Denying A Player's Humanity
It was 2006 and Barcelona were playing Zaragoza. There came a point in the match where Samuel Eto'o (then of Barcelona, now at Chelsea) had had enough of the monkey chanting ringing around the stadium. He began to walk off the pitch and the game was halted until his teammates persuaded him to continue playing.
It wasn't the first time he had been subjected to racist abuse at La Romareda. 18 months previously the crowd in the same stadium made audible monkey chants every time he had the ball. No mention was made in the referee's report, however. La Liga took no action, though the police considered the matter serious enough to get involved.
The man at the centre of that affair - Samuel Eto'o - is a great player who was forced to stop bringing his family to stadiums because he didn't want to explain to his children what it all meant. But that doesn't matter, exactly. How great the player is shouldn't matter. He is a great player but chiefly he is a human being. And no human being should ever have his humanity stripped from him. That is what monkey-chanting does, of course. A player ceases to be a player; he is no longer a man. A human being is treated like an animal because of the colour of his skin.
An Incident And A Problem
This week, Marcelo was warming up in front of fans from Atlético Madrid visiting at the Bernabéu . Marcelo is a common target of racist abuse; a racist chant by Atleti's crowd is sometimes sung when he isn't even at the stadium. It was a particularly ugly incident however because this time, his child was witness to the event. According to journalist Ben Hayward (who was present and an eye-witness), as his small boy ran into his arms after the game, the crowd's abuse only worsened and the child was included in the attack.
Is there a possibility that official apathy has fostered an environment in which racist abuse is more likely in Spain? I would argue yes. Are Spaniards more racist than others? Of course not. But conditions have been created in which, it could be argued, the league has become complicit in the behaviour of crowds.
A History of Official Ineptness
Racist abuse is common in Spain, as it is in many leagues. English fans remember members of their national team being abused at the Bernabéu in 2004 during a national team game against Spain. Zaragoza was twice at the centre of racist incidents directed at the same player (Samuel Eto'o) - incidents made prominent when he took the decision to walk off. Atlético Madrid fans have apparently decided Marcelo of Real Madrid is the player they most like to direct their ire at. In 2011, Punto Pelota called out the match referee, Fernando Teixeira Vitienes, for failing to note racist chanting directed toward him in his match report.
During that game, the player shrugged it off. And this week, when Marcelo took to Twitter to announce that nothing the fans did affected him, one feels relief for the man. But it doesn't matter, does it? He shouldn't be enduring it in the first place. He should not be required to take the optimistic view. His personal strength of character and courage is no excuse for the crowds who seek to take his humanity from him.
And while this happens in many leagues, what is troubling is the lack of official response in Spain - as called out in that instance by Punto Pelota. And that, arguably, is an important difference. Official apathy creates an environment in which racism could be said to be winked at; an environment in which, because it is not taken seriously, it becomes more socially acceptable. If a referee refuses to make notes about racist abuse in his report, he becomes complicit. What message does this send to the fans? And when La Liga refuses to take serious punitive action aren't they saying, essentially, that the status quo is acceptable to them?
And in what type of environment - however competitive - does an article like the one in El Mundo Deportivo (mentioned above) become acceptable? Real Madrid's (Pepe, Álvaro Arbeloa) and Atletico's (Diego Costa) players are likened to monkeys in that piece. Explicit reference is made to Charles Darwin and the suggestion that the players have not "evolved". Throwing in Álvaro Arbeloa as a blind - oh look! A white player insulted too! - isn't even very clever. This is coded racism and it's hard to imagine what could be worse - that the writer realizes this or doesn't realize it. The language of evolution and skin-colour provides, in this case, an opportunity for José Luis López to strip these players of their humanity.
Tottenham Hotspur - A Possible Model?
Well, you can become disheartened. Or you can act. And one would expect the league to start doing better.
And there are other models. There are leagues that do better. There are clubs that do better. To my mind, Tottenham Hotspur provides a good example of a club within a league within a system that is taking racist abuse more seriously. The English FA is not perfect. English crowds have more than their share of moments. But the response is already miles ahead of the Spanish league and worth a quick look - because solutions have to start somewhere and this piece is meant to suggest them.
In England, in general, CCTV is used to track trouble-makers of all sorts - racists included. Wardens are active in expelling fans. Fans are routinely punished by the league - and also the police. Racist incidents are often investigated and punished by the FA. In recent and prominent cases, players like Chelsea's John Terry have been investigated and punished. Luis Suarez of Liverpool was at the centre of another incident involving racist abuse of Patrice Evra. Nicolas Anelka's antisemitic Quenelle gesture has prompted the FA to call in an expert as they compile their report.
A good example Real Madrid might emulate, and use our institutional weight to encourage for the league in general, is that of Tottenham Hotspur and the antisemitic abuse fans and players have had to endure from opposition fans. In this case, racist abuse has seen clubs, the police, the match-day wardens and the FA working in tandem as this excerpt from a recent BBC report (October, 2013) demonstrates regarding the term "Yid" and other antisemitic abuse from the fans of West Ham directed at Tottenham's fans and players -
The Football Association has warned supporters that the use of such words could result in a banning order or criminal charges.
The Met said the term caused harassment, alarm or distress to others, and officers would be taking action to stamp it out.
Ch Supt Mick Johnson, the match commander on Sunday, said: "This topic has been debated at length but our position is clear, racism and offensive language have no place in football or indeed in society.
"Those supporters who engage in such behaviour should be under no illusion that they may be committing an offence and may be liable to a warning or be arrested."
West Ham United also warned supporters that "unacceptable conduct" at Sunday's match could lead to fans being banned from attending games.
There is a wider debate, of course, among Jewish supporters of Tottenham about the term itself - and one recognizes that. But that is not the point of using this example. What Tottenham Hotspur shows is how action taken has been proactive, rather than reactive. Anticipating possible racist abuse and learning from past events has seen the club, the FA, the wardens and the police all become involved before racist abuse takes place, not simply after it does.
And for the all the justifiable complaints about the FA's actions - the lengths of bans, for example - there is some difference here from the official silence, the dismissiveness, the determination to go through matches with eyes wide shut, that we have seen from the Spanish league.
A final note is something observed by fellow writer Lucas Navarette - and that was that the comments to the piece in El Mundo Deportivo were shockingly racist and dismissive. It was the type of hot-headed feeling inspired by competition that one hopes the writers feel shame about later. That a journalist writing in a newspaper should encourage this racism was no help either, of course.
But it occurred to me, are stadiums to be like online forums, where fans behave with the comfort of anonymity - left unconfronted and unafraid to say things that would normally make them feel shame? Inured from the consequences of what they do?
One hopes not. It's time for an official and more proactive response from the league.
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