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Vini Jr. calls out Spain's soccer league after the latest racist taunts against him

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This was the scene inside a soccer stadium in the Spanish city of Valencia on Sunday night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: The echoes of fans chanting mono - or monkey in Spanish - at a single Black player from Brazil who was on the field playing for the opposing team, Real Madrid. His name is Vinicius Junior, and he is one of the best players in the world. For him, Sunday night's racist chants were too much. After the match, he said on Twitter that he's been a target of this type of racism since arriving in Spain four years ago. NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Valencia where this happened. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about how the player, Vinicius Junior, reacted to this event.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. As you mentioned, this was not the first time that this has happened to him. After the game, Vinicius Junior tweeted, this wasn't the first time, nor the second, nor the third. Racism, he said, is normal in Spain's soccer league. And for his home country of Brazil, he said Spain was becoming a country of racists.

SHAPIRO: And has there been fallout in Spain?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Obviously, this was a horrible event - the latest in a string of awful acts directed at Vinicius Junior, as we've mentioned. And the fallout not only here in Spain has been huge, but internationally as well. We've seen sports stars throughout Europe, the U.S. and beyond rally behind Vinicius Junior, supporting him in what is obviously a very difficult ongoing situation. One of the first people to support Vinicius Junior was his own coach, Carlo Ancelotti of Real Madrid. At a press conference following the match here in Valencia, he was asked a question about soccer, and he said, I don't want to talk about soccer. I want to talk about what just happened here. And here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

CARLO ANCELOTTI: (Speaking Spanish).

SCHMITZ: And Ari, he's saying here that the entire Spanish football league, known as LaLiga, has a problem. He said it wasn't just one person yelling, but it was instead an entire stadium insulting a player on the basis of his race and that this should have no place in this sport.

SHAPIRO: And how has the sport, Spanish soccer, dealt with it?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Just to show how entrenched this problem is in this league, the chief executive of LaLiga, Javier Tebas, actually got into a back-and-forth with Vinicius Junior on Twitter, where he scolded the player for not showing up to two meetings that LaLiga had scheduled to talk about racist incidents. It was really a tone-deaf response. And soon after, the president of Spain's entire football federation called Tebas' behavior irresponsible. And now we're starting to see the fallout being handled by Spanish police.

SHAPIRO: Police? What role are they playing?

SCHMITZ: Well, yesterday, police made seven arrests of people suspected of being involved in past racist attacks against Vinicius Junior. Police in Madrid have detained four young men for hanging an effigy of Vinicius Junior from a bridge in Madrid in January. They were fans of Madrid's cross-town rival, Atletico Madrid. And three others who were involved in the racist chanting here in Valencia were arrested as well. Both of these events are being treated as hate crimes by police.

SHAPIRO: You're there in Valencia. What are people on the street saying about it?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I spent some time today talking to people outside Mestalla Stadium, where this incident happened, and everyone was in agreement that these fans were way out of line and that racism is a big problem among soccer fans. I spoke to Erme Vanaclocha, who lives across the street from the stadium. She says she's heard racist chants on game days before. Here's what she told me.

ERME VANOCLOCHA: (Speaking Spanish).

SCHMITZ: And, Ari, she's telling me here that this problem goes beyond racism. She thinks that this has roots in the permissiveness among coaches and parents of football players at all levels of this sport - not just LaLiga. She told me that children's leagues are filled with parents and players who insult each other in order to gain a competitive advantage over their opponents and that this type of disrespectful behavior has been normalized and that it sometimes veers into racist slurs. And finally, she told me this incident is making her hometown of Valencia look terrible throughout the world and that she's really sad about that.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting from Valencia, Spain. Thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAZY J SONG, "GROWING ON ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.