Racism and Spanish Sports: An Analysis of Racist Chanting in the Wake of Real Madrid-Barcelona

MADRID SPAIN - JULY 12: at Plaza Espana on July 12 2010 in Madrid Spain. (Photo by Daniel Sastre/Getty Images)

Note: This is the second part of the three-part series on racism in Spanish sports that Managing Madrid began after Real Madrid's 3-2 loss in the Supercopa against Barcelona.  This installment focuses on the history of racism and racist chanting in Spain and possible methods for addressing such problems.

Many of those watching Spain and the world's two most glamorous teams face off in the Supercopa last week were shocked to hear disgusting racist chants directed at black players.  As Gabe noted in his article, Real Madrid fans made monkey noises to jeer Dani Alves in the Bernabéu, while fellow Brazilian Marcelo was greeted by Barcelona fans upon entering the pitch at the Camp Nou with chants of 'mono', or 'monkey'.  

Spain has had a long and sordid history of racism, however, as Gabe has admirably documented.  In fact, the very word 'race' in English as well as all Romance languages derives from the Spanish, and it was in medieval Spain that the foundations of modern conceptions of race and racial discrimination were laid.  'Race' does not derive from the word 'raíz' ('root'), as is commonly thought, but rather from 'raza' ('taint'), a term of art for an imperfection in a piece of cloth.  

After the end of the 800 years of conflict known as the Reconquista with the conquest of Granada in 1492, the Christian kings of Castilla and Aragón had dislodged the last vestiges of Islamic rule from the Iberian peninsula.  One of their first acts was to expel all Jews and mudéjares ('beasts of burden' - this referred to the belief among some Spanish Christians that the Moors should be kept around to use as slave labor).  While some Jews and Muslims chose to flee the country with nothing more than what they could carry on their backs, like Gabe's family, many converted to Christianity and stayed.  

These conversos, also known disparagingly as moriscos (crypto-Muslims) and marranos ('pigs', referring to converted Jews because of the Jewish practice of abstaining from pork), became widely discriminated against, often being accused (especially during the notorious Spanish Inquisition) of being false converts (in many cases, this was true, and the conversos continued to practice their original religion).  

But with everyone practicing the same religion, at least nominally, discriminatory practices became rooted in ancestry rather than actual religious beliefs.  Starting in 1449 in Toledo with the first Limpieza de Sangre ('purity of blood') statute, candidates for official positions, or membership in guilds and religious or military orders were required to prove that they were 'viejos cristianos' ('old Christians') 'sin raza de judío o de moro' ('without the taint of Jew or Moor').  Here, we see that the word raza is being used to mean an irrevocable stain, a taint that pollutes the blood of the Spanish people.  It is this concept that evolves into 'race' in the modern sense; Spain is the birthplace of racial discrimination, as opposed to discrimination based on culture or politics or religion.  

Only in the late 19th century did Spain do away with Limpieza de Sangre requirements for public office, the priesthood, college admittance, the military and professional organizations.  Little more than a century later, Spanish soccer fans continue to evoke the appalling and once commonly-held 'theory' that blacks were so biologically inferior to whites that they did not even belong to the same species, instead being closer to monkeys and apes.  

This is not a harmlessly insensitive gesture like the photograph of the Spanish national basketball team posing with their eyes slanted for a Beijing Olympics publicity stunt, but rather a vile and despicable attempt to demean and intimidate black players, similar to American college fraternity pranks that have involved white members strewing cotton balls across college-owned lawns and then watching and snickering while black janitorial staff pick it up, reminiscent of the cotton plantations of the American South which relied heavily on the slave labor of black Americans.  

The chanting at the Camp Nou and the Bernabéu are hardly the first racial incidents that Spanish football has become embroiled in.  In 2004, Spanish journalists filmed an unsuspecting Luís Aragonés, the Spain coach who later went on to lead Spain to the European Championships in 2008, attempting to fire up José Antonio Reyes before a match against France and fellow Arsenal player Thierry Henry, telling him 'demuestra que eres mejor de ese negro de mierda' (demonstrate that you are superior to that piece of sh*t n****r [I chose to use this word to convey the offensiveness of the remark in Spanish, but it lacks the connotations of the Jim Crow South that imbue the n-word with its cultural weight].  The English press in particular lambasted this remark and called for Aragonés to be dismissed, but neither the Spanish media nor the RFEF, the Spanish national federation, seemed particularly concerned, failing to censure the manager in any way. 

As a consequence of the English media's criticism of the Spain coach, the friendly match between England and Spain at the Bernabéu soon after the incident on 17 November 2004 soon turned ugly, with large sections of the Spanish fans making monkey noises whenever black English players, notably Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips, got on the ball.  After the match, with Spanish officials denying any racist chanting, claiming that "this hasn't happened in the Spanish league and Spain for many years," UEFA fined the RFEF a paltry $87,000 and made hardly credible threats of banning Spain from international tournaments should such conduct persist (Source: The Guardian, 19 Nov 2004).  

An English journalist, writing at the time of the incident, remarked that when respected English commentator Ron Atkinson had been caught making an off-hand racist comment, he was quickly sacked from his television position and dismissed from his column at the Guardian, whereas the totally unrepentant Aragonés remained in his job.  He continues:

FIFA, the world's footballing power, should back up its vaunted " zero tolerance" against racism by punishing Spain.  FIFA should also allow referees to suspend play in such circumstances.  A civilized society cannot sit back and allow black players to suffer racist abuse (Source: The Guardian, 19 Nov 2004).  

No, indeed.  Clearly FIFA, UEFA and the RFEF show no more inclination now than in 2004 to crack down on racist chanting.  We as a civilized society cannot and should not idly stand by and watch as black players are demeaned and humiliated on national television.  The behavior of Spanish football fans is disgraceful, but what can be done?

Indeed, such conduct is not limited merely to bitterly contested Clásicos and internationals where racial resentments have been stirred up.  Black players are routinely the victims of such racist chants in stadia all across Spain.  Most famously, in a match at Zaragoza's La Romareda stadium in 2006, Barcelona and Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o was the object of monkey chanting and peanuts being thrown onto the pitch, and, having been racially abused on several other occasions that season at Getafe and Albacete, decided he had had enough.  

Eto'o tried to walk off the pitch before being talked down by Ronaldinho, who had also suffered through racist chanting on other occasions, as well as his other teammates and the referee.  As Barcelona ran rampant, winning 4-1, Eto'o danced like a monkey, saying that if he was going to be treated like a monkey by the fans, he would act like one (Source: BBC, 13 Feb 2006).  

Eto'o later spoke out against the lax response by the media and Spanish authorities to the problem (Zaragoza were fined just $13,800 for the incident, and the referee wrote only in his match report that the behavior of the crowd was "normal"):

I don't make the decisions, but something needs to be done.  Right now, the media here pays attention to the incidents of racism, but doesn't discuss solutions.  That's the tragedy.  They use these images to create an impact rather than to identify racism as a problem and urge people to find a solution.  TV has a lot of weight on public opinion and what the industry must do is make people feel a social responsibility to stop this kind of behavior (SourceCNN, 13 Jun 2008).

Eto'o is certainly correct that something must be done to rectify the sorry state of racism in Spanish football.  In England, where offensive chanting has been significantly reduced, a number of solutions have contributed to the success of the FA's efficient crackdown on racism at matches.  

The FA's highly publicized Kick It Out campaign, which urges fans to "kick racism out of football" and provides them with a number to call to alert footballing authorities to racist abuse, has been highly effective.  Top EPL players of all creeds have come forward in promotional videos to pass on the message to fans that racism has no place in football and is absolutely unacceptable.  This public and unequivocal stand is at the very least infinitely preferable to the repugnant and immoral waffling of the craven RFEF on the subject of racism, even if it had no other effects.  

Furthermore, the FA and the Premier League have pressured the individual clubs to work closely with police to identify those who engage in homophobic or racist chants and to retrospectively arrest and charge them using photographic and video evidence.  Dozens of Tottenham Hotspur fans, for instance, have been charged with indecent chanting under the Football Offenses Act (a bill pushed through by the FA and its allies in Parliament) for their withering abuse of former Portsmouth defender Sol Campbell, who is regarded as a traitor by fans of the North London club for switching to hated rivals Arsenal in 2001.  These chants include both racist and homophobic abuse of the most vile sort.  Two favorite chestnuts are: 

He's big, he's black.  He takes it up his crack.  Sol Campbell, Sol Campbell.

and the even more despicable:

Sol, Sol, wherever you may be / You're on the verge of lunacy / And we don't give a f**k if you're hanging from a tree / You Judas c**t with HIV (Source: The Guardian 6 Oct 2008).

Admittedly, for years such homophobic abuse was treated with much greater leniency by the British authorities than racist abuse, but this too is now met with the full force of FA and police sanctions against those responsible.  The same cannot be said for Spain.

However, this latter approach, based more on crackdowns than on education, is unlikely to be adopted in Spain.  While Great Britain has few explicit protections for freedom of speech and expression, allowing that country to implement laws banning hate speech, the Spanish Constitution, adopted in 1978, has much more stringent and generous protections for civil liberties.  While the US, long the gold standard for legal protections for freedom of expression, essentially only criminalizes hate speech if it constitutes 'fighting words', or direct threats against a specific person, Spanish law is somewhat more vague.  It also contains a provision for prosecution of indirect incitement to violence; however, it is highly probable that monkey chanting of the sort prevalent in Spanish stadia, which, while insulting, is in no way violent in nature, would be accorded constitutional protection as free expression (Source: Freedom of Speech in American and Spanish Law: A Comparative Perspective, Coll and Doncel, Jan 2010).  Police action is almost certainly out.

So what are some realistic solutions to the problem?  First of all, a serious, concerted anti-racism campaign on the part of the clubs, the players, and hopefully the RFEF would be a great start.  However, this looks fairly unlikely at this point given the retrograde attitudes toward race that pervade Spanish society and the weakness of the RFEF.  However, a strong show of support for such a campaign by fans might be sufficient to goad some of the bigger clubs into pushing for reform themselves.  

Second, clubs must become serious about identifying and banning offenders.  Joan Laporta, the admittedly odious former Barcelona president and smarmy Catalan nationalist, must be commended for his courageous decision in 2003 to ban the Boixos Nois, Barcelona's main group of skinhead ultras (violent gangs of fans, normally with far right-wing or fascist sympathies, broadly analogous to English or Scottish firms) from all games permanently.  Real Madrid should do the same with the Ultra Sur, its own band of Neo-Nazi thugs who are typically responsible for the bulk of racist activity during games.  A five or ten year ban for racist or homophobic chanting would be a highly effective deterrent to such behavior.  

Fundamentally, however, racist chanting will continue until either attitudes toward race in Spanish culture change, which is a slow and ponderous process, or public opprobrium threatens to harm the reputation (and foreign TV revenues) of the Spanish game so significantly that the RFEF is spurred into taking real action. You can contribute to the latter.  If you find this kind of behavior unacceptable, speak up.  If you happen to be at a game and you see someone throwing peanuts at a black player, stand up and let him know that such behavior is unacceptable.  If you merely watch on TV, then circulate a petition and send it off to your favorite club to let them know that you see what is happening and you will not sit by while they do nothing.  I do not think that change will be easy for Spain, but if we have to drag Spanish football kicking and screaming into the 21st century, then so be it.

Caveat: Obviously there is racism outside of Spain.  There is racism in football outside of Spain.  There are people in Spain who are not racist.  None of these are objections to my argument.  The fact of the matter is, racism is such a low priority for those in charge of Spanish football that these events do not get treated with the same gravity as racist incidents in general and in sport in, for example, the US, Britain or Germany.  As intelligent, discerning fans of Spanish football, it is our responsibility to stand up when we see racist or offensive behavior go unchallenged and unpunished.  I hope and would expect that any of our Spanish readers also find this kind of behavior intolerable, so to be clear this is not an attack on them.

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