It's Sunday, May 21 at Valencia's Mestalla stadium. It's the 73rd minute, and Real Madrid are 1-0 down. Toni Kroos is about to take a free kick just outside the box. Vinicius Junior isn't looking at Kroos as he sizes up the set piece; he's facing the crowd behind the goal, gesturing toward them and getting more animated by the second.
Valencia captain Jose Gaya, and Real Madrid teammates Antonio Rudiger and Eder Militao, go to pull him away. But Vinicius won't stop. He's pointing at a fan in the stand. "[He called me] a monkey," he says. "This one." Pointing, again. "This one." Other Madrid players join him, angry now, facing down the crowd. "You don't do that," Lucas Vazquez shouts. "F---ing racists. You're racists."
Valencia defender Cenk Ozkacar tells Vinicius to calm down. Referee Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea arrives and informs the players "I'm activating the anti-racism protocol, OK?" Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois tells De Burgos that he heard similar chants in the first half, too. Vinicius goes across to his manager Carlo Ancelotti, who puts an arm around his shoulder, speaks into his ear and kisses him on the cheek.
After that, Vinicius is back on the field. De Burgos explains -- to Ancelotti, Vinicius, Militao and others -- what happens next: first, a warning over the stadium's tannoy. If the abuse continues, the match will be suspended. In the 78th minute, play resumes.
This isn't the first time that Vinicius has suffered racist abuse this season. It's the eighth incident of the 2022-23 campaign -- and those are just the cases that have been reported, and complaints have been filed.
It happened at Barcelona's Camp Nou in March, and Real Betis' Benito Villamarin. A month earlier, it happened at Osasuna's El Sadar, and Mallorca's Son Moix. In January, a group of Atletico Madrid fans hung a mannequin wearing a Vinicius shirt from a bridge. Four people have been charged over the incident. Vinicius was racially abused at Valladolid in December and outside Atletico's Metropolitano stadium in September.
This time though, the reaction was different. Vinicius' decision to confront those who abused him sparked a global outcry, and that has brought consequences. Three fans have been arrested and are due to appear in court, where Vinicius will also give evidence. Valencia were handed a five-game partial stand closure, reduced to three on appeal, and a long-overdue debate has begun on Spanish football's problem with racism.
This is the story of what has happened since that night at Mestalla -- and what happens next -- as told to ESPN by sources close to Vinicius, his club Real Madrid and LaLiga.
(With additional reporting by Gustavo Hofman and Rodrigo Faez)
Vinicius won't stop calling out racism
Vinicius' reaction in Valencia was the consequence of years of frustration at the failure of others -- football's governing bodies, the courts, referees, the media and even his own club -- to recognise the seriousness of the problem. And he has had enough.
"The prize that the racists won was my sending off!" Vinicius posted on Instagram, before ironically quoting the league's marketing slogan: "It's not football. It's LaLiga."
At Mestalla, his frustration was compounded by receiving a red card in the 97th minute, after being confronted by goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili and then held in an eight-second headlock by forward Hugo Duro. Vinicius was sent off for fighting back; Duro went unpunished.
Next came a longer statement. "This wasn't the first time, or the second, or the third," Vinicius wrote. "Racism is normal in LaLiga. The competition thinks it's normal, the federation does too, and opponents encourage it. I'm so sorry. The championship that once belonged to Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Lionel] Messi, today belongs to racists.
"I'm sorry for the Spaniards who don't agree, but today in Brazil, Spain is known as a country of racists. And unfortunately, with everything that happens each week, I can't defend it. I agree. But I am strong and I will go to the end against the racists. Even if it's far from here."
That last line, sources told ESPN, reflected previous discussions between Vinicius and his representatives. They had raised the idea of leaving Real Madrid and Spain over the persistent racist abuse he has suffered. The player was "at the limit," sources said, and while he wasn't yet considering a move away from Madrid, floating the possibility -- and leveraging his position as Madrid and LaLiga's best, most marketable young player -- was seen as a way to perhaps force others to take action.
Vinicius has become increasingly aware of the power he wields as one of global sport's rising stars, and he wants to use that status to bring about change. His relationship with sponsor Nike is a case in point. After coming close to parting ways earlier this season -- Vinicius felt he wasn't being treated as a priority -- he and his staff were impressed by the brand's unsolicited support after what happened in Valencia, posting "Stop looking the other way. We stand with Vini Jr.," on their own social media channels.
"They're showing what they can do for Vini" in raising the incident's profile worldwide, a source close to the player said.
Vinicius has also been dismayed by the Spanish criminal justice system's repeated failure to prosecute cases of racist abuse as a hate crime. In December, prosecutors decided not to press charges against Atletico fans for racist chanting outside the Metropolitano. The Madrid prosecutor's office said the chants were "unpleasant," but "lasted only a few seconds" and took place around a "fiercely contested" match. The chanting did not "constitute a crime against the dignity" of Vinicius, they said.
Vinicius' anger at racism in the stands has been exacerbated on the pitch: there's a perception that he's over-aggressively targeted by opponents and gets a lack of protection from referees. He is the most-fouled player in LaLiga -- fouled 121 times in 2022-23, 22 times more than the next player on the list -- but has also received 10 yellow cards. He also feels there is a notable difference between his treatment by Spanish referees, and in the Champions League.
He and his representatives have also been infuriated by the way the Spanish media has handled the issue, often conflating abuse from fans with Vinicius' playing style -- alleging it is "provocative" -- and willingness to stick up for himself.
In September last year, a contributor on late-night talk show El Chiringuito suggested that Vinicius should "stop acting the monkey" during a segment on his dancing goal celebrations. Vinicius responded with a video in which he said that for many, the problem was "the happiness of a black Brazilian triumphing in Europe."
It also included a simple message: "I won't stop."
Real react slowly, as LaLiga seeks more power
Vinicius had not been entirely happy with Real Madrid's support for him this season following racist abuse, sources have told ESPN, until the fallout from Mestalla left them no choice.
In the immediate aftermath, Ancelotti was first to speak. His postmatch TV interview was tense, but that attitude had nothing to do with Madrid's 1-0 defeat. "Do you really want to talk about football?" the coach asked, incredulous when his interviewer began to ask about the result. "I don't want to talk about football. I want to talk about what happened here. LaLiga has a problem."
Teammate and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said the team had been ready to walk off if that's what Vinicius had wanted. There were words of support from other teammates, too. But Madrid didn't put out a club statement until lunchtime on Monday, almost 16 hours after the final whistle.
"Real Madrid condemns the events that occurred yesterday involving our player Vinicius Junior," the club said, explaining that they had filed a complaint with hate crime prosecutors.
A later statement sought to link what happened at Mestalla with Madrid's longstanding campaign against what it perceives as unfair and inadequate refereeing, a daily talking point on the club's in-house television channel. "What happened yesterday, and the handling of it by the referees and the VAR, is not an isolated incident, but something that has been happening in many of our matches," it said.
The club offered a public show of support at their next game, against Rayo Vallecano at the Santiago Bernabeu on May 24: the team took to the field pregame wearing Vinicius' No. 20 shirt. "We are all Vinicius. Enough is enough," a pitch-wide banner behind one of the goals read. In the 20th minute, fans turned to applaud Vinicius, who sat alongside president Florentino Perez in the directors' box. His positioning there, rather than in the player's own box, was intended to send a message: this is our fight, not his alone.
Vinicius' reservations about his club's initial hesitant backing were nothing next to his anger at LaLiga, personified by the league's president, Javier Tebas.
Tebas is an atypical football executive, outspoken on everything. When Vinicius posted that "Racism is normal in LaLiga" a swift -- and blunt -- response was inevitable. "Since those who should haven't explained to you what LaLiga is doing, and can do, in cases of racism, we've tried to explain it to you," Tebas wrote. "But you haven't shown up for either of the two agreed dates that you requested. Before criticizing and insulting LaLiga, you need to be properly informed."
A back-and-forth with the player followed. "Once again, instead of criticizing racists, the president of LaLiga appears on social media to attack me," Vinicius tweeted. "Neither Spain nor LaLiga are racist. It's unfair to say that," Tebas replied.
Tebas later said he was "frustrated," feeling that Vinicius wasn't being told about the measures LaLiga had taken -- and could take, under the current legal framework -- on tackling racist abuse. Nonetheless, the damage was done. Tebas had given the impression of picking a fight with Vinicius, rather than expressing solidarity with a victim of racism, and the tweets helped turn an already damaging situation for LaLiga's image into a full-blown crisis.
The league's communications team swung into action, organising sit-down interviews for Tebas with the Brazilian media -- "I didn't mean to attack Vinicius, but if people understood it that way, I have to apologise," he told ESPN Brazil -- and, a day later, a 90-minute news conference, taking questions from journalists around the world.
Tebas said he supported stadium closures, would be in favour of points deductions and said that Vinicius -- or any player -- would have the league's full support if they walked off the pitch after suffering racist abuse. "These have been some of my worst days as president, and as a person," he said. "I'm not a racist."
LaLiga feels its hands are tied by the current framework, which limits it to gathering evidence and passing it on to criminal prosecutors and the Spanish football federation (RFEF)'s competition committee. Each of those bodies -- not LaLiga -- is then tasked with deciding what, if anything, should be done.
The league will push to modify Spanish sports laws and thereby allow its disciplinary bodies to issue their own punishments. Tebas made the hyperbolic claim that they could deal with the issue in six months, but in the context of the never-ending battle for authority between LaLiga and the RFEF -- Spanish football's warring governing bodies -- progress will not be straightforward.
Vinicius hasn't played since that night at Mestalla. A knee problem kept him out against Rayo and Saturday's win at Sevilla, with just one league fixture remaining this season. Ancelotti has insisted that if his star forward were fit, he would have featured. But some time out of the spotlight after such an intense, emotionally draining period must have been welcome, too.
The player will testify in a Valencia court, via video call, as part of the case against the three fans who racially abused him. A date has not yet been set.
Sources told ESPN that Vinicius will keep speaking out, confronting Spanish institutions -- including some sections of the media -- with some uncomfortable truths. And if -- when -- the next, depressingly predictable instance of racist abuse occurs, we'll see if anything has really changed.