It was a sight familiar to all those who’ve spent Saturday afternoons and Tuesday evenings freezing their arse off at some godforsaken non-league ground.
One team had demonstrated clear superiority over the other, with the remaining 20 minutes of the match academic and thoughts of those on the losing side already drifting towards the warm sanctuary of the dressing room.
Meanwhile, a tricky young winger on the winning side just doesn’t let up. Powered by Duracell and Ready Brek, he keeps dribbling past weary defenders with immense footwork and a relentless attitude. A satisfactory smile creeps over his lips. This is fun.
But one chugging centre-back has had enough. As the winger whips the ball past him for the umpteenth time, his opponent lashes a telescopic leg directly into his shins.
There’s no remorse, no attempt to protest his own innocence. The fouled winger, knocked into next week just seconds before, picks himself up the turf immediately to engage in some polite disagreement.
The inevitable red card is taken without protest, despite the scrum of aggrieved players puffing their chests and challenging each other’s masculinity.
We’ve seen this all before. The kicker? This familiar scene took place at the storied Santiago Bernabeu, with Gabriel Paulista and Vinicius Junior the protagonists.
𝗦𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 𝗥𝗘𝗗 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝗚𝗮𝗯𝗿𝗶𝗲𝗹 𝗣𝗮𝘂𝗹𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗮 🟥
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) February 2, 2023
The former Arsenal centre-back, best remembered for getting shithoused by Diego Costa into an unnecessary red card at Stamford Bridge in 2015, was the fall-guy in another Valencia defeat.
Speaking after the La Liga match, Valencia interim manager Voro admitted his defender was in the wrong and deserved his dismissal.
“Paulista was in the wrong. It was a clear red card,” he said. “It was a consequence of his rage. It was difficult for us by then and with 10 men it was impossible.”
Their 2-0 loss at the Bernabeu, courtesy of goals from Marco Asensio and Vinicius in the second half, kept them uncomfortably close to the relegation zone.
And, with a half-finished stadium and underperforming squad, unflattering comparisons to Everton can be made; Valencia played in a Champions League final as recently as 2001 but there seems to be no end to the doom slide on the Mediterranean coast.
Meanwhile, Madrid’s victory ensured the defending Spanish champions kept pace with Barcelona in the La Liga title race, with Xavi’s men five points clear at the halfway stage.
Vinicius had endured worse things than leg-breaking challenges this season; the Brazil international was borne the brunt of stinging racist abuse from fans of Atletico Madrid and Valladolid.
But the winger continues to rise above those small-minded individuals who cannot see beyond the colour of his skin. With 14 goals and seven assists for club and country this season, Vinicius is already one of the leading forwards in world football.
This doesn’t make it too surprising that defenders with a fraction of his ability seek to hack him down in a bid to salvage their wounded ego.
Gabriel won’t be the first, or the last, to do so. Without condoning such thuggery, the sight of Sunday-league football at the Bernabeu was an alluring one.
By Michael Lee