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Racist taunts against soccer star Vinícius Júnior land men 8 months in Spanish prison

Vinicius Junior of Real Madrid acknowledges fans as he celebrates Real Madrid defeating Borussia Dortmund during the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Final at Wembley Stadium on June 1. The Brazilian star was the target of racist chants last year -- an incident that sparked international outrage and has now resulted in prison terms.
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Getty Images Europe
Vinicius Junior of Real Madrid acknowledges fans as he celebrates Real Madrid defeating Borussia Dortmund during the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Final at Wembley Stadium on June 1. The Brazilian star was the target of racist chants last year -- an incident that sparked international outrage and has now resulted in prison terms.

An infamous racist incident targeting a Black athlete in Spain last spring has resulted in prison time, in what La Liga, the country’s famous soccer league, says is a first.

A Spanish court sentenced three men to eight months in prison on Monday for targeting Brazilian superstar Vinícius Júnior with racist chants as his Real Madrid team played a road game at Valencia on May 21, 2023.

Fans were heard loudly chanting mono -- “monkey,” in Spanish -- and making monkey gestures, resulting in public outrage and widespread international support for Vinícius, who was then 22. The soccer phenom said afterward that similar incidents had happened repeatedly, and that while he views Spain as a beautiful country, “Racism is normal in La Liga.”

Responding to news of the punishment, Vinícius noted on the X platform that he was warned that efforts to combat racism were in vain. But, he added, “I’m not a victim of racism. I am a tormentor of racists.” The historic conviction is for all Black people, not only him, he said.

After the punishment was announced, La Liga said the case sends a warning to others who might go to a stadium to hurl insults.

“This sentence is great news for the fight against racism in Spain, since it repairs the damage suffered by Vinícius Jr.,” La Liga president Javier Tebas said.

In addition to their prison terms, the three perpetrators -- described as young men, in a statement from Real Madrid -- are also banned from attending La Liga matches for two years.

The men “were found guilty of an offence committed in violation of the moral integrity of Vinícius Júnior, which was aggravated due to racist motives,” Real Madrid said, adding that the club had helped pursue the case.

Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said last year that the problem was much larger than a handful of people.

"What we saw today is unacceptable," the coach said after the May 21 match. "An entire stadium chanting racist slurs, I told the referee that he should have stopped the match."

In the aftermath of the taunts, Tebas and La Liga were accused of being tone-deaf in their response to what Vinícius and others described as rampant racism among the league’s fans. At one point, Tebas defended the league and told Vinícius that he needed to “inform himself properly” -- prompting the star player to retort that Tebas was attacking him rather than going after racists.

Tebas initially doubled down on his defense of the league, but two days later, he issued an apology to anyone who interpreted his remarks as an attack on the Brazilian.

Real Madrid's Brazilian forward Vinícius Júnior (3R) confronts Valencia's officials as he leaves after being sent off the pitch by the referee during the Spanish league football match between Valencia CF and Real Madrid CF at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia on May 21, 2023.
Jose Jordan/AFP via Getty Images / AFP
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AFP
Real Madrid's Brazilian forward Vinícius Júnior (3R) confronts Valencia's officials as he leaves after being sent off the pitch by the referee during the Spanish league football match between Valencia CF and Real Madrid CF at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia on May 21, 2023.

The May 2023 incident forced a contentious match between Real Madrid and Valencia to be halted for several minutes. Vinícius was later tossed from the match because of a brief physical altercation with Valencia players — and he argued with Valencia officials as he left the pitch.

In the weeks afterward, authorities arrested people involved in other racist actions against Vinícius, including four men -- fans of Real Madrid’s cross-town rival, Atletico Madrid -- who were punished for hanging an effigy of Vinícius Júnior from a bridge in the city in January 2023.

The three men sentenced on Monday saw their punishment reduced from a year in prison and a three-year ban due to their cooperation with the investigation. In court, they also read a letter of apology to Vinícius -- and to “everyone else who felt offended and degraded by their behaviour,” according to Real Madrid. 

Vinícius announced last December that he was taking up a new role working with the United Nations, to champion human rights.

"For me, this specific year has been a stark reminder that we still have a long journey ahead to eliminate bigotry from sports and society,” he said.

The court ruling comes as high-profile leagues in Spain, England and France work with authorities to crack down on disrespectful and insulting chants. In some of those cases, the resulting punishment consists of fines (particularly against players or teams) and the closure of entire areas of a stadium’s stands.

The U.K.’s Crown Prosecution Service said in 2022 that two people were jailed and others had hate crimes placed on their criminal record as part of that work. The agency also recently targeted “tragedy chants” that look to evoke accidents and disasters affecting a team’s fan base.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.