Spain faces reckoning after racist abuse of Real Madrid footballer

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Racism targeting Real Madrid football star Vinícius Júnior has left Spain’s top league scrambling to repair its international image and prompted national soul-searching over discrimination.

During Real Madrid’s match at Valencia last weekend, the 22-year-old Brazilian reported racist abuse from fans to the referee, but was shown the red card at the end of the match after getting involved in a scuffle with opposition players.

Javier Tebas, chief executive of La Liga, which runs the top two Spanish divisions, then sparked international outrage when he urged Vinícius to “educate himself” after the Brazilian said that the league “belonged to the racists” and urged sponsors and broadcasters to push it into taking action.

While racism is a persistent problem in Europe, the incident has left Spanish football — one of the country’s most important cultural exports — racing to reassure sponsors and fix the damage.

La Liga generated international broadcast revenue of €897mn last season, according to Enders Analysis, making it the second most valuable domestic competition in the world after England’s Premier League. Real Madrid and Barcelona are two of the most popular names in global sport.

Some of La Liga’s biggest sponsors, such as Santander and Puma, have voiced their support for Vinícius. One of the league’s commercial partners told the Financial Times that the incident was “damaging Spain’s brand”. Others in the industry warned that La Liga’s long-term appeal could be tarnished.

“No brand wants to be associated with racism. Unless something decisive is done soon, brands may opt not to renew their sponsorships,” said Ricardo Fort, a sports business consultant who previously ran global sponsorship at Visa and Coca-Cola. “The clock is ticking for La Liga.”

Javier Tebas, La Liga chief, speaking in Madrid on Thursday © Oscar Del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images

In Brazil, president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva demanded action from Fifa, football’s governing body, and La Liga, and said he would raise the issue with Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister.

The incident has dominated the news in Spain, prompting Sánchez to say there should be “zero tolerance for racism in football” and no place for xenophobia in society. But other politicians have been treading more carefully ahead of regional and local elections this weekend.

“A politician doesn’t want to say that Spaniards are racist. They say ‘it’s just a few people’. They are very careful — if you call me racist maybe I won’t vote for you,” said Carlos Miranda, a former Spanish ambassador to the UK and Nato. “The important thing is to see what will happen from next week on.”

Spain’s footballing authorities have tried to show they are serious about tackling the problem. The football federation ordered Valencia to close part of its stadium for five matches, and launched an anti-discrimination campaign with the slogan Racistas, fuera del fútbol (“Racists, get out of football”). Valencia described the punishment as “unfair and disproportionate”.

La Liga said on Wednesday that it felt “powerless” to do more and called for new legislation so it could impose sanctions on clubs and fans. Mass chants of “mono” (monkey) by opposition fans against black and mixed-race players — the same chant reported to the referee by Vinícius — are not uncommon at matches.

The Valencia match last weekend was the 10th time that racism directed at Vinícius has been reported to La Liga since 2021.

Real Madrid’s players wear the jersey of Vinícius Júnior in solidarity ahead of a match with Ray Valecano
Real Madrid players wear the jersey of Vinícius Júnior in solidarity ahead of a match with Rayo Vallecano © Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images

Tebas, who has a reputation for being outspoken, on Wednesday apologised for his comments, saying they had been misinterpreted.

In a letter to commercial partners seen by the FT, La Liga outlined its anti-racism efforts in order to “provide the necessary context around the reprehensible events”. At the same time, the letter said it was “unfair to tarnish a competition and a country in a sweeping generalisation due to the thoroughly reprehensible actions of a few”.

Police made several arrests in the days after the match related to two incidents of racism, including one involving an effigy of Vinícius hung from a bridge near Real Madrid’s training ground.

The club’s entire squad took to the pitch before a home game on Wednesday wearing Vinícius’s number 20 shirt and the Brazilian — who did not play because of injury — received a standing ovation. A huge banner at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium read: “We are all Vinícius. Enough is enough.”

Racism has dogged European football for decades. After England forwards Bukayo Saka, Jordan Sancho and Marcus Rashford missed penalties in the Euro 2020 final, the trio received a torrent of racist abuse online. The decision by Premier League players to take the knee before matches in protest at racial inequality had already sparked a political backlash in the UK.

Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku was the subject of racist chanting during a match against Juventus in April. He was sent off for gesturing towards the fans, prompting demands for Italian football authorities to take action.

Real Madrid’s Brazilian forward Vinícius Júnior reacts to fans during the match with Valencia
Vinícius Júnior reacts to fans during the match with Valencia © Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty Images

Miguel Otero, a Real Madrid fan and political economist at the Elcano Royal Institute, said Spanish football was caught in the middle of a “modernisation” that happened much earlier in England, a process that made stadiums more welcoming for families and helped to bring in more money for clubs.

“A lot of people still have this romantic view of football as a place where you can liberate your tensions, where you can say what you think, where you can shout,” he said. “But it’s become a place where you cannot just go and insult.”

Others see this week as a moment of realisation in Spain and believe that the problem will now be more effectively addressed. Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti said Vinícius had helped increase awareness and that he expected things to improve “very quickly”.

“An awful lot has happened. Society at large, not just sport, has accepted its guilty conscience a little bit,” he said after his team’s match against Rayo Vallecano. “It could be a real opportunity.”

Additional reporting by Samuel Agini in London

Source: Financial Times

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