Amid racist criticism and abuse, Vinicius Jr. and Brazilian stars respond with dances and joy

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 18: Vinicius Junior of Real Madrid celebrates 0-1 with Aurelien Tchouameni of Real Madrid  during the La Liga Santander  match between Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid at the Estadio Civitas Metropolitano on September 18, 2022 in Madrid Spain (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Vinicius Jr. has been countering pressure and criticism with joy ever since he arrived at Real Madrid as a teen.

He has been dancing with the ball at his feet even as external doubts and internal frustration grew. He has been dancing in celebration, especially as goals and assists have begun to flow. And there is a segment of Spaniards — an over-serious, old and overwhelmingly white segment — who have been irked by his persistent happiness.

Pedro Bravo, a top Spanish soccer agent, all but represented that segment on a popular TV show this past week, and sparked a firestorm that raged into the weekend.

“Vinicius will have to respect the opponents," Bravo said, according to multiple translations. "If you want to dance, go to the Sambadrome in Brazil. In Spain, you have to respect rivals and stop playing the monkey.”

To Vinicius and others, the undertones were blatant. The "xenophobia and racism," Vini said, were hurtful and nothing new. In a video posted to social media Friday night, Vini's response was eloquent and stern.

Over the next 48 hours, on soccer fields across Europe, he and other Brazilian stars also responded just as Vini promised they would: with joy, and with dancing.

Vini Jr.: 'Baile donde quieras'

Bravo has apologized "sincerely," and tweeted that his "intention was not to offend anyone." Spaniard after Spaniard pointed out that "hacer el mono," playing the monkey, is a Spanish idiom roughly synonymous with fooling around. Vini and countless Black men, though, had seen this "plot" play out before.

"I was a victim of xenophobia and racism in a single statement,” the 22-year-old Brazilian winger said in his video, as explicitly as could be. "But none of that started yesterday.

“A few weeks ago, they began to criminalize my dances," he continued. "Dances that are not mine. They are from Ronaldinho, Neymar, [Lucas] Paqueta, [Antoine] Griezmann, Joao Felix, Matheus Cunha. They are funk artists, Brazilian sambistas, from Reggaeton artists, and from Black Americans. They are dances to celebrate the cultural diversity of the world."

He spelled out what he felt was the reason for the criticism, that "happiness bothers [people]; the happiness of a Black Brazilian victorious in Europe bothers them much more."

He acknowledged the apology, "but I repeat to you, racist: I will not stop dancing," he vowed at the end of his two-minute video. "No matter if it is at the Sambadrome, at the Bernabeu or wherever it may be."

And on Sunday at Atletico Madrid's Estadio Metropolitano, he danced.

He danced with Rodrygo, his Brazilian Real Madrid teammate, after the 21-year-old scored a brilliant goal to put Real ahead of Atleti.

He danced his way into the penalty area, and poked a shot off the post that led to Real's second. He skipped across the field to celebrate with Federico Valverde, who'd scored it.

And he tweeted to Rodrygo after the game, a 2-1 win: "Dance wherever you want."

La Liga, Spanish Soccer federation silent

At the Metropolitano on Sunday, the scope of Spain's problem presented itself in broad daylight. There were no excuses, no misinterpretations when thousands of Atletico Madrid fans proudly chanted: "Eres un mono, Vinicius, eres un mono!"

"You are a monkey, Vinicius, you are a monkey!"

Dozens of videos ultimately emerged from inside and outside the stadium.

The problem, a societal one that manifests in soccer, is one for authorities to solve. The responsibility should fall to La Liga and Spain's soccer federation, who could impose sanctions. Hours after Sunday's game, they had still not even publicly acknowledged widespread evidence of racist chanting and abuse. That, and so much more, must change.

But Vini cannot, and should not have to change it. All he can do is fiercely maintain his joy. That's what his fellow Brazilians encouraged him to do after Bravo's comments stung.

"Dribble, dance and be you," Neymar told him in an Instagram post.

Gabriel Jesus, another Black Brazilian star, scored Sunday morning for Arsenal and danced immediately afterward. “The celebration was for my guy Vinicius Jr.," he said.

Even Pelé, Brazil's most famous son, spoke up to offer his support. "Football is joy. It's a dance. It's a real party," he wrote on Twitter. "Although racism still exists, we will not allow that to stop us from continuing to smile."

That's what Vinicius did on Sunday. "We keep dancing!" he wrote in response to one of the thousands of supportive messages from back in Brazil.

When Neymar told him to do just that, he quoted the tweet and wrote: "Always!"