Vinicius Jr. and the shame of Spanish football

How can you do nothing? How can you say nothing?

In the face of the barrage of racist abuse suffered by Vinicius Jr., for something that in America would be called “dancing while Black,” how can Spanish football do nothing?

In MLS, which is that American football that isn’t handegg but that most Europeans don’t much care about, something extraordinary happened.

A player on the Wayne Rooney-managed DC United stood accused of racially abusing a player on the Phil Neville-coached Inter Miami. Neville was going to pull his team from the pitch, believing — and rightly so — that the three points weren’t worth it. Rooney instead pulled the star player accused of the slur. His team lost.

Imagine that happening in Spanish football. For that matter, imagine anything at all happening in Spanish football. The player would have been told to “Get over it,” or as when Samuel Umtiti was racially abused on the pitch, the accused player would have said, essentially, “What happens on the pitch stays on the pitch.” The occasional supporter is banned, but what really happens? What would force something to happen?

Pulling a player? A manager threatening to take his team off the pitch? That situation might as well be fantasyland for jaded observers of European football, pummeled into submission by yet another racist incident. The latest, and one of the most vile, involved Real Madrid’s star winger Vinicius Jr., who is fond of doing a little dance after he scores.

One person, who later apologized “if anyone was offended,” said that Vinicius Jr. should stop dancing around like a “monkey.” In the days before the first Madrid derby of the season, it was easy to predict what was going to happen, from racist chants outside the stadium, to monkey chants inside the stadium. Announcers during match calls were silent. And in this excellent post-match from Dermot Corrigan, the referee of course had the option to clear the pitch at the presence of racist abuse.

Like Spanish football, he did nothing. Including not noting anything about it in his post-match report, because why would he? Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti said in his pre-match presser, he didn’t see that kind of behavior in Spain. He must have missed that TV show where the agent engaged in precisely that kind of behavior.

Atleti manager Diego Simeone said, simply enough, “this is the society we live in.” And from the club comes the predictable, they don’t represent our fans, we don’t approve of this, etc, etc. They might not represent ALL of your fans, but they assuredly represent enough of them to raise a din significant enough for the footballing world to notice. This wasn’t some jackass tossing a banana onto the pitch. This was more. Lots more.

And if you’re a Black player on the team whose supporters are doing that, what do you think? And how do supporters parse it? “Well, OUR monkeys are fine. They fight for the colors.”

It’s worth wondering what has to happen for Spanish football to take racism seriously, qualities that manifest themselves in all kinds of ways, even ways that make people plausibly deny that any sort of malice is aforethought. “Pace and power,” “lazy,” “stupid,” “low football IQ.” Sunday’s detestable display was just the latest. Does a supporter have to run down from the stands, tackle a Black player and then spit on his prone form? Or does the referee’s note simply say, “A supporter entered the pitch in an unauthorized manner.”

In a fantastic piece by Brendy Boyle on the almost omnipresent, everyday racism in Spain, he digs into the idea of implicit racism, the stuff that is just there. Going out to dinner, shopping, writing about footballers. The constant questioning of your right to exist, to be present in a space is just there, and is accepted. “Oh, that’s just how things are.” If it got terrible enough, Black players would just stop coming to Spanish football, right? See, they’re fine as they count their millions.

And the question remains: What has to happen for football in general and Spanish football in particular, to do something. Anything except t-shirts, arm bands and banners, feel-good effluvia that stack atop the mountain of insufferable bullshit that piles ever higher after each racist incident. Yay, slogans. That fixes it.

Sometimes, the Black player is said to be making it up, like a dive, but one that takes away their humanity. The people saying players make it up are always people who don’t have to worry about someone taking their humanity in that way. They are, as always, fine and in the majority. See nothing, say nothing and it will all sort itself over time. It’s the international break. WHEW.

And there is still that question: What has to happen? The shameful scenes of Sunday weren’t enough. What might there possibly be? And what of players and managers? What of the moment where a manager in Spain says, “Enough,” and mimics what Neville did in taking steps to remove his team from the pitch? Is that ever a possibility? How hard is it to imagine a manager who takes such a step being sacked not long after for sacrificing three points on the altar of one of their players’ humanity?

Managers won’t do that because football doesn’t want them to. It’s the game, the money. It’s entertainment, even if ugliness intrudes on the spectacle. Do something to make the attention go away. Sure, clubs make statements. Both Madrid clubs did. So what? What has the game really done? If football really cared about Black players and racist abuse, Atleti wouldn’t have a home match with fans for at least the next five matches, maybe more. There was a lot made of the ridiculous dive Vinicius Jr. took, the “See? He brings it on himself,” reeking like the stench of the offal of justification.

When Rodrygo scored, he and Vinicius Jr. danced. They danced, faces angry and defiant, dancing as if with every step they could not only stomp their opponent into oblivion but stamp out the ugliness that permeates their lives on and off the pitch. Tchouameni, part of the “African connection” that a Spanish media outlet trumpeted — even though he’s French — laced a pass from the future, a lustrous assist that dripped with skill and beauty. Pace and power? Nowhere in sight. We know it hurts because players talk about it. How can it not hurt, unless you have no template for the loss of humanity that occur when racist incidents happen. Too many of the people who need to do something, who need to take note lack that very template. It doesn’t take much for a power structure to ignore injustice, after all. Just get on with it.

Spanish football has to do something.

Spanish football likely isn’t going to do anything. Why should it? What is the value in it? All doing something does is acknowledge that there is a problem, and as the referee’s report said, or more correctly didn’t say, there isn’t a problem. And as long as there isn’t a problem, there isn’t a problem.