‘It’s not just in football’: young players’ families on racism in Spain | Spain
A little after 5pm on Tuesday, a young boy in a Real Madrid strip trotted on to a damp neighbourhood football pitch in the centre of the Spanish capital, oblivious to both the racism flung at the man whose name he wore on his back, and to the national and international debate it had generated. “We haven’t told him about the Vinícius thing yet,” said Mohamed’s mother, Milene Dos Santos, as she and her husband looked on from the sidelines. “If he asks, then we’ll tell him. He’s only seven, but he’ll need to be prepared for what’s to come.”
It appears the events of the past few days have been too much for many, far older, Spaniards to take in, too. The abuse hurled at Real Madrid’s Brazilian winger, Vinícius Júnior during a match against Valencia on Sunday has already resulted in three swift arrests. Four other people, meanwhile, have been arrested in connection with the dummy, dressed in the player’s shirt, that was hung from a Madrid bridge in the Spanish capital.
The 22-year-old footballer, who was reduced to tears by the latest racist aggressions, said his treatment was proof of just how thoroughly racism permeates both La Liga and Spanish society.
“I’m sorry for those Spaniards who disagree but today, in Brazil, Spain is known as a country of racists,” he said after the match.
His words were echoed by Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who called on Fifa and La Liga to take “serious measures”, adding: “We cannot allow fascism and racism to seize control of football stadiums.”
Those charges have forced Spain’s political leaders to position themselves on the issue of racism as the country goes to the polls for regional and municipal elections on Sunday. The Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said that “hatred and xenophobia should have no place in football nor in our society”. A government spokesperson went further, insisting perpetrators of racism behaviour “are prosecuted and punished” in Spain.
Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the conservative People’s party, said racism and sport were “totally incompatible”, but added: “Spain is not a racist country in any way.”
The campaign trail platitudes and denials felt rather remote to some of those gathered around the pitch where Mohamed and his teammates were training in Lavapiés, the diverse Madrid neighbourhood where African and Bangladeshi shops and restaurants rub up against hipster coffee shops. Their neighbourhood club, Dragones de Lavapiés, fields 20 teams made up of around 400 players from more than 50 different countries.
Dos Santos, who was born in Portugal to parents from Cape Verde but has lived in Spain for 30 of her 32 years, said she had grown up with all manner of microaggressions, from people touching her hair to repeated questions as to why she spoke such good Spanish.
“It’s a burden I’ve carried since I was a kid,” she said. “I grew up here but I’ve never felt like I was from here.”
She and her husband, Ibrahim Ndao, who was born in Senegal, felt bad about the abuse Vinícius had suffered, but were not surprised by it.
“There’s systemic racism in Spain and I hope what’s happened opens people’s eyes to it,” she said. “Maybe people with privilege will take notice. Maybe it’s easier not to acknowledge the reality or maybe lots of people just aren’t conscious of it. There are very few politicians of colour; you look at all the TV election debates and there’s no one of colour.” Spain, she added, “still has a long way to go”.
Mame Gueye, who had brought her eight-year-old son, Serigne, to Dragones training said she had felt awful when she saw what Vinícius had been forced to endure.
“He was so depressed and powerless about what was happening,” she said. “I think he was scared and nervous and has suffered a lot and no one has done anything. He’s complained and nothing’s been done.”
However, Gueye, who moved to Spain from Senegal 15 years ago, disagreed with some of the player’s comments. “Racism exists here but I don’t agree Spain is a racist country,” she said.
The Dragones de Lavapiés, which was founded nine years ago, exists to defend and promote diversity and to fight racism and stereotypes. The club’s president, Dolores Galindo, said that while its players and their families experienced racism on a daily basis, that racism still goes unseen by much of Spanish society.
“If you’re a white person and you’ve never experienced it personally, you don’t believe in racism,” said Galindo, who is white. “Until you spent a lot of time with kids of colour – especially African kids – you don’t realise just how often things happen to them, one after another. And it’s not just someone saying something on the pitch.”
She pointed to a recent trip when some of the younger dragons were taken to a museum. Although all the children stood on the museum’s lawn, the only one called out – twice – by a security guard was a boy of African heritage.
“People are talking now about whether or not Spain is racist,” said Galindo. “I’m Spanish and I love my country and I don’t want that to exist here. But you can’t try to isolate it and say, ‘No, this only exists in football’.”
According to a survey published last year, 25% of Spaniards aged 15-29 (the majority of them male) hold clearly racist or xenophobic views, with most of their racial hatred directed at Gypsies and people from sub-Saharan Africa and Morocco. Figures from Spain’s interior ministry show that Spanish police investigated 639 racist or xenophobic incidents in 2021 – a 24% rise on 2019.
Neither the statistics nor the probably fleeting media and political debate over racism come as any surprise to Okba Mohammad, a 24-year-old Syrian journalist who has lived in Spain since fleeing his hometown of Daraa during the Bashar al-Assad regime’s Russian-backed offensive there five years ago.
“Spain is obviously a racist country,” he said. “There’s institutional racism but there’s also racism because of the lack of anti-racist education. There are a lot of people who are racist without knowing it, or people who are racist because they want to be racist.”
For all the outcry over Vícinius, he added, the abuse could have been directed at any black or non-white player.
“My problem is with the reaction, because there are a lot of people who are suffering racism every day and who haven’t been afforded this kind of institutional, social or media reaction,” said Mohammad.
He also contrasted the speed of the arrests in the Vícinius case with his own ill-fated attempts to report racist behaviour he has suffered. While the media was guilty of double-standards by focusing on the plight of one footballer and ignoring the daily lived experiences of so many other victims of racism in Spain, he added, its hypocrisy was nothing new – and was indicative of a wider, and far more deeply ingrained prejudice.
“We saw the huge scale of the institutional racism with the war in Ukraine when the Ukrainian refugees came to Spain and to other European countries,” he said. “They brought in a law to give the Ukrainians their papers within 24 hours. When that happened, I’d been waiting two and a half years in Spain waiting for my papers to come through.”
For all the column inches, the soundbites and the pledges, Mohammad thinks Sunday’s poisonous events in the Valencia Mestalla stadium – and the deeper wells of toxicity from which they sprang – will soon fade from the public discourse.
“I think this will be forgotten,” he said. “But the people who won’t forget it are the people of colour who suffer racism and report it every day.”