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The Pepe Controversy And The Spanish Press: Marca, Xenophobia And The Lowest Common Denominator

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via <a href="http://img.kiosko.net/2012/01/20/es/marca.750.jpg">img.kiosko.net</a>Cover of Marca: "Capital Sins"
via img.kiosko.netCover of Marca: "Capital Sins"

On Wednesday, January 18th, Real Madrid's Portuguese center back Pepe walked over FC Barcelona's superstar forward Lionel Messi, who was lying on the ground after a foul. As Pepe walked past Messi, cameras showed him glancing down as he lowered his foot--onto the Argentine's left hand. Whether or not this action was intentional is still up for debate, though Pepe's history with violent conduct on the pitch--he famously attacked Javier Casquero during a match against Getafe--suggests that he would not be above this sort of low-blow.

The day after the match, Madrid-based paper "Marca" ran a series of stories that lambasted both Pepe, and Real Madrid's coach José Mourinho. These stories, in general, attacked the Portuguese coach for his tactics against Barcelona, for the attitude of his players, and for, in so many words, inciting violent behavior in his team.

In some ways, Marca are correct: Pepe's actions during the match were reprehensible and deserving of punishment. This article is not meant to defend Pepe or Mourinho from the criticisms leveled by Marca; rather, it will examine the attacks inside of a larger narrative that has been championed by Marca, to the detriment of foreign, non-white, or otherwise "othered" people in Spanish football.

Marca, and their little-brother network As, have long been at the forefront of a narrative of a Spanish football style--a story, that is, of the way football "should" be played in Spain--that stresses a particular set of characteristics: teams that play "correct" Spanish football should focus on possession, short passes, and should act with a particular brand of honor--to other teams, to the press, and to the "crest," or the team's history. This is the style and the attitude of the current Spanish national team--and it is the style of FC Barcelona (and it shocks no one that, of their normal starting lineup, 8 of 11 players, and their coach, are Spanish).

But it is not the style of Real Madrid, at least under Portuguese coach José Mourinho. In fact, Real Madrid doesn't fall under many of these characteristics--their style is, at best, rapid, vertical, and lethal on the counter attack. Mourinho's Real Madrid does not play Marca's prototypical "Spanish" style; and Mourinho himself isn't a beacon of the characteristics that Marca, and As, think a manager should exhibit.

I wish to suggest that part of Marca and As' current crusade against José Mourinho stems precisely from this problem: they are uncomfortable with the notion of a Portuguese coach bringing Portuguese players (and foreign values) to a club that they see as the embodiment of Spanish football. I am not making the case that this discomfort is the sole reason that Marca and As are crusading against Mourinho's version of Real Madrid (as Lucas said on our recent Managing Madrid Podcast, it has to do with a power struggle as well), but rather that this view informs some of their opinions, and that they play on these fears when writing some of their anti-Mourinho articles.

Take this article, "Mourinho: The Pimp That Punishes" ("Mourinho: El Chulo Que Castiga") for example: Francisco Villalobos uses his platform on Marca to call Mourinho, at different moments, "a pimp who prostitutes Real Madrid's history," "a coward," "twisted," and "Judas." But perhaps more tellingly, Mr. Villalobos' first reference to Real Madrid the team, is this: "Real Madrid became a gang again, specifically a portuguese gang." In this phrase, Mr. Villalobos not only demonstrates his own internal xenophobia, he also plays on the narrative of xenophobia that has taken heart in the lowest common denominator of Real Madrid fans. He plays to the lowest common denominator, the worst of Real Madrid fans, to try to bring up hits on his article.

Immediately after, he uses coded racist language to attack Pepe for his actions during the match: "Pepe deserves to be sold during the winter transfer market. He dirties the white shirt of Real Madrid...He's piara tapa negra, a cancer on Real Madrid's image." Mr. Villalobos once again demonstrates his own ignorance by using racially coded language to refer to a player who has been subjected to racist abuse; he also plays on the fears of the worst type of fan, as he did earlier.

This is just one example of a whole litany of similar articles that play into Marca's xenophobic narrative. As hasn't been pristine either in this respect: just today, they have published a video that tries to show Mourinho extolling the virtues of all the Portuguese players, while criticizing the Spaniards. They title the video: "Mourinho: Praise for the Portuguese Players, Divided Opinion on Everyone Else," and they describe it like this: "In the year and a half the Mourinho has coached Real Madrid, he has frequently praised players like Pepe, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Carvalho. However, with players like Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Khedira and Xabi Alonso, he has been much less generous, and even critical at times." As I'm sure you've noticed, they names three Spanish players, while subtly slipping in Khedira to make their attack less obvious.

The problem with attacks that call on the lowest common denominator's fears of race and foreigners are that they obscure things that actually are worth criticizing. Pepe's hand-stomp should be criticized. But not because he "dirties the white shirt," and not because he's Portuguese (or because Mourinho is trying to form some sort of Portuguese coalition in the locker room, as Marca has reported). However, as Lucas pointed out in his article in this series, if you are going to vehemently criticize one overt moment of violence, you have to stand your ground on all of them! Marca and As made no mention of Roberto Soldado's head-stomp the day after Pepe's. They said nothing about David Villa's stomp of Pepe. You can't pick and choose which violent actions you want to condemn simply because the perpetrators share your nationality.

Finally, Marca and As have decided to focus on the negative issues that suit them. They barely wrote a word about the embarrassing racist chanting during the Supercopa, despite the fact that that was much worse for the image of the game than these violent outbursts. They barely touch on allegations of racism when players bring it up.

They have chosen to address the issues that bring them the most readers, using techniques that inflame the passions of the worst type of fans. For this, Marca and As--and the people that write for them--cannot call what they do "journalism." They are mere sensationalist, xenophobic hypocrites, who mislead their readers while playing off their basest fears.

The opinions contained in this piece are just that: opinions. They are the author's alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Managing Madrid as an entity, or any of the other staff at Managing Madrid.