SAO GONCALO, Brazil — The chants of “monkey!” at the Spanish soccer stadium echoed across the Atlantic, reaching the ears of people on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
That’s where Vinícius Júnior, who is Black, grew up and launched his soccer career. Now, despite his global fame and millions, he was again the target of crude European racism.
His city in multiracial Brazil was sickened, and has rallied to his defense.
In Sao Goncalo, rapper Deivisson Oliveira was eating breakfast when the TV news showed the abuse aimed at his hometown hero.
“I needed to cry out,” said Oliveira, 30, who raps under the name MC Menor do CPX.
Oliveira typed lyrics on his phone with his 6-month-old son at his feet. Powerful verses surged through his thumbs: “From the favela to the world: Strength, Vinícius Júnior!”
Racism in the Spanish league has intensified this season, especially after Vinícius started celebrating goals by dancing. On at least nine occasions, people have made monkey sounds at Vinícius, chanted the slur “monkey!” and hurled other racist slurs. Vinícius has repeatedly demanded action from Spanish soccer authorities.
Vinícius’ 2017 move to Real Madrid was the culmination of years of effort. One of the most popular clubs in global soccer paid 45 million euros (about $50 million) — at the time the most ever for a Brazilian teenager — even before his professional debut with Rio-based Flamengo. Relentless racism wasn’t part of Vinícius’ dream when he was growing up in Sao Goncalo.
Sao Goncalo is the second-most populous city in Rio’s metropolitan region, and one of the poorest in the state of Rio de Janeiro, according to the national statistics institute. At night in some areas, motorists turn on their hazard lights to signal to drug-trafficking gangs that the driver is local. It is also where the 2020 police killing of a 14-year-old sparked Black Lives Matter protests across Rio.
Racism has once again fanned outrage.
Rio’s imposing, illuminated Christ the Redeemer statue was made dark one night in solidarity. The city’s enormous bayside Ferris wheel this week exhibits a clenched Black fist and the scrolling words: “EVERYONE AGAINST RACISM.”
“My total repudiation of the episode of racism suffered by our ace and the pride of all of us in Sao Goncalo,” the city’s mayor, Nelson Ruas dos Santos, wrote on Twitter the morning after the incident.
Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes was less diplomatic when responding to a defense issued by the Spanish soccer league’s president.
“Go to hell, son of a…” Paes wrote.
On Thursday, Spanish league president Javier Tebas held a news conference claiming that the league has been acting alone against racism, and that it could end it in six months if granted more power by the government.
At the same time in Rio, representatives of more than 150 activist groups and nonprofits delivered a letter to Spain’s consulate, demanding an investigation into the league and its president. They organized a protest that evening.
“Vinicius has been a warrior, he’s being a warrior, for enduring this since he arrived in Spain and always taking a stand,” activist Valda Neves said. “This time, he’s not alone.”
The first Black Brazilian players to sign for European clubs in the 1960s met some racism in the largely white society, but rarely spoke out. At the time when Brazil still considered itself a “racial democracy,” and did not take on the racism that many faced.
In the late 1980s, the federal government made racial discrimination a crime and created a foundation to promote Afro-Brazilian culture. At the time, many Brazilian players who might identify as Black today did not recognize themselves as such. Incidents of racism in Europe prompted little blowback in Brazil.
In the decades since, Brazil’s Black activists have gained prominence and promoted awareness of structural racism. The federal government instituted policies aimed at addressing it, including affirmative-action admissions for public universities and jobs. There has been heightened consciousness throughout society.
In 2014, a fan hurled a banana at defender Dani Alves during a Spanish league match; he picked it up and ate it in a show of defiance, triggering a coordinated social media campaign with other Brazilian players, including star forward Neymar, who did the same.
Vinícius’ own educational nonprofit this week launched a program to train public school teachers to raise awareness about racism and instruct kids in fighting discrimination. A teacher at a Sao Goncalo school that will host the project, Mariana Alves, hopes it will provide kids much-needed support and preparation. She spoke in a classroom with soccer-ball beanbag chairs strewn about, and enormous photos of Vinícius on the walls.
Most of the school’s students are Black or biracial, and many have experienced racism, Alves said in an interview. This week, her 10-year-old students have been asking if she saw what happened to Vinícius because they don’t fully understand.
“He has money, he has all this status, and not even that stopped him from going through this situation of racism,” said Alves, who is Black and from Sao Goncalo. “So the students wonder … ‘Will I go through that, too? Is that going to happen to me?’”
As a boy, Vinícius started training at a nearby feeder school for Flamengo, Brazil’s most popular club, before signing with its youth team.
Sao Goncalo kids there were a blur Wednesday afternoon as they ran non-stop drills, leaving them without time or breath to discuss their idol’s troubles on another continent.
Still, they knew.
One of them, Ryan Gonçalves Negri, said he has talked about it with his friends outside the soccer school, and that Vinícius should transfer out of the Spanish league “urgently.”
“I would never want to play there,” Negri, 13, said. “It’s not for Brazilians who know how to score goals and celebrate.”
While the kids practiced, the rapper Oliveira and his producer Éverton Ramos, known as DJ Cabide, stepped onto the turf and made their way to the corner. They set up a speaker beneath a banner of Vinícius as a brash teenager with his tongue extended, then started recording a clip for their protest song’s music video.
“I’m no one, but my voice can reach where I can’t go, where I can’t imagine going,” Oliveira said. “My voice will get there, you understand?”
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese contributed from Sao Paulo
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