Real Madrid‘s brilliant winger Vinicius Junior is a young, talented, exciting, successful, Black Brazilian player who, inarguably in my view, is being treated atrociously by Spanish football and by some sections of the country. Partly because of the colour of his skin. What’s happening is an outright disgrace, something that fair, decent, honest people should be repulsed by and catalysed into protesting about.
Last season, still aged 21, he was one half of the best, most important and exhilarating partnership in world football. He and Karim Benzema totalled 100 goals and assists between them as Real Madrid became Spanish and European champions concurrently for only the second time in 64 years: part-author of an absolutely stellar achievement.
This season, in a shaky, injury-prone team where he has often had to shoulder Benzema’s responsibilities while the Ballon d’Or holder is out injured, Vinicius has produced 19 goal contributions in 31 matches (13 goals and 6 assists) meaning that, in context, he’s been outstanding again. He’s doing his job, and he’s doing it brilliantly, while Madrid struggle for consistency and for last season’s level of intensity.
At 22, and a winger — not a keeper, an organising midfielder or an experienced central defender; I emphasise these points because it’s vital you understand how remarkable his importance has become — he not only is by far Madrid’s most-used player this season but is miles ahead of everyone else in minutes played. Of Los Blancos‘ 32 matches, he has started 31 and played in all of them.
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The European champions have a guaranteed minimum of 25 matches left this season but could play as many as 32 more. Everything being equal, this young man who’s blessed with what Carlo Ancelotti calls a prodigious, elite athleticism and robustness would be used in every one of the Italian manager’s starting XIs — potentially a 64-match season.
But if those who are bullying, provoking, abusing and attacking him here in Spain have their way, this emerging legend — eighth in last season’s Ballon d’Or voting — will be injured or suspended for most of them. That’s the level of maliciousness being deployed against Vinicius.
In the past few weeks, determinedly performing at a time when almost everyone else in Ancelotti’s squad has struggled for one reason or another, Vinicius has had to: suffer seeing his effigy strung up and hanging from a bridge in Madrid; endure what LaLiga have confirmed was racist abuse from fans at several matches this season; receive an outrageous and unacceptable attempt from Valencia‘s Gabriel Paulista to kick him in midair; suffer more fouls than any other player in any of Europe’s top five leagues; listen to or read incessant nonsense from vacuous people who should know better that he, Vinicius, is actually the problem.
It’s my personal opinion that if all of this were happening to a young, white Spaniard, there would be a torrential eruption of shock and horror, unanimity about who is in the right and who is in wrong. I don’t have proof, but it’s my honest and unshakeable opinion.
Mallorca are far from the only villains in this scenario, but they are a good representation of how Spain and Spanish football are failing Vinicius. At the weekend, the winger was fouled 10 more times, was provoked throughout Madrid’s 1-0 defeat by playing rivals and by the home fans (some of which was within the boundaries of what constitutes a “hostile atmosphere” and some of which categorically wasn’t), and was booked because one of his assailants, Pablo Maffeo, conned the poor old referee.
The referee, Alejandro Hernandez Hernandez, would have needed eyes in the back of his head plus another three or four assistants to keep track of the chicanery that was going on in an attempt to bruise, bully and provoke the young Brazilian star. No Madrid player has been fouled once every nine minutes, as Vinicius was at Son Moix, since Isco in 2013. Ten years without treatment like this.
What’s both pathetic and devious about the majority of the Mallorca players’ attitude is that they started this emerging vendetta, have turned it into strategic bullying and, without question, are proving George Bernard Shaw’s wise advice about wrestling pigs. The brilliant Irish playwright warned: “Don’t ever wrestle with pigs — you’ll both get dirty, but the pigs will love that.”
In other words, there are certain conflicts you shouldn’t enter because, even if you win, you’ll inevitably emerge tarnished. That’s how it has worked between Vinicius and Mallorca’s Maffeo, Martin Valjent and Antonio Raillo.
The bitterness of this feud took light last March when Madrid won 3-0 on the island. Maffeo’s straight-legged, studs-showing lunge at Vinicius caught both the winger’s legs, right shin and left knee, and referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez ignored it. When Vinicius refused Maffeo’s offer to pick him up off the turf, things sparked. Valjent and Raillo took it in turns to go nose to nose with the Brazilian player, poking at his chest, telling him to shut his mouth. Maffeo hauled at Vinicius’ shirt and remonstrated with him for having the audacity to not shake hands and for complaining to the ref. Vinicius was booked for protesting, meaning that the perpetrator of a vicious, deliberate flying tackle that should have been given as a straight red and punished with a long ban got off scot-free.
From that day to this, those players — and others — have started a campaign to suggest that Vinicius is the problem.
The Brazilian player has begun to react to the provocation they, and other thugs, impose on him. He trash-talks them, beseeches referees to protect him, gesticulates to the heavens in frustration and anger. In the case of Paulista last week, Vinicius bounced up off the turf where he had landed and sprinted to confront his fellow Brazilian, only just restraining himself from landing a punch.
Vinicius, by now, is categorically not without blame. He’s been pulled into the mire.
As G.B. Shaw warned, those who want to paint the Brazilian as the “bad guy” or “the problem” can now, thanks to their malfeasance and the unbelievably short attention span of some media and fans, use his aggressive response to being attacked as false fuel to claim he’s at fault. It is insidious and intolerable gaslighting. Pure and simple.
Maffeo said the other day: “When I was at school, the teachers said I was badly behaved. My mother told me that it couldn’t be that all the teachers were out to get me — ‘You must be doing things wrong.’ I reckon it’s the same with Vinicius. It’s not that we’re all out to get him, it’s that there must be something there.”
In the days building up to this match, Raillo said: “If one day I’ve got to show my kid a couple of exemplary Madrid players, it’ll be [Luka] Modric or [Toni] Kroos but never Vinicius.”
After Madrid came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Villarreal in the Copa del Rey last month, with Vinicius scoring the first goal, a myopic journalist asked Ancelotti in the postmatch news conference: “… but with Vinicius there’s always some kind of problem …” The Italian answered: “… What I’ve seen is that the rivals kicked him a lot of times today … as always.”
On Sunday afternoon, Ancelotti said: “Today the referee ignored the repeated fouls. It’s supposed to mean a booking if fouls are over and over and over again. Everything that’s going on is not Vinicius’ fault. He only wants to play football, but there’s a provocative atmosphere caused by opponents who get stuck into him and foul him. The external focus, in this case, has to switch. It’s time to study what happened to Vinicius today.”
When Paulista appeared to try to separate Vinicius’ leg from his torso the other night, there was a hugely significant reaction from the winger’s Madrid teammates. Previously they’ve often left him to fight his own corner, left him to torment his tormentors with the ball as soon as play restarts.
Not this time. They, too, know that things are in the process of getting completely out of hand.
Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni, Dani Ceballos and then even injured Eder Militao went looking for the Valencia defender. It was a clear and menacing “All for one and one for all” moment that was intended to drum out the warning to all their future rivals: If you come for him, we’ll come for you.
A more moderate message, in line with Ancelotti’s, came from Nacho after the defeat in Mallorca. He said: “I think that people are creating an atmosphere around Vinicius that does absolutely nobody any favours, least of all him. We all enjoy football; it’s time to put all this stupidity to one side.”
A wise theme: balanced and optimistic.
What’s troubling is that mean-spirited rivals will have noticed that, because he’s being dragged into this well-constructed and malicious “hunt Vinicius, then gaslight him” campaign, the Brazilian player often starts each match ready for four battles: against his marker, against the other team, against the ref and against the away fans. Sooner or later, he’ll be distracted from his primary objective: winning games. Sooner or later, he’ll let frustration and anger get the better of him and he’ll be sent off. Sooner or later, the circus will get bigger.
Can’t Maffeo, Valjent, Raillo, Paulista and their likes see that it’s their behaviour that helps racists — like those who were calling Vinicius racial slurs on Sunday and those who hung that effigy from a bridge before the Madrid derbi last month — justify their actions?
Spanish football has a big, ugly and growing problem with how Vinicius is being treated. It’s time for every single person who sees things as they really are to speak out, repeatedly, until this scintillating talent can go about his work without being persecuted for who he is or the colour of his skin.