Vinicius Junior is the latest: a brilliant, black footballer targeted while doing his job in Spain because of the colour of his skin. The latest in a long, long line of racist incidents in Spanish football.
He confronted it head on, in Valencia’s stadium and online where he catalogued the persistent abuse he has received in a country that will be fortunate to retain his talents.
Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o confronted racism head-on too, by shaming those responsible and demanding action rather ignoring the abuse and hoping that it went away.
He endured derogatory chants throughout his career. Sometimes there was action, as when Spain’s national anti-violence commission fined two Albacete supporters. Sometimes there was nothing, as when 50 Getafe fans greeted his every touch with howls, and that too when he was the African Footballer of the Year.
There are too many incidents to mention, from Espanyol fans who directed crass chants at Daniel Alves or when Spain’s Football Federation opened disciplinary proceedings against their own national team coach Luis Aragones after he made racist comments about Thierry Henry of France and Arsenal.
Aragones also made hurtful remarks about one of his own players, Jose Antonio Reyes, yet many in Spain felt his comments were not ill-intended, more a joke or even affection from someone of his generation.
Spain is a football-loving country that creates, imports and exports wonderful players and can lay claim to hosting the second most popular national league on the planet. But we keep seeing the rancid side of Spanish football and fandom.
It’s not usually in the mainstream, but almost every club has an extremist fringe that latches on to it. Some of them are among the clubs’ most loyal supporters and travel everywhere, but their politics and actions are extreme.
There are 1.3 million residents in Spain who were born in North Africa, mostly Morocco. There are 361,000 residents of Spain whose mothers were born in an African country aside from Morocco. You see many of them on the pitch in football stadiums – Alejandro Balde and Ansu Fati at Barcelona, to name a couple. You don’t see plenty in the stands watching.
And that’s just Africa. Spain has a large population from all over South America, China and Romania.
I have seen racism around the world. Brazilian Fred was abused in the 2018 Manchester derby. During Manchester United’s 1-6 defeat by City in 2011, I heard racist abuse directed towards Mario Balotelli four or five times from someone sitting a few rows behind me.
During the 2007 FA Cup final, a United fan continually told Chelsea’s Ivorian striker Didier Drogba to go back to Africa.
And it’s not just England. Patrice Evra recalled the early part of his career in Sicily “when I heard monkey noises whenever I touched the ball and I even saw someone throw a banana. It was difficult to concentrate on the game and I wanted to climb into the stands and punch them, but when my anger came out like that I played better. So I began to think: ‘If you abuse me then I’m going to play better’, and I put everything I had into that derby".
Evra was keen to stress that he was talking about a minority, “and, even then, I don’t think they were all genuinely racist, more ignorant or doing what was considered ‘normal’ among their friends”.
Evra also had to confront racism from his own teammates. “He didn’t realise how offensive it was until we came close to having a fight. We had to be separated because I was going to punch him.”
I messaged five Spanish football coaches a simple question as I wrote this article: “Do you think racism is a problem in Spanish football?” All of them said it was.
“Of course it is,” replied one. “For many years. Racism against Africans, Asians and South Americans. Spanish society has a problem with racism and look at Spanish politics – a huge percentage of the elected politicians are extreme right [wing]. And the result is that in each stadium there is a group of fanatics or ultras. They don’t represent all the fans yet they are the strongest image of many clubs.”
Another top-level coach, replied: “It’s not just about racism. People think they can do anything in a stadium. Insults are very common, it’s like the Roman circus. I was watching the Valencia-Madrid game and thinking: ‘How is it even possible to play a game of sport in this atmosphere?' It was only a game of football.”
It is an experience all too common for black footballers.
“There’s also discreet racism,” Devante Cole – a striker now at Barnsley – once told me. “I had one obvious incident when I was with Manchester City at Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Youth League – monkey noises from the crowd. I was raging about it and complained and City took up my complaint. Ryan Brewster, from Liverpool, also had trouble in the Youth League.
“Raheem Sterling was right when he spoke out about racism – I can see how newspapers create an environment by mentioning the wages and spending of black players. The more people who talk about racism, the better.”
Things have improved in English stadiums, though racists find their refuge in online anonymity and continue the verbal abuse. In Spain, some are still able to express it in the stadium en masse.
Andy Mitten has attended around 500 professional football matches in Spain.