The day Vinicius Jr broke down in tears – and delivered his strongest message yet against racism


It was no ordinary day at Valdebebas, Real Madrid’s training ground on the outskirts of the Spanish capital.

On Monday, 100 accredited journalists — 72 of them from Brazil — arrived for Vinicius Junior’s press conference ahead of his national team’s friendly match against Spain tomorrow. They witnessed his most powerful message yet in the fight against racism — one that left him in tears as he explained the toll repeated abuse has taken on him.

The friendly at the Santiago Bernabeu had been organised by the Spanish and Brazilian Football Federations in response to the racism Vinicius Jr continues to suffer in stadiums across Spain. The screens behind the 23-year-old showed the Portuguese slogans of ‘UMA SO PELE’ (one skin) and ‘UMA SO IDENTIDADE’ (one identity) that had been used to promote the match.

Vinicius Jr, Madrid and Brazil’s star forward, has been subject to racist abuse at more than 10 Spanish grounds over the past two years. This month, he imitated the iconic gesture made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics by raising a fist after scoring at Valencia, where he faced his most shocking episode of abuse last season. Then, La Liga reported alleged racist chanting towards him before Atletico Madrid’s Champions League match against Italian club Inter Milan. In January 2023, an effigy of Vinicius Jr was hung from a bridge near Valdebebas before a Madrid derby.

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Vinicius Jr is outspoken about the issue on social media but rarely addresses reporters in person — he only previously did so after Madrid claimed the Supercopa de Espana (Spain’s equivalent of the Community Shield in England) in January. So the anticipation to hear the Brazilian speak was understandable, with the event delayed for 15 minutes because of how many people were present.

It is difficult to silence 100 people at once, but that is what happened when Vinicius Jr entered the room. He was accompanied by Madrid’s press officer, Carlos Carbajosa, and the Brazilian Federation (CBF)’s director of communications, Rodrigo Paiva. Carbajosa stood on the sidelines with Paiva next to Vinicius Jr as an interpreter translated his answers in Portuguese for the Spanish media.

Vinicius Jr sat down and rolled up his sleeves. For 40 minutes, he did not shy away from any questions.

“Racism is very sad and with every news story I feel sadder,” he said, when asked why he had been targeted. “It’s happening a lot in Spain, but also all over the world.”

“Nobody helps,” he added, explaining that football’s governing bodies UEFA, FIFA and the South American organisation CONMEBOL could all “do more things”. Here, he underlined the role played by the CBF. Its president, Ednaldo Rodrigues, was in attendance and later watched on as Vinicius Jr and his Brazil team-mates took part in a training session.

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Vinicius Jr broke down in tears three times during the press conference (Alberto Gardin/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

“They have managed to make racism a crime in Brazil and that has meant that there are fewer cases,” Vinicius Jr said. “I thank Ednaldo, the first black president of our federation, for being here.”

He went on to thank other players in La Liga and across the world for having lent their support in public and private. He thanked La Liga, who he said were “doing well, but they can’t punish people because racism is not a crime here”, and Real Madrid.

Last year, La Liga president Javier Tebas was forced to apologise following tweets reprimanding the Brazilian forward following the abuse he suffered at Valencia. The forward has felt unprotected by his club side at various points — compounded by a recent social media post that Madrid said had been an “error”. In May last year, he was left with serious doubts about his Madrid future after the incidents at Valencia’s Mestalla ground. But he has valued two recent statements made by the club in support of him and now feels they are committed to protecting him.

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“If I leave here, I’m going to give the racists what they want,” Vinicius Jr said. “I want to stay here, at the best club in the world, so they can continue to see my face. The president (Florentino Perez) supports me, the club supports me… If I leave, it would be a triumph for the racists.”

He was self-critical but also had strong words for the Spanish media, who regularly equate Vinicius Jr’s on-pitch actions with the abuse he receives. “I think they need to talk less about everything I do,” he said. “Of course, I have to improve, I left Brazil very young.”

And then, through tears, he uttered a particularly poignant sentence.

“I feel sadder and sadder and I have less and less desire to play,” he said. “But I want to keep fighting.”

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The Brazilian points out the perpetrators of racist abuse at Valencia in May last year (Ivan Terron/Europa Press via Getty Images)

It shocked the room: a world-class player, a star for both the biggest national team and club in the world, opening up about how unprotected and debased he feels in his fight against racism.

“What frustrates me most is the lack of punishment,” he said. “In Barcelona, a case was shelved. Punishments are not going to change these people’s minds, but (it would mean) they would be afraid to do that. You have to show their faces, let their children see it. I’m worried about the children.”

Then came a moment that instantly went viral on social media. “I want black people to have a normal life, if it wasn’t for that I would have given up by now,” he said. “I go to the games focused on giving everything for my club, but sometimes it’s not possible. I have to concentrate a lot.”

Crying for a third time and suddenly unable to control his tears, he could not continue. Initiated by a CBF worker, the room broke into widespread applause.

“Excuse me,” he muttered, trying to pull himself together. “I just want to play football.”

Vinicius Jr was even offered the chance to end the press conference there. But he wanted to continue.

“He wanted to talk, he didn’t care about the time — he wants to continue with his message and his fight,” a CBF source, who asked to remain anonymous as they did not have permission to comment, told The Athletic. Outside, Vinicius Jr’s team-mates were waiting; their training session would kick off 20 minutes late.

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Vinicius Jr in training on Monday (Alberto Gardin/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

Vinicius Jr received several rounds of applause during the press conference. At one point, a Japanese journalist who is well-known to the Brazil team broke into tears herself as she asked whether he felt “lonely in all this” — Vinicius Jr said his family supported him but added that it had been “very difficult” for those close to him. There were some questions in Spanish and he was asked about the words of his Madrid team-mate Dani Carvajal a few hours earlier in a Spain press conference.

“I don’t think Spain is a racist country,” Carvajal had said. “Unfortunately, there are people who go to football to vent their rage and anger… I have friends with a different skin colour.”

Carvajal surely regrets those words now. When Vinicius Jr suffered abuse at Valencia’s Mestalla ground last season, he said that “the championship that once belonged to Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, today belongs to racists”.

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“I’m sure that Spain is not a racist country, but there are many racists and many of them are in the stadiums,” Vinicius Jr said.

“Maybe people don’t know what racism really is. At 23 years old, I have to show them what racism really is, how it affects me… Everything they say about the colour of my skin can affect me on the pitch. There are other ways in which they could criticise me and I wouldn’t have a problem with them.”

Soon, Vinicius Jr was back doing what he loves best: kicking a ball around on Madrid’s Alfredo Di Stefano training pitch while laughing and smiling. His commitment to helping end racism is total — but, as he told reporters through tears: “I just want to play football.”

Hopefully the authorities let him — while empowering him to eradicate racism.

(Top photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images)





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