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Villarreal’s Pepe Reina upholds questionable reputation with uneducated verdict on Vinicius Jr’s battle with racism

A disappointing story to have to tell...

Valencia CF v Villarreal CF - LaLiga Santander Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images

It’s not going to be possible for me to hit every nuance of the discussion I am about to attempt. I could write 3000 words and something would be left unsaid, so instead I am going to focus on what I consider to be the major points about Pepe Reina’s comments relating to Vinicius Jr and racism and leave it at that.

Speaking with Marca, the Villarreal goalkeeper had the following to say:

First and foremost, any racist behavior must be stopped, then, I do not believe that there is racism in all the stadiums in Spain or that an entire stadium is racist. There are the typical fools who are difficult to always contain. What you have to do is identify them and never enter a stadium again. Those four, eight or thousand who called Vinicius a ‘monkey’ must be condemned. It’s sad that this happens.

Having said that, I see that sometimes it’s not just racism, it’s not that a fan is racist or not, but rather that they take it out on a specific player, because he can talk too much at one point... It’s happened to us everyone, me included. As a general reflection, the less you provoke the stands, the less you provoke the rivals and the less you protest to the referee, the more respect you will have from everyone.

I, from my humble position, even if only because of seniority, told Vinicius to dedicate himself more to playing, that he should focus more on that, on being a great footballer, because he is, fast, unbalancing, already defining well a goal, He is becoming one of the best in the world. But I think he must also mature in behavior, in having more respect for his rivals, in understanding some unwritten football values ​​or codes. That would improve his performance. It can’t be that every game away from home is a war for him.

I want to share his extended quotes with you in a block because otherwise we end up in this back and forth nonsense where someone could go ‘well yes but he also said...’

What we have here is a situation I have seen far too much of since the Real Madrid/Valencia contest which inspired the most global reaction to racism in La Liga that I’ve ever seen, which is people want to condemn the racists but then blame the player for showing themselves. It’s absolutely unacceptable.

We see another example of this in a recent thread by Valencia based journalist Paco Polit:

From the thread “That fact that he’s hated almost unanimously in Spanish grounds is due to his behaviour, not the colour of his skin. The point is proven by the fact that many other Madrid players (Camavinga, Tchouameni, Mendy, Rüdiger, Militao... all of them quality footballers) should suffer the same “racial abuse” (sic) and they don’t, because race is not the point here. Vinicius’ lack of sportmanship is.”

If a black player receives racial abuse (put in air quotes, as if a player who has been suffering from racism all season somehow hasn’t really encountered it) and his black teammates don’t also receive that abuse, it’s somehow the player’s fault.

Polit’s error here seems largely connected to an ill-conceived attempt to defend his club amidst what he considers to be unfair criticism. Reina, meanwhile, has a history of racial insensitivity. In 2012, while playing for Liverpool, he took part in an ad that based a joke on stereotypes about African tribes, and he also defended former teammate Luis Suarez after the Uraguayan racially abused Patrice Evra.

It really, then, comes as no surprise that Pepe Reina will stand with an anti-racism banner before the match and blame a victim of racism for the abuse he receives after the match. Yes, Vinicius Jr dives more than most players in La Liga, and yes he sometimes goes out of his way to antagonize opposing fans, but this is a valid explanation for boos and whistles, not for racist abuse. When people like Reina try to split the blame between the racists and the person they are abusing, they contribute to the problem.

Just this past February, our own Samu Chukwueze was racially abused at Mallorca. I would be livid if someone tried to tell him that he needed to be less provocative to avoid that abuse, which is what Reina is telling Vinicius here. One wonders how Samu feels hearing his teammate say these things.

In contrast, American midfielder Yunus Musah, of Valencia, stated very clearly to his own fans that if they racially abuse Vinicius they are attacking him as well. That stand of solidarity that goes behind the lines of club affiliation is a good example to others in football. That sort of reaction sends the statement that racism truly should not be tolerated in any circumstance.

For once, La Liga and Spanish authorities are arresting and banning people for this racism. Valencia received punishments as well. To see actual change, La Liga needs to make these sorts of actions the norm for any time one of their players is victimized in a stadium. I certainly hope they continue.

When we reached out to the club for comment, they declined, however, institutional relations director and club legend Marcos Senna spoke with The Athletic on this topic and he had the following to say:

The people here in Spain always say Vinicius Jr is provoking it. To provoke is one thing, to insult is another. Racist insults are crimes. Everything that happened was lamentable. That should never happen in a football stadium, outside, anywhere, ever. Of course, I identified with Vinicius Jr. I am black. If they insult him, it is like insulting me, too.

Spain is not a racist country, in my experience. I represent the image of a very important club like Villarreal and I am black. I played with Spain at a World Cup and Euros. My friends here that are Spanish are fantastic people. But there are racists, just as there are in Brazil, in Germany, in the United Kingdom.

The authorities needed to be much stronger. It is very good now that people support anti-racist messages and all that, but if they do not take real action, the same thing keeps happening. If the authorities do nothing, the racists feel comfortable.

It does seem that, finally, things are moving forward. The authorities have decided to move. There is a lot of noise around the issue. They have made the first step, which was punishing the club, so that at least gives the feeling that they are taking it more seriously.

In the end, he (Vinicius Jr) is a kid of 22 years old. I have empathy for him. I put myself in his shoes and know it is difficult. I am very much in solidarity with him.

In my personal opinion, he will not leave Real Madrid. He has realised that this was the final straw, he has had mass support from Brazil and also here in Spain. Before this happened, there was not the same reaction as now. I hope he decides to stay and continue his life here.

Villarreal is an exemplary club. When it (the Alves incident) happened, it was a kid. He was taken out of the stadium and never been allowed back in. We are completely against that type of attitude, and work so that people have the education that they need to have.

I appreciate Senna making the club stance, clear, though I do wonder what conversations are being had in house with Reina since he clearly seems to view the case differently. Unfortunately, seems like Reina may remain at the club in a backup role for the next season or two. I do not think his mindset makes the club or Spanish football better.