Why Spanish Football Needs to Do More to Combat Racism

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportJanuary 29, 2018

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 22:  Xavi Hernandez of FC Barcelona support the No to Racism action week during the UEFA Champions League during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between AC Milan and FC Barcelona at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 22, 2013 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Racist taunts from players and fans, including the liberal use of the n-word, continue to plague Spanish football.

In mid-January, in a post-match television interview with beIN Sports (h/t Diario AS), Jefferson Lerma, one of Levante's midfielders, accused Celta Vigo's Iago Aspas of calling him "a black s--t" during the game.

Lerma said he called the referee's attention to the alleged racist abuse during play, but the official, Alvarez Izquierdo, dismissed his complaint: "I informed the referee, but he told me he was sick of players complaining to him."

The match official didn't record the alleged racist slur in his match report. A few hours after Lerma's allegation, Aspas released a statement on Celta Vigo's website denying he racially abused Lerma, adding: "What is said on the pitch, stays on the pitch."

The Royal Spanish Football Federation, at the request of La Liga, launched an investigation into the incident, but without evidence—such as witness testimony or a recording—it will likely hit a dead end, according to analysis by La Voz, the highest circulating newspaper in Galicia. The outlet cited the precedent of a similar incident in 2011 during a Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Bernabeu Stadium.

After that game, Real Madrid released a video in which it argued that Barcelona player Sergio Busquets goaded Real Madrid defender Marcelo by calling him "mono, mono" ("monkey, monkey"). Barcelona countered by claiming Busquets was merely saying "mucho morro," or "you've got a cheek," per El Mundo. Busquets escaped sanction following an investigation by UEFA, owing to "a lack of solid and convincing evidence," per La Voz.

"There is a problem of racism in Spanish football," says Jimmy Burns, a prize-winning author and journalist who was born in Madrid to a Spanish mother. "Part of the problem is that despite all the rhetoric of, you know, 'we're all against racism' and 'we abide by UEFA rules,' there is a track record of incidents of unacceptable racial abuse against individual players. Coupled with that, there is a weak regulatory climate created by the Spanish football federation, by the Spanish authorities."

A spokesperson for the Royal Spanish Football Federation denies its organisation is lax in regulating against racism. He says the allegation that there is a problem of racism in Spanish football is "a subjective opinion."

Dani Alves took a bite of banana after it was thrown at him in 2014
Dani Alves took a bite of banana after it was thrown at him in 2014David Ramos/Getty Images

The most notable racist incident from the last several years occurred when Barcelona visited Villarreal for a league tie in April 2014. One of Barca's players, Dani Alves—who now plays in France for Paris Saint-Germain—was about to take a corner kick when a fan threw a banana at him. In response, he took a bite out of the banana before launching his set piece into Villarreal's box.

A year earlier, after Alves had received alleged racial abuse from Real Madrid fans during a cup tie at the Bernabeu Stadium, he was despondent when asked about it in a post-match press conference, claiming it was "a lost war." He said he had been playing in Spain for a decade, and "it has happened since the first day."

The Belgium international footballer Roland Lamah was born in the Ivory Coast. He plays for FC Dallas, having played a couple of seasons for Osasuna in La Liga, among stints with clubs in the English Premier League and Ligue 1. He remembers being on the end of racist abuse from opponents while playing for Osasuna in Spain. He says, for example, opposition players would call out "muerta de hambre," which in Spain is to insult someone because they are "starving."

Lamah says when a player tried to abuse him, he attempted to calm the opposition player down: "I said to the guy, 'Relax, don't say things like that. Just play football. Because it doesn't matter what my colour is. I came here to play football. If it continues, I'll talk to the referee.'"

He took the abuse as part of the rough-and-tumble of the game. "From opposition players it was normal," he says. "It's football. I accepted it. It didn't affect me. I just played my game. If someone insults me on the pitch, I don't say I agree, but maybe it's because when you play a match, you are not the same person as you are off it. After the game, you are another person. I don't want someone to distract me from my focus on the game, to score."

Roland Lamah (left) marking Leo Messi during his spell in Spain
Roland Lamah (left) marking Leo Messi during his spell in SpainDavid Ramos/Getty Images

The 27-year-old defender Jonathan Mensah, who is on the books for Columbus Crew SC, is a veteran of two FIFA World Cups with his native Ghana. Midway through his career, he spent a season on loan at Granada CF in the south of Spain. He never experienced racism from an opponent during his appearances for the club but remembers opposition fans hurling abuse.

"We all heard them chanting," says Mensah. "What they were saying wasn't appropriate, but we ignored them and focused on the game. Sometimes they'd shout 'negro de mierda' (black s--t) or they'd throw things at you—lighters, bottles of water, things like that. Whenever you argue or retaliate, it's always gonna be something else, so sometimes you just let the fools be the fools and you stay in your lane. You just have to ignore them and play your game."

In 2015, of 1,328 hate crimes registered in Spain, the primary motive was racism, per El Pais. "There is racism in Spanish society, and football is a mirror of society," says Dr. Carles Vinas, a history professor at the University of Barcelona and author of several books on skinheads and football hooligans.  

"In its time, Spain has expelled the Moors, then the Jews. Now with recent immigration, this problem of racial prejudice unfortunately has gotten worse, especially because of populist rhetoric in a struggling economy. The immigrant is seen as a threat—'they take our jobs, our social benefits' and so on."

Mikel Araguas, a spokesperson for the non-governmental organisation SOS Racismo, says the problem of racism in Spanish society has to do with a lack of anti-racist education in the country's schools, which has created "permissiveness" around such behaviour on its streets. It can manifest in displays of prejudice that are often excused by ignorance.

Antoine Griezmann (left) apologised for a tweet sent last December.
Antoine Griezmann (left) apologised for a tweet sent last December.Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

In December 2017, for example, Atletico Madrid's star forward Antoine Griezmann created controversy when he posted a photo of himself on Instagram and on his Twitter feed "blacked up" like a basketball player from the 1980s, per the Daily Telegraph. When he was challenged on social media about the offence the image caused, he defended himself by saying the picture was posted in homage: "Calm down guys. I am a fan of the Harlem Globetrotters and the good times. It is a tribute." Shortly afterward he deleted the image, apologising for any offence caused by his posts.

"In football, it is basically permitted to say any bad word to a player," says Araguas. "Players call other players 'chimpanzees,' 'monkeys' and other names, so do fans. There is no control. Take the use of the word 'negro.' In the United States, for example, people think differently about using this word in public. Here in Spain, no—it can be said with total normality.

"Imagine in the United States of America if during a match—it doesn't matter at what level—an official was called 'a f--king n----r' or if a player called another player a racist term, it could end his career."

In October 2004, Luis Aragones—who managed the Spain team that won the UEFA Euro 2008 title— was caught on camera referring to Arsenal's French striker Thierry Henry as "that black s--t" when talking to Henry's then-team-mate Jose Antonio Reyes. He received a fine from the Royal Spanish Football Federation, which was overturned in 2007. A few months before the incident, the former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson was caught off camera during an ITV broadcast calling Chelsea player Marcel Desailly "a f--king lazy thick n----r." He resigned from ITV immediately.

Vinas says the zero-tolerance approach to racism in the UK doesn't apply in Spain: "In the case of Luis Aragones, he said, 'No, I'm not racist. I have a friend who is black' and so on. It minimised the offence. With the example of Ron Atkinson's racist comment, it ended his television commentary career with ITV. Here in Spain the reaction to a similar incident was, 'Ah, no worries.' It was trivialised."

A spokesperson for the Royal Spanish Football Federation denies it is not strict enough in tackling racism. "The federation has a list of sanctions and penalties to counteract racism and xenophobia, and we support UEFA's anti-racism campaigns," he says. The federation's fines range from €18,001 to €90,000.

The largest punishment handed out by the federation for a racist incident was when it fined Villarreal €12,000 after one of its fans threw the banana at Alves in 2014. At the time, Jeffrey Webb, the chairman of FIFA's Anti-Racism and Discrimination Task Force, dismissed the punishment as unsatisfactory. "I thought it was disrespectful, to be honest with you."

Vinas refers to Alves' banana-eating incident in 2014: "Dani Alves is a world figure. He got support from his team-mates like Neymar Jr. Many players supported him. They took responsibility, but for the players and officials in Spain's lower football leagues and under-age categories—away from media scrutiny—there are no repercussions for racist abuse, and it happens every weekend."

Players from Turkish club Kayseri Erciyesspor support Alves back in 2014
Players from Turkish club Kayseri Erciyesspor support Alves back in 2014Getty

"This assertion is very subjective," says a spokesperson for the Royal Spanish Football Federation. "There are specific situations, but I don't think there is a problem."

The Royal Spanish Football Federation says the onus is on match officials to report incidents of racism. "If the referee records a racist incident in his match report, there will be an investigation. There has to be a denunciation, a notification of the incident. If the referee doesn't make the complaint, we won't know about it. If the complaint comes from the press or another source, it's not sufficient. The referee has to make the formal complaint to our 'competitions committee' about the person or club who is implicated."

For instance, during a regional game in Asturias between Ribadedeva and Nalon on Sunday, January 20, fans on the sideline allegedly abused the Ethiopian-born referee Asnake Wolde, screaming comments like "Why didn't your boat sink, you f--king n----r". The Ethiopian said they were the worst insults he has received in 10 years of refereeing in Spain, per El Pais.

To eradicate the problem in Spanish football, Araguas advocates heavier suspensions for players, and urges Spanish clubs to follow the lead taken by teams such as Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, which has taken "a clear position against racism," with, for example, the release of its satirical "Together Against Racism" video.

When asked about the steps it has taken to counteract racism, the Royal Spanish Football Federation refers B/R to penalties for racism in its disciplinary code.

Vinas believes it will take a more nuanced approach, and that traditionally it has been a mistake to demonise clubs' extreme right fan groups. The issue is more widespread. To blame the clubs' ultras is to abdicate responsibility, he feels: "First of all, we need to acknowledge there is a problem with racism. The clubs and the Spanish football authorities don't want to recognise this fact. They don't want to take responsibility."

"I don't think there are many cases of racism in Spanish football," maintains a spokesperson for the Royal Spanish Football Federation. "There are isolated cases. If there were a lot of cases reported, we would have a problem, but there are not a lot of cases reported."

Plenty of people clearly disagree with that summation of events, and until all sides are moving in the right direction, there is a strong likelihood more negative stories concerning racism in Spanish football will emerge.


All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz