because I have to, in two minutes on a TV programme that maybe lasts two hours, try to make a very deep speech, so they can say, “We have black people talking about it”. Two minutes then, “Goodbye, and go away and let us talk about it.”

In 2006, Samuel Eto’o was racially abused at Real Zaragoza (Photo: Cesar Rangel/AFP via Getty Images)

So, for me, it’s a difficult week but it’s my responsibility: the son of an African, a commentator in Spain. If I don’t do that, who will? And I am fed up, hearing and watching white people talking about black issues on TV.



The night Real Madrid showed its love for Vinicius Junior and stood in solidarity with him

I was watching breakfast TV and a lot of white men between 35 and 50 years old, with a tie and jacket, were talking about the situation. You will not see a black journalist, an Asian journalist, a Latin American journalist, in Spain. On the street I see these people, but not on TV.

I have developed the ability to be very clear on the issue of racism but as well to be very soft in the way I say things. Because in Spain, if you talk very tough, you will get a defensive reaction: “No, I am not a racist, because I have a friend, a black friend”, “I’m not a racist, because I go to the supermarket of a very kind Indian guy”. This is the reaction. So I have developed the ability to be softer and try to say things in a short time. Clear and soft.

In Spain, football is the place where you can do whatever. It’s like the gladiators in Rome. You go there, you can insult, you can say whatever you like, you can do things that you wouldn’t do in your day to day. Why do you do that?

With Vinicius Jr, for me, it’s the perfect storm that will maybe make this a breakthrough event. Hopefully. I would like that, because I’m really a bit tired of having to talk about this all the time. But I will do it. I know it, I don’t mind doing it, but it’s a bit sad. 

‘You get insulted by the parents of the kids you are playing against. That happens’

La Liga president Javier Tebas replied to Vinicius Jr’s tweets by claiming that racism in Spanish football was contained to “isolated incidents” and said that the Real Madrid winger had not understood what La Liga is doing to fight against racism. Tebas later told ESPN Brasil: “I didn’t mean to attack Vinicius Jr, but if people understood it that way, I have to apologise.”

On Tuesday, La Liga said it would call for a change in Spanish law to give it “more sanctioning powers”.

Moha Gerehou: It makes me laugh when Tebas starts to talk about all the measures they have taken against racism. What happened on Sunday shows these measures have not been effective — it has happened again.

But I am hopeful that, even if it is due to the international shame that has followed, Spain will act and act much further than just inside stadiums. The response should serve for a new law against racism and other measures that can protect our lives, not just in football. Hopefully, this international pressure can lead to that and the Spanish government, institutions, and organisations all start to move.

Vinicius Jr, pictured at Real Madrid’s home match on Wednesday (Photo: Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Within football stadiums, the first thing to do is end the impunity, and I’m not just speaking about the ultras or those Valencia fans who insulted Vinicius Jr. I am speaking about the youth teams in their neighbourhoods. We have suffered, and are suffering racism, playing football at 12, 13, 14 years of age. You get insulted by the parents of the kids you are playing against. That happens. And often there is no action taken, the other parents don’t say anything and nobody gets involved.

I have always supported Valencia, although I’ve not said it very often this week. I do not consider that Valencia’s fans are more or less racist than others, they are just as racist as Spanish society in general. I would like to go back to the Mestalla. In the end, it is my team. I am disappointed very much by what happened, but I am also not surprised.

‘These crises will keep occurring until there’s sustained action’

In the past few days, Spain’s equality minister, Irene Montero, has called for the national government to introduce a new racism law, and both La Liga and the Spanish football federation have said they will take a stronger stance on the issue. The most decisive action was to partially close a section of Valencia’s Mestalla stadium for the next five games. Valencia immediately announced they would appeal the decision.

Piara Powar is the executive director of FARE network, an anti-discrimination body that works throughout European football. Powar was in Madrid this week, meeting with the Spanish FA and Atletico Madrid to discuss issues of racism in football.

That sanction is what we think they should have been doing before. We’ve monitored 11 incidents this season against Vinicius Jr alone. We hope this will be the start of a new sort of approach to regulation in Spain. But it is very late.

In 2004, Samuel Eto’o was raising concerns, and other people since have done the same. There has been a vacuum of action, with territorial warfare between La Liga and the Spanish Football Association. People make statements, but there’s no comeback, apart from a handful of fans that get arrested occasionally. Then, cyclically, it erupts into a crisis and these crises will keep occurring until there’s some sustained action.

You have to have a dialogue with some of the more positive, progressive fan groups. You need to then reinforce your sanctions regime, so the clubs themselves take on responsibility for working with those fans that they identify as problematic. You work with the law-enforcement agencies, you work with the players to empower them, you work with the media and educate the public discourse.

All of these different issues have been done in many countries; Germany, Eastern Europe, the UK. The European system, the international system, is to impose sanctions on the clubs. That starts a debate, an internal dynamic, which encourages a change in behaviour eventually.

The different actors will have to prove their intent and give some substance to their words.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)


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