The torrent of racial abuse at Spanish matches is the product of a society that is in flux and is also uneasy with immigration. But don’t be complacent, warns Martin Jacques. This is an enemy that English football has yet to defeat
Getafe is a small industrial satellite town on the southern edge of Madrid. Its football ground is modest in the extreme, all-seated but covered on just one side, with a capacity of a mere 13,000. The ground is lined on two sides by soulless, multi-lane roads, on another by a building site and on the fourth by five-storey public housing. Getafe hardly seems the appropriate place to take the temperature of Spanish football. But on a Sunday evening in March, the club, lingering in the lower reaches of the Primera Liga, played Real Madrid . It may only be 15 kilometres from the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Real’s temple to football in central Madrid, to the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, Getafe’s humble home on its outskirts, but the clubs occupy two entirely different worlds.
Getafe that evening, though, was host to a little history. A few days earlier, Real had been eliminated from the Champions League by Juventus. In this game Getafe, Madrid’s minnows, were to inflict a humiliating 2-1 defeat on Real. For the second consecutive year, Real had to all but abandon hope of winning La Liga. Worse, with five of their galácticos present – Zidane, Figo, Raúl, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos – Real were effortless and listless, exposed as a team of mercenaries with no ethos other than the beguiling euro. ‘The end of the galáctico model’ pronounced an editorial in El Mundo the following day. ‘Galacticide in Getafe’ roared the sports daily As.
The Bernabéu, towering and self-important, has become a symbol of the crisis of Spanish football. The galáctico model – heralded not long ago as invincible – has crashed to earth, the imperious arrogance replaced by stupefying embarrassment. Spanish football, at least in its Castilian form, walks small. But the Bernabéu symbolises the crisis of Spanish football in another, rather different sense. On 17 November last year, it was the venue for the friendly between Spain and England and was the scene of the most appalling display of mass racism at a major European football match for a long time. The meaning and consequences of that night still reverberate around Spain and Europe.
Getafe itself is no stranger to racism. In February, Osasuna striker Richard Morales was subject to persistent racial abuse but Getafe were fined a paltry £435 by the Spanish Football Federation. As the team coaches arrived for the match and the players made their way into the stadium, scores of fans rushed up to the wire fence and shouted ‘nigger, nigger’ at Daniel Kome, a Cameroon midfielder and Getafe’s only black player. In fact, he was the only nonwhite face I saw – except Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos – until I joined a throng of people watching the game for free on a hill overlooking the ground. There, more than half the spectators, mainly kids, were of North African origin. Getafe is an immigrant town, but when it comes to football it is a metaphor for racial segregation. For some bizarre reason, even during the warm-up, Kome was to be seen training on his own, away from the rest of the squad.
That November night at the Bernabéu triggered an epidemic of racial abuse at Spain’s football grounds. It remains etched on the memories of those who were present. Marcelino Bondjale, who was born in Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony, and came to the country 25 years ago, was one of them. Now 44 years old, he is a teacher and general secretary of the Coalición Española contra el Racismo [Cecra], the Spanish Coalition Against Racism. ‘There were almost as many black people on the pitch as in the stadium. I counted eight altogether.’ His colleague from Cecra, Carlos Ferreyra Núñez, a doctor, said: ‘Eight out of 10 people were monkey chanting. It was more or less the whole stadium. Even the VIP section was monkey chanting. Most of the crowd was middle class, even upper class.’ Diego Torres, a sports journalist for El Pais, commented: ‘The reaction of the fans was shameful. I felt ashamed. It was the worst racist behaviour I have ever seen in Spain.’ Nor was it confined to the stadium. ‘When I came out,’ commented Bondjale, ‘people were monkey chanting at me in the street.’
After the match, Fernando Garrido, the spokesman for the Spanish Federation ( the RFEF), claimed that the racist chanting had been without precedent at Spanish grounds ‘for years’, implying that it was all the fault of the British media for attacking Luis Aragonés, the Spanish manager, over comments he had made about Thierry Henry. Juan Castro, a journalist on the sports daily Marca, expresses a widely held view. ‘Monkey chanting does not have a racist cause,’ he says. ‘It is a way of insulting the enemy team. It has a football cause, not a racial motivation. The Bernabéu was a cultural thing. It was a joke. It wasn’t racist.’
Spain is in denial about its racism.
The exception? ‘It is well known,’ says Bondjale, ‘that any time a black player gets the ball, there is monkey chanting – this is the norm. When monkey chanting starts, part of the crowd is silent, the other joins in. And nobody ever does anything. No one has ever been prosecuted for monkey chanting. The police can be standing two metres away and they never intervene.’
So, contrary to what Garrido claims, racist chanting is nothing new. But that night at the Bernabéu exposed the racism in Spanish football to the uncomfortable glare of international publicity for the first time. ‘Since then,’ according to Diego Torres, ‘there has been a kind of disease that has been spreading, by example, around the football grounds.’
Atlético Madrid fans chanted racist abuse against Real’s Roberto Carlos during the derby on 9 January, for which the club was fined a mere £435. Albacete and Real Zaragoza fans have racially abused Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o in recent matches. Deportivo La Coruña fans chanted racial insults at Roberto Carlos. The referee, to his credit, called a brief halt to the game. The day before Getafe’s game with Real in March, Paulo Wanchope was running through his toning-down exercises after a game at Málaga when a small group of home fans – his team’s supporters – began racially abusing him. ‘It all started,’ according to Wanchope, who is from Costa Rica, ‘when one fan started to shout all sorts of things at me with a megaphone. I was worthless. I made too much money. I decided to go to the stands and told him to say it to my face. He kicked me so I defended myself. Another fan hit me from behind. A small group of fans then started to make monkey noises and started shouting negro de mierda [black shit – the phrase that Aragonés used to describe Henry, to his clubmate José Antonio Reyes].’
Eto’o, from Cameroon, has been the target of much racist abuse. To his credit, like Henry, he has not remained silent, even though, in this climate of denial, black players are risking their own prospects by speaking out. After he scored in a match against Real Zaragoza, the crowd started to monkey chant; Eto’o responded by imitating a monkey. ‘People paid for their tickets to see a monkey and so I did it. Each time this happens then I will do it.’ A relatively recent arrival in Spain, Eto’o added: ‘I thought the racist chanting was just a fad, but it seems to be becoming more widespread and more vitriolic.’ Asked if a black referee could ever take charge of a Primera Liga game, he said: ‘If one arrived here, then they would kill him.’
In reply to a question about what might be done to combat racism, Eto’o said: ‘It is the journalists and the white players who can send the strongest messages.’
Alas, few journalists spoke out against Aragonés and, in the great majority, they have remained silent about the racism. Not a single white player has made his voice heard, David Beckham included. The role of the RFEF has been despicable. Rather than criticising Aragonés for his racist outburst against Henry, they have consistently defended him. They refused to take any action or make any statement against the racist chanting that engulfed the Bernabéu that November night. Eventually, at the request of Spain’s Comisión Antiviolencia (Anti-Violence Commission), the RFEF fined Aragonés – some four months after the event – a derisory £2,000 for his attack on Henry. Their president, Angel María Villar, recently accused those who have continued to criticise Aragonés, adding: ‘ Everyone knows Aragonés is not a racist.’ Meanwhile, their spokesman Fernando Garrido said, somewhat contradictorily: ‘There is no racism in our football. Absolutely no racism. We are sure about it. There is an occasional incident.’
To add insult to injury, the RFEF recently stopped its grant to the Coalition Against Racism. Carlos Ferreyra Núñez, the organisation’s president, said: ‘ The Coalition feels that it is a punishment for speaking out against racism.’
The events at the Bernabéu have poisoned the atmosphere not only in football but also in the wider society. This is the price now being paid for the RFEF’s support for Aragonés’s racism and their refusal to condemn the racist behaviour that scarred the England game. Even the Spanish government has moved reluctantly, promising action while doing virtually nothing. Extraordinarily, the Anti-Violence Commission – which was established in response to the violence at football grounds, some of it racially inspired – has not a single representative from the ethnic minorities.
The minorities remain deeply isolated in Spanish society, especially the Africans, who live on the edge of the economy in a twilight world of casualised labour. The gypsies, who number almost a million, have been outcasts for centuries. The Spaniards, with their fingers in their ears and their eyes firmly shut, remain in denial. There is no anti-racist legislation, except that required by the European Directive on Discrimination. Spain has barely begun to think about these issues.
According to Marcelino Bondjale, ‘racism against blacks is worse than 20 years ago. Football is an expression of this. There are more blacks now, but the Spanish people haven’t changed. When I have a problem with the police they don’t believe I am Spanish. I suffer the same racism as an immigrant. My son [just fi ve and born in Spain] is not treated as Spanish. The teacher tells the class he is from Africa. The danger is that the situation in football could worsen the situation in society.’
Santiago Seguroila, the sports editor of El Pais, Spain’s most influential paper, and virtually the only journalist to call for the sacking of Aragonés after his original outburst against Henry, is very concerned about the deterioration in the situation. ‘Spain used to be a closed society with no immigration. Everyone here was Spanish. It was football that brought the first people of colour from Latin America and Africa during the Fifties and Sixties. During that time there was no problem with racist chanting in the stadiums. But in the past 15 years, Spain has experienced serious immigration for the first time. There are tensions in society and these have been magnified by the Madrid bombing. Luis Aragonés should have been fired. His words were intolerable. The example of the Spanish Federation is very sad. They try to forget what happened. But it is dangerous because the ultra-right movements are trying to use it. As yet it is not an acute problem, but it could grow into one.’
The racism that blights Spanish football is not unique: on the contrary, in some degree or another, it exists in every European country. But, as Piara Powar, the coordinator of Britain’s Kick it Out campaign points out, ‘the special significance of the Bernabéu was that it was so high profile, with a global audience and huge numbers involved in the abuse’.
The most obvious previous occasion was the Euro 2004 qualifier in October 2002 between England and Slovakia in Bratislava when the crowd – in a country with barely any black people – erupted seemingly to a person in racist abuse, including even the stretcher-bearers. In that case, however, the football authorities were contrite, formally apologising both to the English Football Association and to the players. Spain is a different proposition. It is one of the great footballing nations, home to Real Madrid and Barcelona, and it has refused to condemn what happened; the near-silence has, in effect, condoned the racist behaviour both of Aragonés and the fans.
Football is the fault line of racism in Europe. No other activity, be it cultural or political, commands the emotion, passion and allegiance, certainly of men, in the same way. Football is the cultural lingua franca of European men. Far from being some kind of hermetically sealed hobby on the periphery of society, a phenomenon only of interest to those who read the sports pages, football is an exemplar of society: it mirrors and gives expression to society’s passions and prejudices in a way that politics, for example, is, for the most part, quite unable to do. Indeed, it is about the only activity in which men collectively and publicly express their own emotions. What happened in the Bernabéu exposed, in all its raw crudity, the prejudices that inform Spanish society. Official, polite society – parliament, the media and the rest – contains, channels, constrains and seeks to deny these prejudices. Football reveals them. Bernabéu was one of the most important political events in Europe in 2004, the largest mass racist demonstration in recent years.
There is another, very particular reason why football plays this role. As a game, it is a great leveller. Anyone can play it. You need neither money nor resources; you simply need time and space to practise. That is why more than a century ago, as leisure time expanded, the working class displaced the upper classes in British football. But what was once true within the context of the nation-state has become a global phenomenon. If football was, until recently, the preserve of the white working class, now the archetypal player is black – and Brazilian, African or from the African diaspora. Football has given the world’s poor a chance to succeed and find a place in the sun. The great leveller has, in this context, even managed to overcome the formidable barrier of European racism: despite all the prejudice, black players are now present in every major European league, in very large numbers in the case of England and France.
But Europe is a continent suffused with prejudice. Its status and identity, its history and sense of self, has, over centuries, been intimately bound up with a sense of racial and cultural supremacy. White skin became the signifier and affirmation of superiority. As a result of colonialism, much of the rest of the world was subject to its influence and fiat, often in barbaric forms. No continent suffered more than Africa, first through the slave trade and then in the imperial carve-up of the late 19th century. If white was the metaphor for superiority, black, in the European mind, became the code for inferiority: that night at the Bernabéu, Shaun Wright- Phillips was the object of far more racial taunts than Rio Ferdinand or Jermaine Jenas simply because he is darker.
The reason why football has become the fault line of European racism is not simply because it is the popular male discourse bar none, but because, far more than in any other activity, black and brown people are present in large numbers and, as players, are the subjects of our emotions and passions. The football stadium – like nowhere else in society – brings white men, in the form of the crowd (the latter everywhere in Europe remains overwhelmingly white), into contact with black men, the players. Football, like nothing else, confronts European society with its own history, culture and prejudice. It is a racial cauldron.
After the Bernabéu, the English were outspoken. They denounced the racist behaviour of the Spanish crowd. Tabloids and broadsheets, the FA and television pundits, the prime minister and the sports minister all condemned the monkey chanting. Never before had the football world in England been so unanimous and explicit about racism. It marked a new level of awareness and determination both within and outside the game. But as John Barnes, the former Liverpool and England winger who was often abused in his playing days, was moved to say in the immediate aftermath: ‘Please let’s not all believe we’re much better in this country. Because we don’t hear it any more we think we’re getting rid of racism. They might be less vocal but there are plenty of racists around in English football.’
The stridency of the condemnation carried more than a hint of the sanctimonious: the implication that somehow the English game was no longer tainted with racism. An interesting trait of racism is that the perpetrators – conscious or unconscious – are always in denial. It was so in the 1970s and 1980s, when monkey chanting and banana throwing were at their height in the English game and it was rarely ever reported on. And it was true again now as people in the game queued up to condemn the events in the Bernabéu while remaining silent about the racist practices that abound in the Football Association, the clubs and the media at home.
Paul Elliott, a former Chelsea captain who, like Barnes, was once the object of endless racial taunts, says: ‘It is much better than the Seventies and Eighties, when the atmosphere was intimidatory. Back then the mindset was that you just had to put up with it; it was part of the game. It was conveniently swept under the carpet. It was taboo. It was never reported.’
‘It’s good that people are talking about racism now,’ says Barnes, ‘but it’s how they’re talking. The biggest thing for me is the hypocrisy of the people who were around 10 or 15 years ago when this was going on [in England]. Why weren’t they saying anything then? Is it just politically correct to be doing it now?’ As Barnes implies, the racism at football matches was virtually never written about in the newspapers, either on the front or back pages. For its part, the BBC used to turn down the sound feed so the listeners could not hear the monkey chanting, and the commentators and pundits almost never mentioned it.
The incidents of racist abuse are still legion. The Egypt striker Mido was abused by Southampton fans in March when playing for Spurs; there was the mass racist abuse by England fans in the match against Turkey at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light in April 2003; there was the racial abuse of Birmingham’s Dwight Yorke at Blackburn last November; and even claims of players being racially abused by their opponents. These are just a few examples. But they are much less than they were in the dark days of the Eighties, above all because the football authorities no longer choose to ignore racism on the terraces. Such action does not in itself change attitudes – it merely makes overt racist behaviour unacceptable – but it can help foster a different climate.
The roots of racism, however, lie deep in the white English psyche. It has not disappeared simply because it is much less visible or audible than it once was. That racism is no longer tolerated does not mean that it has somehow been eradicated. As Paul Elliott puts it: ‘While there has been good progress, we can’t be complacent – if we do, the ugly days of the Eighties could return.’
Racist chanting may have been largely banished from the terraces, but racist attitudes still pervade the game. One only has to recall Ron Atkinson’s remark this time last year about Marcel Desailly, that he was ‘a fucking lazy thick nigger’. And it was no slip of the tongue. At a fund-raising dinner in January, he said: ‘I can’t understand why there is such a population problem in China as they have the best contraception going – Chinese women are the ugliest in the world.’ Or, indeed, the FA’s recent DVD – The Pride of the Nation – that featured what were described as the 20 best England players of the past 40 years. They were all white. In response to a wave of protests, the DVD was rapidly withdrawn.
Such oversights are not accidental. They are related to the fact that institutions such as the FA remain oppressively white. Every single member of their 14-member ruling board is white and, likewise, the 92-member FA Council. Black players may have gained widespread acceptance on the pitch – a quarter of the players in the Premiership are black or mixed race – but otherwise football remains a shockingly white world. And John Barnes adds: ‘There are things going on in football in this country that people won’t even write or talk about.’
Football is a multiracial game only on the pitch. The facts speak for themselves. There are no black managers in the Premiership. There are only three black managers in the whole Football League: Leroy Rosenior at Torquay, Keith Alexander at Lincoln and Carlton Palmer at Mansfield. Every member of the board of the Premiership clubs, bar one, is white – and it is the boards that appoint the managers. Only 2 per cent of the management staff and 4 per cent of the administrative staff are non-white. Less than 1 per cent of season-ticket holders at Premiership clubs are black or Asian. There is one predictable exception to this virtual white-out. A fifth of ‘other staff ‘ – catering, turnstiles, cleaning – are non-white.
Former black players have found it enormously difficult to get jobs as coaches, let alone managers. The two Premiership exceptions, Ruud Gullit and Jean Tigana, were both huge international stars, Dutch and French respectively. The story of Ricky Hill, a former Luton player, who gained three caps for England, is the tale of many. He went to the United States, where he managed a side, receiving the American Professional League’s coach of the year award in 1992, before returning to England to take charge of youth teams at Sheffield Wednesday and then Spurs.
In 2000, he was appointed manager of Luton Town, two weeks before the season began. ‘I went in wide-eyed – to bring better times to the club,’ he says. ‘But it was very difficult. The playing staff needed drastic surgery.’ After four months in the post he was dismissed. He had hardly got his feet under the table. You can feel Hill’s pain, his sense of disappointment. He has never had another opportunity in this country, either in management or coaching. Paul Davis, the former Arsenal midfielder, tells a very similar story, of being overlooked even though he was eminently qualified. It is virtually impossible to prove discrimination on grounds of colour. As John Barnes says: ‘Unless the chief executive says, “Get rid of that nigger” and you’ve got it on tape, how can you prove it?’
In truth, when virtually everyone involved in the decision-making is white and the applicant is black, then, in some shape or form, colour is invariably lurking somewhere in the mental undergrowth. Les Ferdinand and Paul Ince have both stated their desire to enter management. They won’t find it easy.
The implicit racial stereotyping is obvious. Blacks are accepted as footballers, but not as managers. Just as in the rest of society, they are not welcomed and accepted in jobs that carry authority and responsibility. It is rare, indeed, for a white person to have a black boss to whom they are accountable.
Take another example, the television studio. The football commentators and pundits, almost to a man, are white. We watch black players on the pitch then listen to white experts giving us the benefit of their views. It is a form of separation: black on the pitch, white in the studio. There is Andy Gray and Richard Keys on Sky, John Motson, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and Gary Lineker on the BBC. It is a white man’s club. Just occasionally we are treated to a black face, a Chris Kamara, Garth Crooks or perhaps Ian Wright. The only notable exception is John Barnes on Channel Five.
From Spain to England, racism remains deeply entrenched in football. Slowly, in some countries at least, it is being made that bit more unacceptable. In Germany, for example, the situation is significantly better than it was in the Nineties, though in the lower divisions racial chanting remains a feature of many games. The gains have been hard-won. Nor are they impregnable. Events such as those in the Bernabéu have the capacity to worsen the position not only in Spain, but in other countries too, as does the growing xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling on the rise in most European countries, including Britain.
That football is the popular crucible of race means that it reflects the tensions and prejudices in wider society. Football has the capacity to exacerbate those tensions or ameliorate them. In Spain, it exacerbates them; in England, it probably ameliorates them. But that could so easily change.