Spain Must Confront Its Past in Order to Combat Racism in Football

It’s common knowledge that football is the “beautiful game.” This is frequently done to acknowledge sports as artistic forms. Football is occasionally thought to mimic life and society, much like art does. The pervasiveness of racial discrimination on and off the field is a common example of the terrible reality of this mimicry. Football discrimination still exists, despite attempts by stakeholders to eradicate it.

A month has passed after Black Brazilian player Vincius Jr. endured yet another abhorrent incident of racism while playing a game in Spain. On May 21, while competing for Real Madrid against Valencia, he was booed and dubbed a “monkey” by spectators.

Outrage over the incident spread to my own nation of Brazil as well as other countries. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, urged football organizations to “take measures so we don’t allow racism and fascism to take over.”

To protect our player, the Brazilian football authorities acted right away. They organized an anti-racism campaign, had the entire national team take a knee while wearing black jerseys at a friendly match against Guinea in June, and not only denounced the racist remarks and demanded that something be done about them.

A special anti-racism encounter between the two national teams will be played next year, the Brazilian Football Confederation and the Spanish Football Association both confirmed.

FIFA lent its support as well. Gianni Infantino, its president, quickly voiced “full solidarity to Vinicius” following the incident. The football governing body revealed last week that Vincius Jr. would serve as the chair of a special anti-racism committee that would be composed of players.

In the meantime, other Black football players have shown their support for Vincius Jr. and even thought of organizing a union to fight racism together.

Celebrities like American football player Tom Brady and Formula One winner Lewis Hamilton have supported him as well.

Although there has been widespread sympathy for the Brazilian footballer abroad, opinions have been, at best, mixed in Spain. This vagueness and lack of real action prompted vincius jr., who was enraged, to post on Twitter: “It was not the first time, nor the second, nor the third. In La Liga, racism is commonplace. The opposition supports it, the competition does, and the Federation agrees.

La Liga, the premier Spanish football league, did the complete opposite of supporting the Brazilian player wholeheartedly. Javier Tebas, the organization’s president, criticized Vincius Jr. for his tweet, saying: “We have tried to explain to you what La Liga is doing and can do in cases of racism, but you have not shown up for either of the two agreed dates that you requested.”

Tebas deflected blame for La Liga’s racial issues to the Spanish police, who have also done little to stop racist abuse when complaints have been made by football teams.

Prior to the most recent incident, Vincius Jr. has been the target of nine formal allegations of racism from Real Madrid in just two seasons. Despite the racist harassment being manifestly systematic, several of these accusations went unanswered by the Spanish authorities.

When a player’s effigy was hung from a bridge in Madrid in January, no one responded until the police revealed they had detained four culprits in late May. Why it took them five months to act on an alleged hate crime was not well explained.

If there had not been a widespread outcry, one has to ask if the Spanish government would have taken any action in response to the racial taunts during the Valencia Real Madrid match.

In addition to dithering and avoiding accountability for racist occurrences in Spanish football, there also seems to be a lot of victim blaming. It seemed to be a widely held belief in Spain that Vincius Jr. “provoked” his racial abusers.

For instance, LaLiga TV commentator Toni Padilla stated on live before the Valencia-Real Madrid match that viewers should constantly stand against racism but also acknowledge that Vini Jr. is not an angel and that he is not flawless. He occasionally incites the opposing teams.

Pepe Reina, the goalkeeper for Villarreal, echoed this sentiment in an interview following the game: “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.”

However, Vincius Jr. is not the first Black person in Spanish football to experience racial abuse. From Nigerian goalkeeper Wilfred Agbonavbare of Rayo Vallecano, who endured taunts like “n****,” “go pick cotton,” and “Ku Klux Klan!” for denying Real Madrid the title in 1993, to Barcelona’s Cameroonian forward Samuel Eto’o being repeatedly called a “Black s****” by Zaragoza supporters in the middle of the 2000s, to France’s striker Thierry Henry being called a “Black.”

Despite Spain’s long history of anti-Black racism in football, the phrase “Spain is not a racist country” was frequently repeated following the Valencia vs. Real Madrid match. Spanish culture appears to be denying its racism problem, which is by no means restricted to sports.

According to a 2016 assessment on the state of the Black population in Spain written by multiple non-governmental organizations in Spain, racism is present “in insidious and persistent forms” in Spain.

It describes the daily maltreatment, prejudice, and harassment suffered by Spanish Afro-descendants and African migrants. It contends that widespread racism permeates the police, judicial, media, and health industries and negatively influences how Black people are treated by public institutions.

It also argues that “racism remains a taboo topic” in Spain and goes on to explain: ” There is an absolute public and educational erasure of the enslaving and colonialist Spanish past.” The report was presented to the Spanish parliament and the United Nations human rights agency OHCHR.

While most European countries do not seem particularly ready to acknowledge and apologize for the enslavement and colonization of other peoples, Spain appears to be particularly slow to confront its past.

Just have a look at how Spanish lawmakers reacted when US President Joe Biden stated that the introduction of Europeans in North America caused a “wave of devastation” for Native Americans and urged that “these shameful episodes of our past” not be forgotten before to Columbus Day in 2021.

The conservative Popular Party (PP) leader in Spain, Pablo Casado, responded by asking: “Does the Kingdom of Spain have to apologize because five centuries ago it discovered the New World, respected those who were there, created universities, created prosperity, and built entire cities? I don’t believe so.

It is obvious that Spain is not prepared to acknowledge its history accurately or to apologize. Along with the devastation that Spanish colonization caused on two continents, the Spanish Empire’s involvement in slavery is neatly left out of official historical memory.

The essay The end of self-delusion? has a fitting title. Adrià Enrquez lvaro, a historian who challenged the legacy of slavery in Spain and Catalonia, said that “public historical discourse in Spain has neglected slavery while exoticising colonial America as a space of social mobility and enrichment.”

“Spain will have difficulty recognizing the racial discrimination that continues to exist without fully facing its past,” he continues.

In other words, Vincius Jr.’s treatment in Spanish stadia and Black people’s treatment in Spanish streets are reflections of Spanish society’s resistance to painful historical truths. Fining or banning supporters for using racist slurs would not fix the issue, for this reason. All the match interruptions in the world won’t stop racism.

Spain is undoubtedly not an aberration in its refusal to acknowledge historical and contemporary facts surrounding race and racism. Similar illusions exist in my own country, which believes it to be a “racial democracy” despite its history of slavery and colonialism.

Spain, Brazil, and all other nations that struggle with historical denial must face their pasts and start a national conversation about race and racism if they want to ensure the safety of Black people and other communities of color both on and off the field.

Football must and may play a significant part in this. The beautiful game is inherently egalitarian, making it an ideal platform for messages of social justice, equality, and against racism.

The media attention that Vincius Jr.’s racist abuse has received can be used to launch a crucial discussion about racism in stadiums that will eventually affect all of Spanish society. But for the Spanish football authority to do that will take bravery and vision. Now now they hold the ball.

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