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Men sentenced to 8 months in prison in Spain for racist abuse of soccer star Vinícius Júnior: NPR

Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior thanks his fans as he celebrates Real Madrid's victory over Borussia Dortmund in the 2023/24 UEFA Champions League 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 led to prison sentences. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior thanks his fans as he celebrates Real Madrid’s victory over Borussia Dortmund during the 2023/24 UEFA Champions League 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 led to prison sentences.

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A notorious racist incident against a black athlete in Spain last spring resulted in a prison sentence – a first, according to La Liga, the country’s most famous soccer league.

A Spanish court on Monday sentenced three men to eight months in prison for attacking Brazilian superstar Vinícius Júnior with racist chants as his team Real Madrid played an away match in Valencia on May 21, 2023.

The fans could be heard chanting loudly Mono – “monkey” in Spanish – and made monkey gestures, which led to public outrage and huge international support for the then 22-year-old Vinícius. The football phenomenon said afterwards that similar incidents had occurred repeatedly and that while he considered Spain a beautiful country, “racism is normal in La Liga”.

In response to the news of the punishment, Vinícius listed on the X-platform that he had been warned that efforts to combat racism were futile. But, he added, “I am not a victim of racism. I am a tormentor of racists.” The historic condemnation applies to all black people, not just him, he said.

After the sentence was announced, La Liga said the case was a warning to others who might go to the stadium to shout insults.

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

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

The men “were found guilty of a crime that violated the moral integrity of Vinícius Júnior and was aggravated by racist motives,” Real Madrid said, adding that the club had helped prosecute the case.

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

“What we saw today is unacceptable,” the coach said after the game on May 21. “An entire stadium was chanting racist insults. I told the referee he should have stopped the game.”

In the wake of these insults, Tebas and La Liga were accused of being insensitive in their response to what Vinícius and others described as rampant racism among the league’s fans. At one point, Tebas defended the league, telling Vinícius he needed to “get properly informed” – to which the star player retorted that Tebas had attacked him rather than attacking racists.

Tebas initially insisted on his defense of the league, but two days later apologized to anyone who had taken his comments as an attack on the Brazilian.

Real Madrid's Brazilian striker Vinícius Júnior (3rd from right) confronts Valencia officials as he leaves the field of play after being sent off by the referee during the Spanish league football match between Valencia CF and Real Madrid CF at Mestalla Stadium in Valencia on May 21, 2023.

Real Madrid’s Brazilian striker Vinícius Júnior (3rd from right) confronts Valencia officials as he leaves the field of play after being sent off by the referee during the Spanish league football match between Valencia CF and Real Madrid CF at Mestalla Stadium in Valencia on May 21, 2023.

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The incident in May 2023 resulted in a controversial match between Real Madrid and Valencia being stopped for several minutes. Vinícius was later ejected from the game for a brief physical altercation with Valencia players – and he argued with Valencia officials as he left the field.

In the weeks that followed, authorities arrested people involved in further racist actions against Vinícius, including four men – fans of Real Madrid’s city rivals Atletico Madrid – who were punished for hanging a doll of Vinícius Júnior from a bridge in the city in January 2023.

The three men sentenced on Monday received a one-year reduction in their prison sentence and a three-year ban due to their cooperation in the investigation. In court, they also read a letter of apology to Vinícius – and to “all others who felt insulted and humiliated by their behavior,” according to Real Madrid.

Vinícius announced last December that he would take on a new role at the United Nations to promote human rights.

“For me, this year has been a stark reminder that we still have a long way to go before we eliminate bigotry from sport and society,” he said.

The court ruling comes at a time when top-flight leagues in Spain, England and France are working with authorities to crack down on disrespectful and offensive chants. In some of these cases, the resulting penalties include fines (particularly against players or teams) and the closure of entire sections of the stands in a stadium.

The British Crown Prosecution Service announced in 2022 that two people had been jailed and registered for other hate crimes as part of this work. The agency has also recently targeted “tragedy songs” designed to conjure up accidents and disasters affecting a team’s fan base.