It was 11.30pm in Madrid and legs and minds were tired but Vinicius Junior still found the energy to dance.
He danced across the already-beaten Atletico Madrid defence and he danced in celebration at what followed: his 121st-minute goal to round off Real Madrid’s 3-1 home victory in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals after extra time.
There was a smile on his face as team-mates gathered around him in celebration, and in support.
The day was almost over but it had begun in truly shocking circumstances.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, an effigy of Vinicius Jr was seen hanging from a bridge close to Real Madrid’s training ground. A banner in the red and white colours of Atletico provided the accompanying message: ‘Madrid hates Real’. They were removed from the bridge later that day.
It was just the latest episode of racist abuse that Vinicius Jr has been subjected to in Spain.
Here, The Athletic tells the story of a shameful day for Spanish football.
For Vinicius Jr, it seemed like a special morning with the derby to come at 9pm Madrid time.
Sitting in the passenger seat of his club-issued BMW with one of his closest confidantes driving him, he arrived at Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground to gather with the rest of the squad. This is common practice for Real Madrid players on the morning of a match, as the team spends the day at their training complex along with the coaching staff.
Just a few minutes later, Vinicius Jr found out via social media about the effigy with his shirt, which had been hung from a bridge a few kilometres away from Real Madrid’s training ground.
The 22-year-old leant on staff from his agency, who went from indignation and anger to trying to establish a sense of calm. They knew there was a match in a few hours’ time that the forward had to play in — and play well.
Vinicius Jr did not change his usual match preparation at Valdebebas. Real Madrid did not contact him or his entourage either.
When asked by The Athletic, a player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships, said that the issue was not discussed among the wider group. “No, of course not,” he said.
Instead, there were comments about the matter in smaller and more private circles. As is to be expected, Real Madrid’s Brazilian players — Vinicius Jr’s closest friends in the dressing room — were watching over him.
“Vinicius Jr was very calm. You have to protect the great players. We are with him,” Dani Ceballos said in the mixed zone after Real Madrid’s win.
Family and friends, meanwhile, were shocked when they found out about the incident from social media and WhatsApp messages. They did not speak to Vinicius Jr — an unwritten rule from his staff on match days to ensure the Brazilian stays focused. But, given the time difference in Brazil, they could not have woken up to more depressing news.
“We always have to keep our heads up, but it’s hard to keep smiling,” one of Vinicius Jr’s family members told The Athletic.
At the same time, Real Madrid were deciding how to defend their player after the image went viral on social media. Although the internal reaction was one of great anger, in public they resorted to a direct statement at around 3pm (Spanish time).
The statement read: “Real Madrid C. F. would like to thank you for the support and expressions of affection received after the regrettable and repugnant act of racism, xenophobia and hatred against our player Vinicius.
“We would like to express our strongest condemnation of these acts which are an attack on fundamental rights and the dignity of people, and which have nothing to do with the values that football and sport represent.
“Attacks such as those suffered by our player, or those suffered by any sportsperson, have no place in a society such as ours.
“Real Madrid trusts that those who have participated in such a despicable act will be held accountable.”
Before that, Atletico Madrid and La Liga had done the same.
Atletico’s statement came at 1.38pm, condemning the “repugnant and inadmissible” events that “shame society”. La Liga posted from their official Twitter account at 1.15pm to call for “the investigation of the facts in search of the conviction of those responsible, requesting the most severe criminal sanctions”.
La Liga president Javier Tebas went further when he tweeted at 2.04pm. “A message to those of you who take cover at night to commit hate crimes: we will track you down, we will get convictions, so that you end up in jail, which is where you belong. ENOUGH ALREADY!!!” he wrote.
It was all insufficient for Vinicius Jr. The Brazilian is tired of statements and words and wants facts and justice to do their job. His entourage wants greater protection from the authorities and Real Madrid in a battle that is as difficult to win as this.
Police quickly set about investigating the facts to find the culprits. The Frente Atletico, a hardcore group of Atletico fans, denied responsibility on their official channels as they replied to a tweet from Spanish sports daily Marca blaming them for the incident.
“Amazing the ability of some media to attribute acts to our group and the free bar to lie and misinform. Let the pre-Derbi campaign continue,” they wrote.
Alucinante la capacidad que tienen algunos medios para atribuir actos a nuestro grupo y la barra libre para mentir y desinformar. Que siga la campañita pre Derbi…🦌🦌🦌🦌 https://t.co/hv5u68J8fc
— Frente Atlético (@FA82Oficial) January 26, 2023
More than 10 members of Vinicius Jr’s family, friends and agency staff attended the Santiago Bernabeu as usual for the derby, with no special or extra security measures in place.
They saw that 63,500 Real Madrid fans had turned out to support their loved one, but they did not know exactly what was in store at the stadium. On social media, a show of support had been planned for the 20th minute, in recognition of the Brazilian’s shirt number.
It was clear that Vinicius Jr would be the main protagonist. When the line-ups were announced over the loudspeaker his name was among the loudest cheered, although this has been the case for some time.
Just before kick-off, with the players waiting for the game to start, the stadium chanted “Vinicius, Vinicius…!”.
Vinicius Jr did not hide, and his first contribution was an attempted backheel with which he lost the ball. His name was chanted again several times. But that planned moment of support in the 20th minute was a little lacklustre, with the Grada Fans (an organised group of Real Madrid supporters who always sit in the same area of the stadium) trying unsuccessfully to spread the word to the rest of the ground. Alvaro Morata’s opening goal in the 19th minute for Atletico didn’t help either.
Vinicius Jr kept trying, but he lacked inspiration in front of goal. In the 49th minute, Ceballos asked him to calm down. Only then could he perform as he wanted. In the 54th minute, after neither the Brazilian nor Karim Benzema managed to connect with a cross from Nacho Fernandez, Vinicius Jr asked the fans for more, and the crowd duly responded.
He was the second most-fouled Madrid player — fouled four times compared to Eduardo Camavinga’s eight. The forward forced several yellow cards, such as the one shown to Mario Hermoso in the 62nd minute. Then Vinicius Jr’s fellow countryman Rodrygo scored a brilliant solo goal in the 79th minute to take the game to extra time.
That was when Vinicius Jr’s real impact was felt, specifically from the 94th minute onwards. It was then that the forward produced one of his fantasy moves, dribbling past Stefan Savic and forcing a corner after shooting from a difficult angle. As Vinicius Jr urged the crowd on again, they roared back in appreciation: “Vini, Vini, Vini!”.
Just four minutes after this, Vinicius Jr and Savic met again. Following a foul by Nahuel Molina on Vinicius Jr, Savic and the Brazilian clashed and a yellow card was shown to both players. The Atletico centre-back was then booked again and sent off when he brought Camavinga down two minutes later.
Then, as half-time in extra time approached, Vinicius Jr’s miscued shot found its way to Benzema, who slotted home to put Madrid 2-1 ahead. The match was heating up, and Angel Correa went looking for Vinicius Jr during the break. The latter kept calm and Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti pulled his player away from the Argentinian.
Vinicius Jr does not hide and he keeps trying — and that was the case until the end. In extra time, in the 121st minute, he made it 3-1.
He picked up the ball in his own half, escaped the attention of Axel Witsel, left Hermoso trailing and produced a cool finish which took a touch off Atletico defender Reinildo Mandava on its way past goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
It was Vinicius Jr’s first goal against Atletico and he celebrated it the only way he knew how: dancing, samba-style, with the Bernabeu.
Ancelotti praised Vinicius Jr afterwards. “As always, he played well in the match,” the Real Madrid boss said. “He was very excited, eager to return to his fans. He played a very good game, fighting until the end. The goal was the reward for the great work he did. What happened (earlier in the day) was very disgraceful, but he was focused on the match.”
Vinicius Jr, for his part, celebrated on social media by reclaiming the words on the banner attached to his effigy that morning. “Vini LOVES Madrid! There is just one!” he wrote on Instagram, referencing both the banner (“Madrid hates Real”) and the routine chant from Real Madrid fans (“Madrid, there’s only one”).
Vini AMA MADRID 🤍 pic.twitter.com/qw9kfibpA9
— Vini Jr. (@vinijr) January 26, 2023
Then, he went home to sleep.
Today, just 24 hours after learning of the latest racist attack against him, he was at Valdebebas for another training session at 11am.
None of this is expected to change his plans — he wants to continue playing well for Real Madrid while raising awareness about racism as a prominent black player.
Vinicius Jr is as focused as ever on his future with Real despite the events of Thursday morning.
“Of course, there is a lot of anger, but Vini is in love with Madrid (the city and the club),” said a member of his entourage.
“The main thing is to know where the criminals are. Vinicius Jr’s face is in the media every day, but when are the faces and names of the criminals going to come out? That is what we would like the press to do, this investigative work, not to say that Vini is a provocateur.”
Everything is in the hands of the police now.
But it is worth remembering what happened when some Atletico fans sang racist chants about Vinicius Jr outside their Metropolitano stadium before a La Liga derby last September. That time, prosecutors did not press charges after determining the chants only “lasted a few seconds”.
It remains to be seen whether more will be done this time.
(Top photo: Manu Reino/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
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