The racism problem that Spanish football now needs to face…
UPDATE: This article was written in the immediate aftermath of the Madrid Derby, but Atlético Madrid have since published a statement on the incidents before and during the match, which you can read in English HERE.
LaLiga has a problem. Spanish football has a problem. Spain has a problem.
The build up to the Madrid Derby should be feisty. As one of the biggest derbies in world football, the intensity of the rivalry should be on the front page of every publication and on the lips of every supporter. It is a derby that usually delivers, one that combines the intensity and skill on the pitch with the passion and fervor off the pitch. It is clear to see why LaLiga market this match so heavily, it is one that certainly gets eyeballs on screens and butts in seats, so to speak.
But this time was very different. There has been discourse in Spain early this season around Real Madrid winger Vinícius Júnior. The brilliant winger has quickly become one of LaLiga’s biggest stars, and his pace, flair, and lethal finishing makes him must-see every time he steps out onto the pitch. It is that samba flair that became an issue to some in Spanish football, however, as Viní had been criticized for the entire week leading into this match as some accused him of being a showboat. Some thought his skills were done to humiliate his opponents, and many were critical of his dancing to celebrate goals. Mallorca players had allegedly made jibes toward Vinícius in their game against Real Madrid, saying they should break Viní’s legs to stop him from dancing. The players were allegedly instructed by Mallorca manager Javier Aguirre to target and kick the Brazilian. This all felt very “Neymar-esque”, but it then took a decidedly darker, more depressing turn.
Pedro Bravo, the President of the Spanish Agents Association, appeared on El Chiringuito after the Mallorca game and said that Viní’s celebrations were unprofessional, saying that the Brazilian needed to “stop playing the monkey”. I do not need to be the one to tell you that this is decidedly, unequivocally racist. Pedro Bravo was rightly called out from all sides for a disgustingly racist statement, one which he later retracted. Whether Bravo truly had racist and vile intent on his mind when making that statement or not, it is a statement that should be widely criticized and challenged in the year 2022. This should not be tolerated. But this is not where the league comes in.
Before the Madrid Derby, multiple videos emerged of Atléti supporters outside of the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano and supporters entering the stadium. The normal color and vibrancy of pre-match festivities at Atléti matches was pierced by a distinct chant. Hundreds of Atléti supporters, spread over multiple videos on social media, proudly and happily repeated this chant into perpetuity.
“Vinícius, eres un mono”. Vinícius, you are a monkey.
This continued into the match, with many similar chants apparently being directed toward the Brazilian. Very audible whistles and what sounded like monkey chants were also directed toward Vinícius every time he touched the ball. It is unconfirmed, but it did appear that the referees activated Step 1 of UEFA’s Three Step Protocol for combatting racism in the stands, with a PA announcement to the fans being made during the first half, though it was loudly drowned out by the whistles of the Atléti fans. Rodrygo scored, Viní did his dance, and Real Madrid won 2-1, but it is clear that the match was overshadowed by this awful, awful situation. A match this big felt almost inconsequential in the context of what happened around it.
It is 2022. Incidents like this should not be happening, especially so publicly and so brazenly. This is not about politics or anything like that, but it is about respect, empathy, and human decency. This is unacceptable and should not be happening in a LaLiga stadium. This is where the league and club come into play. There should be a zero tolerance policy for things like this.
From an Atlético Madrid perspective, much of the trouble in the past, and potentially in this match too, stem from the Frente Atlético, Atléti’s main ultras group which occupies the Fondo Sur, the stand behind the south goal, at the Metropolitano. They are, to put it bluntly, fascists and racists. They have been involved in numerous incidents in the past involving racism, fan violence, and displays of fascist and Nazi iconography, even being involved in the murder of a Real Sociedad supporter in 1998 and a Deportivo La Coruña fan in 2014. All within the last year, the Frente have been involved in this, incidents at the end of the Atléti-Villarreal game where they threw objects at Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno and attempted to fight Atléti center back Mario Hermoso, incidents in Atléti’s Champions League tie with Manchester City last season including being caught giving Nazi salutes, and incidents in a Madrid Derby in the UEFA Youth League last season which included directing monkey chants at then-19 year old Real Madrid winger Peter González.
Atléti are hardly the only team in Europe, even in Spain, that have had issues with these sorts of groups. Barcelona and Real Madrid had their own violent, far-right ultras groups, the Boixos Nois and Ultras Sur, respectively, who have both since been (mostly) banned from their stadiums by the clubs’ presidents. While Atléti technically cut all formal ties with the Frente and technically banned them from the stadium in 2014, this is a ban that is usually not strongly enforced. The Frente have regularly been seen in the Fondo Sur since the Metropolitano opened. Frente symbols and logos can regularly be seen, and the club themselves have even used Frente scarves and flags in celebrations and prominently put some of those in the dressing room during the COVID season in 2020/21, when Atléti won the league. The Frente even paid for the statue of Luis Aragonés that is outside of the Metropolitano. It appears that the connection between the club and the Frente is strong.
And that needs to change. While today is certainly not the worst thing the Frente have ever allegedly been involved with (they have been responsible for two murders, after all), this has to be the breaking point for the club. An incident like this is incredibly embarrassing for Atléti, and this allows the entire world to view Atlético Madrid as a club of thugs and racists. The Frente need to be banned from the stadium, wholly and completely, no exception.
Now, it does then lead to the uncomfortable conversation that this was not just the Frente. While it is entirely possible the Frente were involved (and the image of an Atléti fan holding an effigy of Vinícius did include many fans wearing the typical black-clad outfit of the Frente), this is a much larger problem within Atléti’s fanbase as a whole. While I am certainly in no way accusing all Atléti fans of being racist, and I certainly commend the Atléti fans, fan groups, and fan publications that have denounced the actions of the Frente and of many others within the fanbase this evening, there was enough from this game to conclude that the issues were not just coming from the Fondo Sur. There are now multiple testimonies of fans and journalists at the match hearing monkey chants originating from other areas of the stadium. Previous incidents of Atléti fans loudly whistling Premier League opposition when they took the knee before Champions League matches certainly also were not isolated to just the Frente. Even other fans describing the match-going experience at Atléti in the past have described hearing some racist remarks from supporters who were not among the Frente.
Again, I am not trying to paint all Atléti fans as racists, but it is hard to deny that there is a disgustingly racist element within this fanbase that has been allowed to fester for decades. And this is not just an Atléti problem, this is a Spanish problem. Racism is still a societal issue within Spain. It can be found in many areas of life outside of sport, but it has definitely manifested itself in sport and not just among fans. As Pedro Bravo’s appearance on El Chiringuito showed, it is an issue within Spanish sporting media as well, as that was certainly not the first incident. There was the radio commentator who, before a Belgian World Cup game in 2018, referred to Romelu Lukaku as “King Kong”, or the pundit who said you could not associate Pedri with Canarian bananas but Makelélé would be more fitting. And that is only scratching the surface.
The ignorance is ingrained, baked well into Spanish society. It is not on football clubs to solve this issue in society by themselves, but they need to take steps that show they are actually serious about these issues and not just doing the bare minimum. The “bare minimum” action Atléti did today, their vague and frankly pathetic statement issued on social media prior to the game starting, is unacceptable.
If Atléti are actually serious about being against racism and discrimination, about wanting to foster a positive, accepting, and family-oriented atmosphere at the Metropolitano, then they need to actually back up those words with actions. If Atléti truly want to be a global club and appeal to fans around the world from all cultures and walks of life, then they cannot be so closely associated with something this evil and disgusting. If Atléti truly want to view these people as a minority that do not represent them, then they need to actually remove the strong ties between these racist fans and the football club. Banning the Frente is certainly not the only thing Atléti needs to do to combat racism within their stadium, but it is a good start.
And even if I did have faith in Atléti actually doing anything about the Frente or any other elements of racism in their fanbase, which I do not, there is still responsibility and blame to be had for LaLiga. The league actually needs to show that they care enough about this issue to do something, to show that they actually care about protecting the players. The league needs to hold these clubs truly accountable for the actions of their fans. Hold their feet to the fire, make them actually create reforms and structures at the club to hold these people legally and personally responsible. Atléti are not the sole perpetrators here. Vinícius has received racist abuse from three different fanbases in LaLiga in the last two years, including in games against Mallorca and Barcelona last season. Both Iñaki and Nico Williams have been subject to racist abuse within stadiums (Iñaki on multiple occasions) and former Cadiz midfielder Carlos Akapo was also subject to racist abuse within the last few seasons.
LaLiga has to make this a zero tolerance sort of thing. If the league forces this institutionally, setting up zero-tolerance policies toward racism in the stadium, then the clubs will have no choice but to follow. The fan that hurled racist abuse at Akapo received a one year ban, and that simply is not long enough. LaLiga has to lobby or influence clubs or institutions to make these bans longer, if not for life. LaLiga has to force clubs to permanently remove racist and dangerous fan groups from stadiums. I see no reason why LaLiga should not be allowed to force Atléti to ban the Frente, for instance. Sanction the clubs, make them play behind closed doors, force clubs to adopt modern security measures to effectively identify troublemakers, enforce points deductions, provide serious or severe fines, ban them from European competition. Do something that is more than the stern talking to and light, “slap on the wrist” fine that you have been doing up to this point, because that is clearly not working and is starting to become a joke. If this is not treated as a zero tolerance offense, then these incidents will still keep happening. At the end of the day, LaLiga actually needs to take serious action. While things have somewhat improved recently, the problem is still clearly there. Declaring a “Week Against Racism” and releasing a cool kit on FIFA Ultimate Team simply is not enough here.
On top of an issue of human decency and empathy, which this is more than anything else, this also is a marketing issue, and if viewing this through the lens of dollars and cents is what motivates action, then so be it. The league spent over a week building hype and anticipation for the Madrid Derby, as they should. It is normally one of the biggest games on the calendar for LaLiga as one of the biggest derbies in Europe, and it is by far the biggest game of the season to this point. And all of those fans that LaLiga wanted to watch were able to see one of the leagues biggest stars be subjected to monkey chants for 90 minutes. They were able to react with disgust that the league and Atlético Madrid would allow something like this to happen. Their views of the league have likely soured, any joy that could have come from the game was sapped away. If LaLiga want to be a global marketing giant at or near the level of the Premier League, then things like this cannot happen and they need to be dealt with in the strongest way possible.
I love Spanish football. I love LaLiga. I hold Atlético Madrid in very high regard, even knowing about the Frente Atlético and the club’s relationship with them. But this simply cannot continue. This might be the biggest black eye, the most embarrassing moment for Atléti and LaLiga over the last several years. It is 2022. This is behavior that cannot be accepted any longer. Something has to be done about this, both by Atléti and by the league. If not, then any statements or hollow symbolic actions by either Atléti or anyone within LaLiga regarding no tolerance for racism will never be taken seriously.
When these sort of incidents happen, I think of Samuel Eto’o. The Cameroonian footballing icon was victim of racist abuse several times during his career in Spain, but I think of one particular incident from a game between Barcelona and Real Zaragoza at La Romareda in 2006. After 77 minutes of vile racist abuse from the Zaragoza fans, Eto’o had enough and walked off the pitch. When players and officials tried to stop him, he gave them a simple two word response, a response that is very fitting for this situation and will be very fitting for the future.
“No más”. No more.
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