It was just before kick-off in Real Madrid’s match against Rayo Vallecano when the Bernabeu got its first glimpse of Vinicius Junior since the most tumultuous few days of his career.
With the 22-year-old’s team-mates wearing ‘Vini Jr 20’ shirts in support of the winger, he walked onto the pitch last night wearing a black jacket and trousers. He turned awkwardly to the crowd and acknowledged their widespread applause with half a smile across his face.
It was the kind of reception usually reserved for one of the club’s many Ballon d’Or winners, but the circumstances could not have been more different.
🤍 @vinijr 💜 pic.twitter.com/znoPaHVv5I
— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadrid) May 24, 2023
On Sunday, Vinicius Jr suffered yet another incident of racist abuse during a 1-0 loss away to Valencia. The Brazil international pointed out the perpetrators and appeared to be ready to walk off the pitch in disgust before Real’s head coach Carlo Ancelotti spoke to him.
He was shown a red card later in that game for his part in an on-pitch brawl, and posted a statement afterwards in which he said “racism is normal in La Liga“.
For the first time since joining the club in 2018, Vinicius Jr was left with doubts over his Real future, as he did not feel supported in the fight against racism. He has been subjected to racist insults at multiple grounds throughout Spain in recent years, with La Liga having filed nine such complaints on his behalf since October 2021 even before the weekend’s incidents at the Mestalla Stadium.
“I’m strong and will go to the end against the racists,” he said in his statement on Sunday, “even if it’s far from here.”
The night Vinicius Jr decided enough is enough – he now doubts his Real Madrid future
The situation has changed after three days in which he has received support from fellow players, politicians, and even the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights. Arrests have been made over Sunday’s events, as well as the incident in which a mannequin was hung in his likeness before a Copa del Rey quarter-final against city neighbours Atletico in January. On Tuesday night, Spain’s competition committee punished Valencia for their fans’ behaviour with a partial stadium closure for five matches and a €45,000 (£39,000/$48,000) fine, which the club say they will appeal against.
Sources close to Vinicius Jr, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their positions, said events at Valencia had prompted the kind of reactions from key organisations that the forward had been waiting to see for months. They added that Vinicius Jr “wants to stay and change things” after those apparent doubts over where his future lies at the beginning of the week.
The competition committee’s decision to rescind his red card, judging that referee Ricardo De Burgos Bengoetxea had not been shown the full replays of the melee, was more controversial. That cleared Vinicius Jr to play against Rayo yesterday, although a slight knee injury meant he did not make the squad, even after a late test on matchday morning.
That did not stop Madrid’s supporters from paying respect to their star winger — even if this was a dead rubber of a league game played in front of just 45,811 in a ground that holds over 80,000 when full.
A banner unfurled before the match read “We’re all Vinicius, enough already”, and both sets of players held up one with “Racists, out of football” on it — the slogan for a new initiative launched by the Spanish Sports Council, the country’s football federation and La Liga this week.
Madrid’s women’s team and basketball side also wore Vinicius Jr’s shirt as they prepared for their games on Wednesday night — something the Brazilian was not aware of beforehand but which he greatly appreciated.
Vinicius Jr watched the game sitting next to club president Florentino Perez, which felt particularly significant.
In the 20th minute — corresponding with his shirt number — the main supporters’ group located in the south stand started a chant of “Vini, Vini”, and he responded by standing up and acknowledging the fans. Another initiative in the 65th minute fell slightly flat, however, with the noisy travelling Rayo fans up in the gods making themselves heard as they urged their team on to an equaliser.
His team-mates could have done with his energy in attack for much of a lacklustre 2-1 victory, although Rodrygo dedicated his 89th-minute winner to his countryman, and gave a raised fist.
“It was for my brother, we’re always together and we’ve lived a lot of things together because we left Brazil when we were young,” Rodrygo told Real Madrid TV. “We’ve already won everything with this club and going through this situation is sad. I include myself in that situation because I’m black (too). We’re going to keep fighting against racism.”
Ancelotti, meanwhile, seemed to try to close the page on the discussion in his post-match press conference. “Everyone is realising what has happened,” he said. “Our society is full of very intelligent people, especially in Spain, and I think that when there are intelligent people who make decisions, the problem is over.”
Vinicius Jr knows better than most that it is too early to say stuff like that, as do the people who surround him. “These have been hard days,” one of them told The Athletic, “and there are more to come, because the fight goes on.”
Gestures such as the ones made by Madrid on Wednesday are not enough by themselves. But, for Vinicius Jr, it is a good place to start.
Additional reporting: Mario Cortegana
(Top photo: Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty Images)
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