Real Madrid star Vinícius visits Valencia for first time since racist attack at Mestalla

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Vinícius Júnior will return to play at Valencia on Saturday in Real Madrid's first visit to Mestalla Stadium since the Black player was racially abused by local fans last season.

That attack was among the worst the Brazil forward has had to repeatedly endure in Spain. It led to an upswell of support for Vinícius and forced soccer authorities to take action, even though the abuse toward him has continued.

Vinícius was reduced to tears during that match last May after confronting a Valencia fan who called him a monkey and made monkey gestures. After initially not wanting to continue, he kept playing. He then vowed to not back down.

“The league that once belonged to Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Cristiano (Ronaldo) and (Lionel) Messi now belongs to racists,” Vinícius said. “But I’m strong and I will fight until the end against the racists.”

The abuse suffered by Vinícius — and his strong words saying not enough had been done to stop it — prompted the Spanish soccer federation to fine Valencia 45,000 euros ($48,700) and close part of the team’s stadium for five games. Valencia banned from the stadium for life the three fans who were arrested by police for racially abusing Vinícius.

Many hoped that game would be a turning point. But the hate Vinícius is subjected to during away games has not stopped. In October, Sevilla ejected a fan and filed a complaint with police after the spectator allegedly displayed “xenophobic and racist behavior” toward the 23-year-old.

On Thursday, Spanish police reported that they had arrested an Atletico Madrid fan for allegedly threatening and hurling racist insults at an eight-year-old girl who was wearing a Vinícius shirt before a Spanish capital derby in September.

Valencia has been critical of what it considers the incorrect categorization of its fanbase as being racist.

“Mestalla always respects its rival. What we saw last year was from a minority. Three, four, 10 people. The club acted as it had to, banning them for life,” Valencia veteran defender José Luis Gayà said this week. “(But) our fans were treated unfairly. Since I have been here our supporters have been exemplary in every way and I am sure they will be so again.”

OTHER INCIDENTS

There are at least two more court investigations into racist acts targeting Vinícius, along with more complaints filed by Spanish league officials.

State prosecutors are seeking four-year prison terms for the four men, apparently Atletico fans, who hung an effigy of Vinícius off a bridge before another derby in January 2023. In another case, a judge is investigating a verbal attack by a Mallorca fan.

The first trial against a fan who racially insulted a player in Spain is expected to begin this year following remarks by an Espanyol supporter against Athletic Bilbao forward Iñaki Williams.

BELLINGHAM DOUBTFUL

Jude Bellingham, the league top scorer with 16, has missed the last three games for Madrid due to a hurt left ankle. He is training individually, and it seems plausible that coach Carlo Ancelotti would not want to rush him back before next week's Champions League game against Leipzig.

Madrid leads the Spanish league with six more points than Girona and eight more than Barcelona.

The game will be Valencia’s first in two weeks after its game in the last round was postponed in respect for the victims of a deadly fire in the Mediterranean city. Valencia, with a game in hand, is 10th.

Girona plays at Mallorca on Sunday, when Barcelona faces a tough trip to fifth-placed Athletic Bilbao.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press