Spain has been branded a "country of racists" by one of its leading stars after he was subjected to abuse yet again by rival fans.
Brazilian forward Vinícius Júnior called out Spain and its soccer league after the latest incident, which drew condemnation from world leaders and fueled renewed debate about racism on and off the field.
The Real Madrid star pointed out supporters he said were hurling racist abuse including "monkey" chants at him during a game on Sunday night. Play was stopped for 10 minutes, with Vinícius subsequently sent off after an altercation with opposition players.
After the fractious game, the 22-year-old — widely considered one of the most gifted young players in the world — wrote on Twitter that Spain's elite soccer competition, La Liga, had normalized racism by failing to stamp out racist taunts despite repeated complaints.
The league, he said, "now belongs to racists."
The game's result, a crucial 1-0 victory for Valencia, has paled into insignificance compared to the huge political debate it has sparked.
Real Madrid said Monday it had referred the case to Spanish authorities, saying it believed it to be a hate crime. La Liga said it would take appropriate action if criminal wrongdoing is uncovered, though its president also criticized the player's response.
Valencia said Monday that police had identified a fan who made racist gestures and were using footage to identify any others.
"The club strongly condemn this type of behavior, which has no place in football and society," it said, adding that those responsible would be given a lifetime ban.
Racism targeted at Black players has been widely reported across Europe in recent years, with the question of whether teams should leave the field sparking heated discussion.
Vinícius has suffered racist abuse throughout his time in Spain, where he moved as a teenage prodigy five years ago.
"It was not the first time, nor the second, nor the third. Racism is normal in La Liga," Vinícius posted on Twitter after Sunday's game.
He contrasted the ugliness of the abuse he faced with the sublime skills of famous names who have graced La Liga over the years, including Brazilian superstars Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, Argentinian hero Lionel Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo.
The league that once belonged to them “now belongs to racists," he said. "But I’m strong and I will fight until the end against the racists. Even if far from here.”
He said Spain was "a beautiful nation, which welcomed me and which I love, but which accepted to export to the world the image of a racist country. I am sorry for those Spaniards who disagree but today, in Brazil, Spain is known as a country of racists."
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, widely known as Lula, leapt to the player’s support.
“I would like to express my solidarity with our Brazilian player, a poor boy who succeeded in life and is potentially becoming one of the best players in the world, certainly the best at Real Madrid. And he is attacked in every stadium he plays in,” he told reporters at a news conference Sunday at the G-7 summit in Japan.
Lula added that he hopes soccer's governing bodies “take measures so we don’t allow racism and fascism to take over.”
Other officials and players from Brazil and beyond spoke out against the abuse.
“Full solidarity to Vinicius,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said.
“You’re not alone,” France forward Kylian Mbappé said on Instagram. “We are with you and we support you.”
Real Madrid’s legendary coach, Carlo Ancelotti, told reporters in a post-game interview that he would not discuss the game itself. “What we saw today is unacceptable — an entire stadium chanting racist slurs," he said, adding that he had told the referee he should have stopped the game.
Luis Rubiales, head of Spanish soccer's governing body, RFEF, said Monday that he agreed with Vinícius that the country does have a problem with racism.
But not everyone was so supportive.
“Before you criticise and slander La Liga you need to inform yourself properly @Vinijr," league president Javier Tebas wrote on Twitter.
He accused the player of attacking the league without fully understanding what it had been doing to combat racism, and said that Vinícius failed to turn up for two meetings he had requested with league officials to discuss the matter.
The league has made nine formal complaints over racist abuse against Vinícius over the last two seasons, with many of the cases being shelved. A Mallorca fan may end up going on trial after allegedly racially insulting the Brazilian during a game.
A mannequin wearing Vinícius' number 20 jersey was hung from a bridge outside Real Madrid's training facility ahead of a key game against local rivals Atletico Madrid in January. Police said at the time they were investigating the incident.
The Brazilian star— whose full name is Vinícius José Paixão de Oliveira Júnior — is one of world soccer's brightest talents, known for his dazzling trickery and ball control. This season he has scored 23 goals in 54 appearances even as his team endured a disappointing campaign.
He wasn’t happy with the stance taken by the La Liga chief.
“Instead of criticizing racists, the league president shows up on social media to attack me,” Vinícius said in a later tweet. “Although you may say otherwise or pretend not to notice, the image of your championship is shaken," he said, adding: "I want actions and punishment. Hashtags don’t move me.”