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Spain must confront its history to tackle racism in football

It’s been a month since black Brazilian forward Vinicius Jr. was subjected to another horrific episode of racist abuse during a match in Spain. While playing for Real Madrid against Valencia on 21 May, he was heckled and called a “monkey” by fans.

The incident caused outrage in my country, Brazil and around the world. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called on football organizations to “take action so that we don’t let racism and fascism take over”.

Brazilian football authorities immediately took action to protect our player. They not only condemned racist abuse and demanded action against it, but organized an anti-apartheid campaign and had the entire national team kneel in black jerseys in a friendly against Guinea in June.

The Brazilian Football Confederation also announced that, along with the Spanish Football Association, it is organizing a special anti-racism match between the two national teams to be held next year.

FIFA has also shown support. Its president Gianni Infantino expressed “full solidarity with Vinicius” immediately after the incident. Last week football’s governing body announced it was creating a special anti-racism committee made up of players and appointing Vinicius Jr as its chairman.

Meanwhile, other black footballers expressed solidarity with Vinicius Jr. and even considered forming a union to fight apartheid.

Celebrities like Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and American football player Tom Brady have also stood by him.

But while international support for the Brazilian player has been strong, the reaction in Spain has been mixed. It was this ambiguity and lack of serious action that infuriated Vinicius Junior Write on Twitter: “It’s not the first time, not the second time, not the third time. Racism is normal in La Liga. The competition thinks it’s normal, the federation does, and the opponents encourage it.”

Instead of showing unconditional support for the Brazilian player, the elite Spanish football league La Liga has done the exact opposite. Its president, Javier Tebas, attacked Vinicius Jr for his tweet, saying: “Since those who should have not explained to you what La Liga is doing and what it can do in terms of racism, we tried to explain it to you, but the two agreed dates that you You did not appear for one of the requested.”

Instead of acknowledging that there is a racism problem in La Liga, Tebas passed the ball to the Spanish police, which have done little to tackle racist abuse when complaints are filed by soccer teams.

Prior to the recent incident, Real Madrid had filed nine official complaints for racism over two seasons specifically targeting Vinicius Jr. Despite the clearly systemic nature of the racist abuses, the Spanish authorities took no action on some of these allegations.

An incident in January where an effigy of the player was hung from a bridge in Madrid went unanswered until late May, when police announced it had arrested four suspects. No clear explanation was given as to why it took them five months to act against an apparent hate crime.

One wonders if the Spanish authorities would have reacted to the racist abuse during the Valencia-Real Madrid game had there not been international outrage.

In addition to foot-dragging and shirking responsibility for racist incidents in Spanish football, victim-blaming also seems to abound. That Vinicius Jr. “provoked” his racist abusers seemed to be a popular opinion in Spain.

For example, commentator Tony Padilla, who was covering the Valencia-Real Madrid match for La Liga TV, told viewers on air: “We should always stand against racism but we should also say that Vinny Jr. is not an angel, he is not perfect. Sometimes he provokes the other team.”

After the game, Villarreal goalkeeper Pepe Reina agreed in an interview: “I see that sometimes it’s not just racism, it’s not that a fan is racist or not, but that they take it out on a certain player, because he can also speak. A lot at one point.”

Yet Vinicius Jr. is not the first black man to be racially abused in Spanish football. From Rayo Vallecano’s Nigerian goalkeeper Wilfred Agbonavba who faced “n*****”, “go pick cotton” and “Ku Klux Klan!” chants and threats of physical assault to deprive Real Madrid of the title in 1993; Barcelona’s Cameroonian forward Samuel Eto’o was repeatedly racially abused by Zaragoza fans in the mid-2000s; France striker Thierry Henry has been called a “blacks***” by Spain manager Luis Aragonés; Barcelona’s Brazilian half Dani Alves is pelted with bananas by Villarreal supporters as he takes a corner.

Despite the long and rich track record of anti-black racism in Spanish football, the common refrain after the Valencia-Real Madrid match was: “Spain is not a racist country”. Spanish society seems to be in denial about its racism problem which is not limited to football until now.

A 2016 report on the situation of the black community in Spain prepared by several Spanish non-governmental organizations states that racism exists in Spain in “perceived and persistent forms”.

It details the mistreatment, discrimination, and harassment that African immigrants and Spanish Afro-descendants face on a daily basis. It asserts that there is widespread racism in the police, judiciary, media and health sectors that affects how government institutions treat – or rather mistreat – black people.

The report, submitted to the Spanish Parliament and the UN Human Rights Office OHCHR, also states that “racism is a taboo subject” in Spain and then elaborates: “[There is] An absolute public and pedagogical erasure of slavery and the colonial Spanish past.”

While European nations, in general, don’t seem too eager to acknowledge and apologize for the enslavement and colonization of other peoples, Spain seems particularly lagging behind when it comes to speaking to its history.

One only has to look at the reaction of Spanish politicians when US President Joe Biden announced before Columbus Day in 2021 that the arrival of Europeans in North America had caused a “wave of destruction” for Native Americans and called for “these shameful episodes. Our past” cannot be buried.

In response, Pablo Casado, leader of Spain’s conservative Popular Party (PP), said in a video posted on Twitter: “Does the Kingdom of Spain have to apologize because five centuries ago it discovered the New World, respected those who were there, created it. Universities, creating prosperity, building entire cities? I don’t think so.”

Spain is clearly not ready to apologise, nor will it remember its history correctly. Along with the destruction of Spanish colonies on two continents, the role the Spanish Empire played in slavery has been conveniently omitted from official historical memory.

In the aptly titled article, The End of Self-Deception? Challenging the legacy of slavery in Spain and Catalonia, scholar Adria Enriquez Álvaro writes: “Spain’s public historical discourse ignored slavery while dismissing colonial America as a site of social mobility and prosperity.”

He then added: “Without fully confronting the past, Spain will have difficulty recognizing the racial discrimination that persists.”

In other words, what is happening to Vinicius Jr. in Spanish stadiums and black people on Spanish streets is a reflection of Spanish society’s refusal to accept uncomfortable historical facts. So fining fans or banning them from matches for racial abuse will not solve the problem. Referees can stop matches if they want but that won’t stop racists.

Spain is certainly not an outlier in refusing to face the historical and current realities of race and racism. My own country suffers from a similar delusion – that despite our history of slavery and colonialism, we live in an “ethnic democracy”.

In order for black people and other communities of color to be safe on and off the field, Spain, Brazil and all other countries suffering from historical denial must confront their past and open a nationwide dialogue on race and racism.

Football can and must play a key role in this. The egalitarianism inherent in the beautiful game makes it a natural vehicle for anti-racist ideas, equality and social cohesion.

All the attention to racist abuse against Vinicius Jr. could be used to start an important conversation on racism in the stadium that would later spread widely in Spanish society. But this requires courage and vision from the Spanish football authorities. They have the ball in their hands now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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