On Thursday morning Spain’s capital was the scene for what is sadly just the latest example of shocking abuse directed at Real Madrid’s star forward Vinicius Junior.
Hanging off a bridge by its neck was a mannequin dressed to resemble the Brazilian, with his number 20 shirt. A banner in the red and white colours of Atletico Madrid provided the accompanying message: ‘Madrid hates Real.’
This won’t be all we write about the racist abuse Vinicius Jr has been facing and this latest horrible episode. Far from it.
But as the two teams prepare to meet at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu tonight in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals, here The Athletic explains some of the context and evolving animosity behind the Madrid derby.
Vinicius Junior, victim of racist abuse
Before Atletico and Real met for the first time this season, at the Metropolitano on September 18, Spanish TV’s football talk show El Chiringuito de Jugones held a discussion on players’ celebrations.
Referring to Real’s Brazilian forward Vinicius Junior, Pedro Bravo, president of the Spanish Association of Footballers’ Agents, said: “If you want to dance samba, you go to the sambadrome in Brazil. Here, you have to respect your colleagues and stop monkeying around.”
Vinicius Jr responded to the racism in those words, and other racist abuse he had faced, with a powerful video message on his social media channels. Meanwhile, Atletico midfielder Koke seemed to only add fuel to the fire. When asked what would happen if Vinicius Jr were to perform his dancing celebration in front of Atletico’s fans, he said: “Well, there would be a mess, for sure — the most normal thing.”
— Vini Jr. (@vinijr) September 16, 2022
Before, during and after the game, racist chants were directed towards Vinicius Jr. The Brazil international did not score but he did dance in celebration of Real’s first goal (by countryman Rodrygo) in a 2-1 victory.
Two days later, Atletico published a statement saying they “strongly condemn the inadmissible chants that a minority of fans sang outside the stadium”.
The club also said they would collaborate with the authorities to find those responsible for this behaviour.
When three individuals were finally identified, they were banned pending further investigation. La Liga highlighted and denounced 24 racist offences relating to the match. But the Madrid Public Prosecutor’s Office decided not to take any action. Among their justification for such a decision was the observation that the racist chants directed at Vinicius Jr only “lasted a few seconds”.
Real still feel angered about the treatment of Vinicius Jr at Atletico’s ground — and the way their Ukrainian reserve goalkeeper Andriy Lunin was subjected to disrespectful chants about his country’s ongoing war against invading Russian forces when the teams played in May.
On Thursday, Atletico released a statement in which the club condemned what was discovered on Thursday morning, adding: “We do not know the perpetrator or perpetrators of this despicable act, but their anonymity does not avoid their responsibility. We hope that the authorities succeed in clarifying what happened and that justice helps to banish this type of behaviour.”
Real Madrid condemned the “disgusting act of racism, xenophobia and hatred” and expressed thanks for “the messages of support and affection” sent to Vinicius Jr.
Courtois, from idol to enemy
Thibaut Courtois paradoxically made his name in the elite with Atletico, winning four trophies and twice being named La Liga’s best goalkeeper when on loan from Chelsea from 2011-14.
In 2018, he left Chelsea to return to Madrid with Real.
His first match away to Atletico as a Real player came in February 2019. Outside the stadium, a plaque that had been laid down in his honour was marked with a red cross, urinated on, spat on and littered with stuffed-toy rats. Inside the ground, fans also threw toy rats, in great numbers, around his goal.
“Whether they spit on or smear my plaque, I don’t care,” Courtois had said before the match. “If that makes them happy, good for them. If they want to throw things at my head next week, well… it’s more motivation.”
Things flared up again last May over words Courtois insists were taken out of context.
In the run-up to Real’s Champions League final against Liverpool, Courtois said he was now “on the right side of history”.
Atletico saw it as disrespectful — they thought he was referring to the 2014 final they lost to Real, in which he played.
The goalkeeper, however, claims his words were misinterpreted, which makes sense when you see exactly what he said.
He said: “They (Liverpool) already played a final against Real Madrid in 2018. You know when you play a final against Madrid they win. I’m on the right side of history now.”
After the match — which Madrid won 1-0 — a reception was held for Carlo Ancelotti’s side at Madrid’s City Hall. Mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida, an Atletico fan, said: “Courtois, and let me say this to you with affection: those of us who cried with you in Lisbon (where Atletico lost that 2014 Champions League final to Real) are also on the right side (of history).”
The mayor’s words did not sit well with Real, or the player’s entourage. Neither, days later, did the words of Enrique Cerezo, Atletico’s president, who commented: “What Almeida said, he answered very well. The fans who want us to remove the plaque? Well, take a pick and shovel and go remove it.”
That’s exactly what happened next. The plaque celebrating Courtois’ contributions as an Atletico player was removed, without the culprit being identified. The club reacted quickly, however, and put it back.
For now, Courtois’ plaque still remains in place. But earlier in January, Atletico outlined plans to change the criteria by which former players are honoured in such a way. The club also said a letter was sent to Courtois, giving him the chance to apologise.
The Belgium international responded with another letter in which, in a polite tone, he explained he was proud of his time at Atletico but he ruled out an apology because, according to sources close to the player who wished not to be named when relaying private conversations, it would not be appropriate after the criticism he has faced and how his words have been misinterpreted.
How Real-Atletico turned sour
2013: Atletico Madrid win the Copa del Rey at the Bernabeu, beating Real Madrid 2-1 in a final in which Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo are sent off. It is Atletico’s first win over their city rivals since 1999.
2014: Atletico win their first La Liga title under Diego Simeone but suffer Champions League final heartbreak, against neighbours Real. Diego Godin puts them ahead in Lisbon but they are pegged back by Sergio Ramos’ 93rd-minute equaliser. Real then run away with it in extra time, winning 4-1.
2016: A familiar feeling for Atletico as they are again beaten by Real in a Champions League final, this time on penalties at San Siro in Milan after a 1-1 draw.
2018: Atletico hero Thibaut Courtois signs for Real and kisses the badge during his presentation. Stuffed-toy rats are thrown at him when he returns to Atletico for the first time with his new side.
2022: Courtois causes outrage among Atletico fans by saying that he is on the “right side of history” before winning the Champions League final with Real against Liverpool. Atletico say they have sent him a letter asking him to apologise for his comments. He refuses, saying his words were taken out of context.
2022: Some Atletico fans aim racist abuse at Real’s star forward Vinicius Junior before and during a derby at the Metropolitano. Prosecutors do not press charges after determining the chants before the game lasted only “a few seconds”. Atletico issue a statement saying they “roundly condemn” their fans’ behaviour.
Crossing the divide
“If I put myself in the skin of some fans, I understand certain comments,” Sergio Reguilon said as he joined Atletico Madrid on loan from Tottenham Hotspur in August. “I understand that, for my past, they do not love me. But when I give everything for the team, the opinion will change.”
Reguilon did not have to explain what he was talking about.
Everyone knew he was a boyhood Real Madrid fan, had spent 13 years at the Bernabeu club, had celebrated their 2014 Champions League final win over Atletico on social media, and had played for Real in a 3-1 La Liga win away to Atletico in 2019.
Un sentimiento, no trates de entenderlo. pic.twitter.com/y4B5zEob2a
— Sergio Reguilón (@sergio_regui) May 24, 2014
Asked if he would celebrate if he scored against Real in an Atletico jersey, Reguilon dodged the question by saying it was unlikely as he doesn’t score very often. Which did not help win over those Atletico fans who had protested his signing online.
Such anger was perhaps surprising. The 2013-14 La Liga-winning full-backs Juanfran and Felipe Luis are Atletico heroes despite having both been youth teamers at Real. Atletico legends Jose Luis Caminero and Luis Aragones spent time at Real as kids.
Reguilon was joining a squad including four players who followed a similar path — he played with Marcos Llorente for Real’s first team, and Alvaro Morata, Mario Hermoso and Saul Niguez are also, to different extents, products of their La Fabrica academy system.
The timing was important, however.
Reguilon joined Atletico a few weeks after many supporters suspected the club hierarchy had explored signing Real icon Ronaldo as he forced his way out of Manchester United after they failed to qualify for this season’s Champions League. Whether that was ever likely or not, their Frente Atletico ultras felt the risk enough to show a ‘CR7 Not Welcome’ banner during a pre-season friendly in July.
Then, after Atletico lost their opening home La Liga game to Villarreal, Hermoso got involved in an altercation with some of those ultras. The defender was angered by chants against some of his team-mates but his own past as a Real youth teamer added extra spice to the situation.
Of Atletico’s five former Real players, only two are likely to start the Copa del Rey quarter-final at the Bernabeu tonight — Morata and Hermoso. Reguilon has barely played due to injury since his arrival and Saul is out of favour. Llorente suffered a groin injury during Saturday’s 3-0 home win over Real Valladolid.
A ceasefire broken, a row over tickets
There had been months of suspicion, but finally, in the summer, it all came out.
On July 7, it was confirmed that a ‘non-aggression’ pact verbally agreed between Atletico and Real had been broken. The informal agreement was supposed to outline how neither team would attempt to sign the other’s promising youth talents. It had been in place for more than 15 years.
But some disappointing results led to leadership on the Real side signing Jesus Fortea. Born in 2007, Fortea is a very promising under-16s right-back, now in the Juvenil B side at the European champions’ La Fabrica academy. He has already played with Madrid’s under-19s.
Fortea was the first to cross the divide, but he isn’t the only one to have made the move. Following his signing, Real continued to pick up youth talent from Atletico, who have made attempts to reciprocate, but so far without success.
On the whole, and behind the scenes, Real and Atletico do have good relations, despite their intense sporting rivalry and the heated areas where they have collided.
For example, whereas La Liga president Javier Tebas and Real counterpart Florentino Perez are now so opposed that they rarely, if ever, are even in the same room, Perez and Atletico’s Gil Marin can still do business together when it suits them both.
Even so, Real were annoyed by hosts Atletico’s refusal to mark their La Liga triumph with a guard of honour last May when the teams met a few days after they were confirmed as champions. Atletico’s position on the matter was reflected in a statement that read: “We will not collaborate in this attempt of mockery”.
A banner in the Metropolitano’s stands that day suggested Real have been enjoying one long guard of honour over the past 120 years, held by “the press and those in yellow” — the latter a reference to referees’ shirts.
In the run-up to this match, there have also been complaints from Atletico about their ticket allocation.
The club say they have received just 334, despite 4,022 applications from their fans.
Asked by The Athletic, Real said the figure is closer to about 600 in total.
But they also pointed out that there is no minimum number required in the Copa del Rey like there is in La Liga and Champions League. In the cup, the away allocation is usually arranged by agreement between the two sides. In the Champions League, on the other hand, UEFA stipulates a percentage of the capacity: five per cent.
Madrid’s stadium renovations do mean the overall capacity of the Bernabeu is currently reduced. Against Cadiz, for their most recent home fixture on November 10, it was 62,000 — down from about 81,000.
In November 2011, Atletico Madrid players running out at the Bernabeu for a La Liga meeting with Real Madrid were famously greeted by a banner that read: ‘Proper rival wanted for a worthy derby’.
Atletico had gone 12 years without a win in any competition against their richer and more powerful neighbours, and that game followed a familiar pattern. The visitors started brightly and went 1-0 up, but then had goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Diego Godin sent off and Real easily won 4-1.
That long losing run was still some way from reaching its end.
Following Diego Simeone’s arrival as coach in December 2011, Atletico suffered defeat in three more consecutive games against Real, taking their stretch without a derbi success to 25 matches and more than 5,000 days.
Then came the 2013 Copa del Rey final, played at the Bernabeu but with an even split of fans.
When Cristiano Ronaldo headed in an early opener, Madrid seemed set for another easy ride. But something had changed — Diego Costa fired in an equaliser, and Atletico grew as the game progressed. It went to extra time, then centre-back Miranda made it 2-1 Atletico.
Amid the tension, Ronaldo was sent off for kicking Atletico captain Gabi and Jose Mourinho was also red-carded in what turned out to be his last game as Madrid coach. Victory was made even sweeter for Atletico fans when Gabi received the Copa del Rey trophy from Spain’s King Juan Carlos — a Real Madrid supporter.
Atletico won on their next three La Liga visits to the Bernabeu and also beat their rivals in the Supercopa de Espana final and UEFA Super Cup, but agonisingly lost to them in the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals.
Despite the mixed picture, both sides of the argument know Simeone lifted Atletico to the status of more than dignified opponents. But they also know that their meetings have become more one-sided again; Atletico have won just one of their past 10 meetings with Real.
Ancelotti’s side will be hoping their first match there since before the World Cup is a happy one as they continue to compete on four fronts at home and in Europe.
For Atletico, progress in the cup could make all the difference in what has been a disappointing season so far.
(Top photo: Irina R. Hipolito/Europa Press via Getty Images)
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