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Vinicius Jr: The most important player in football.

Vinicius Jr: The most important player in football.
In May 2023, Gareth Southgate was asked for his reaction to the racial abuse Vinicius Jr had been subjected to during Real Madrid’s Liga clash with Valencia at Mestalla. “If anyone suggests to me we don’t have a problem in society with racism, well, there is another example of what we are dealing with,” the England manager told reporters. “And more examples of people burying their heads in the sand, quite frankly.

“It is a disgusting situation. But I think it is so bad that it is going to force change. I am hoping there will be something positive to come out of it.”

The positive is Vinicius, a 23-year-old of extraordinary talent but even more remarkable resilience, who arrives at Wembley for Saturday’s international friendly against Southgate’s England as the face of football’s fight against racism.

Put quite simply: there is no more important player in the game today.

The happiness of a black Brazilian

One of the most offensive aspects of the discourse surrounding racial abuse is the idea that the victims can be culpable. They sometimes bring it on themselves by having the audacity to enjoy themselves – or simply exist.

The horribly misguided message is that there are nasty people out there and they might say nasty things if they’re upset. Racial abuse is, the ignorant argue, an inevitable response to perceived provocation.

As Pedro Bravo, the president of Spanish football agents, infamously told El Chiringuito in September 2022, “You have to respect your opponents. When you score a goal, if you want to dance Samba, you should go to sambodromo in Brazil. You have to respect your opponents and stop playing the monkey.”

But it’s never been about the dancing. Vinicius has always known exactly what upsets so many people in Spain. It’s “the happiness of a black Brazilian” – and for a long time there were few more ebullient black Brazilians plying their trade in La Liga than Vinicius, the personification of jogo bonito.

Incessant racist abuse

He enjoyed himself each and every time he set foot on the field – and rival fans hated him for it. Just like Bravo, they tried to make out their animosity towards Vinicius was due to his alleged disrespect and diving, but the root cause was quite clearly the colour of his skin.

Shortly after the El Chiringuito broadcast, Atletico Madrid fans were heard chanting “You’re a monkey, Vinicius, you’re a monkey” outside of the Metropolitanto before a Liga clash with Real. Before another Madrid derby in January of last year, Atletico supporters chillingly hung a black effigy clad in a Vinicius Junior shirt off a bridge in the Spanish capital.

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When Barcelona won La Liga on May 15, their title celebrations were marred by chants of “Die, Vinicius!” Six days later, the match referee, Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea, temporarily suspended play during Madrid’s meeting with Valencia at Mestalla after Vinicius drew his attention to the racial abuse being aimed at him by a significant number of home fans. Among the insults flagged in the referee’s official report were, “F*cking black, you’re an idiot’, “F*cking black son of a b*tch” and “Monkey, you’re a f*cking monkey”.

It wasn’t one person shouting…

Vinicius was so understandably enraged that Carlo Ancelotti even considered taking him off. “It wasn’t one person shouting,” the Italian coach pointed out. “It was the crowd.

“You have to stop the game. You can’t continue, it’s impossible. I told the referee that I was going to substitute him. I had never thought of removing a player before because fans were insulting him. I’m very upset. The only thing he wants is to play football. He is not angry, but sad.”

Vinicius was angry, though, and when the game resumed after a 10-minute delay, his unsurprising sense of indignation eventually got the better of him. During a melee in injury-time, he was dismissed for lashing out at Valencia striker Hugo Duro, who escaped punishment despite having held Vinicius in a headlock beforehand.

“The prize that the racists won was my sending-off!” the Brazil international wrote on Instagram afterwards, before adding, “It’s not football. It’s La Liga.”

He then went further by claiming that “the championship that once belonged to Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Cristiano and Messi today belongs to the racists. A beautiful nation, which welcomed me and which I love, but which agreed to export the image of a racist country to the world.

“I’m sorry for the Spaniards who don’t agree, but today, in Brazil, Spain is known as a country of racists. And, unfortunately, for everything that happens each week, I have no defence. I agree. But I am strong and I will go to the end against racists. Even if it’s far from here.”

That last line was the subject of intense scrutiny, as it insinuated that Vinicius might even quit Spain in order to escape the incessant racial abuse.

Little bit alone

However, it was interpreted more as a warning by those close to the club, a sign of his dissatisfaction with his employers, whom he reportedly believed hadn’t always been quick enough to throw their support behind him. The whole situation evoked memories of Mario Balotelli’s attempts to deal with racism in Italy. The forward had once been asked how the incessant abuse made him feel and he replied, “A little bit alone.”

Plenty of Vinicius’ team-mates have rallied around him over the past couple of years – Thibaut Courtois said they were willing to walk off the field at Mestalla last year – while Ancelotti has repeatedly slated the authorities for not doing enough to protect his player or push those abusing him. It was certainly telling that Javier Tebas got more riled up by Vinicius’ wholly justified criticism of La Liga, and the Spanish authorities in general, than the shocking scenes at Mestalla.

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The Liga chief effectively blamed Vinicius for not playing his part in the fight against racism when, in reality, it feels as if this whole struggle has become his burden to bear.

Sad reality

He’s certainly become something akin to a lightning rod for racial abuse. The forward has been targeted by supporters all across Spain – and sometimes at venues where he’s not even playing. Both Barca and Atletico supporters partook in racist, anti-Vinicius chants before their respective Champions League games against Napoli and Inter last week.

“I hope you have already thought about their punishment,” the winger said in a bitterly sarcastic social media post. “It’s a sad reality that even happens in games in which I’m not present!”

There is no greater illustration of the depth of the hatred he’s dealing with. And yet, somehow, he’s not only coping, he’s excelling. Despite being subjected to the kind of vile abuse that would break most people, Vinicius is still delivering on an almost weekly basis for Madrid.

The quality of his performances would be praiseworthy in normal circumstances, but they cannot be considered as anything but extraordinary in the climate of toxicity in which he is forced to operate. Vincius’ return to Mestalla earlier this month is the perfect case in point.

Picture of defiance

Spain’s Standing Committee of the State Commission against Violence, Racism, Xenophobia and Intolerance in Sport declared it a “high-risk match”. Valencia even refused requests from Netflix, who are making a documentary about Vinicius’ life, to enter the ground or interview any of their players.

However, Duro told Spanish Gol TV on the Wednesday before that he was “looking forward” to the game “so that Vini can see that those idiots (who racially abused the Brazilian in March 2023) do not represent our fans. It’s going to be a hostile environment for him but on a football level, with all the respect in the world. He will feel the pressure of our fans, but with respect.”

With depressing inevitability, though, Vinicius was racially abused again. On this occasion, though, there was no “prize” for “the racists” – only a powerful show of defiance.

After scoring Madrid’s first goal, he responded by raising his right arm into the arm and clenching his fist – a powerful and poignant reference to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

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We still have a long journey ahead

Vinicius obviously didn’t ask for this level of responsibility. Truth be told, it feels unfair that he is forced to take it on. He should only be concerned with having fun playing football, instead of waging what sometimes looks like a one-man war on one of the scourges of modern society – and yet he feels an obligation to do so.

“I know that I, personally, am not going to change history, that I am not going to make Spain a country without racists, nor the whole world,” he told L’Equipe. “But I know that I can change some things. So that those who come in the next few years do not go through this, so that children can have peace of mind in the future. For them, I will do everything I can.”

Consequently, he accepted an invite from FIFA to lead an anti-racism committee composed of players. He approved a new anti-racism law named after him in his native Brazil that means sporting events will be suspended or stopped completely in the event of racial abuse. And, in December of last year, he took up a new role as a United Nations Human Rights champion.

“For me, this specific year has been a stark reminder that we still have a long journey ahead to eliminate bigotry from sports and society,” he admitted. “I believe that anti-racism education must be at the heart of our efforts to advance equality and human rights everywhere.”

I have a purpose in life

In football, there is an awful lot of talk about players serving as role models. In truth, though, there are very few worthy of the responsibility. Vinicious Jr is one of the exceptions to the rule. Indeed, there is no finer example in the game today of how to not only deal with racism, but how to tackle it.

He knows it’s not going away any time soon. “The struggle continues,” he wrote after his most recent trip to Mestalla. But he remains undaunted. He is still dancing and still fighting because he now feels as if he has a new “purpose in life”.

“If I have to keep suffering so that future generations won’t have to go through these types of situations,” he said, “I’m ready and I’m prepared.”

There really is no more important figure in football right now than UNESCO’s new Goodwill Ambassador. Vinicius is the positive Southgate was hoping would emerge from the most depressingly negative of situations, a potential game-changer in every possible way.

 

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