This piece has been a long time coming, but sometimes there has to be a trigger. Watching it happen at my favorite team's ground and where I've been a supporter is just that.
Spanish football has to get serious about racism. Now. Or it will get even worse. Drive away sponsors. Further water down TV contracts. Drive away the best players in the world. Spur fan violence. Further embarrass a nation with a checkered past on the international stage.
By way of background and full disclosure, I am an American born to Indian parents. I have darker brown skin than my parents. My fiancee is an American with Italian and German blood.
I studied in Barcelona almost a decade ago. Last year my fiancee and I made a trip from Barcelona to Valencia to Vila-real to Madrid to Bilbao to San Sebastián. I have never been racially mistreated in Spain; I cannot say the same in the United States. Long and short, I'd move to Spain in a heartbeat. These are my biases.
Spain is a very young democracy -- case in point that its George Washington (Adolfo Suárez) passed away just one month ago. The nation had its first democratically-elected prime minister in 1976, so most people alive today remember the Franco era. Demographic heterogeneity is a new phenomenon with the influx of South Americans (primarily Ecuadoreans) and North Africans (primarily Moroccans) -- Spain is just entering a generation of darker-skinned citizens.
Racial superiority was a part of Franco-era ideology (primarily nationalist and anti-Semitic), but the connection to football reared its ugly head in 2004. Luis Aragonés, the "wonderful old man" who eventually led Spain to glory at Euro 2008, started a furor with publicized training-ground comments about Thierry Henry. Then came the fateful England friendly at the Bernabéu, the jeering of the anthem, and the monkey noises by thousands of supporters. It forced a national apology (albeit delayed) and may have cost Spain the 2012 Summer Olympics. Not to mention the black eye in the international media.
The cherry on top was the 2006 incident involving Samuel Eto'o at Estadio La Romareda in Zaragoza. Just weeks after I had left Spain, the Cameroonian international nearly left the pitch after racial abuse -- both physical and verbal -- from thousands of supporters. Eto'o was my favorite player on the mythical Barcelona team that finally broke through and won the Champions League -- I even bought a jersey to support him despite my allegiances to Villarreal.
Fast forward eight years, and we are just weeks removed from Atlético supporters' coordinated chants against Marcelo at the Bernabéu (with his young son on the pitch). This time it's my team in its own stadium. The team which currently features a number of dark-skinned players. The team captained for many years by the legendary Brazilian-born, dark-skinned Marcos Senna.
Some "fan" threw a banana at Dani Alves with Villarreal ahead late in what could have been a season-affirming victory. Instead, it's another black eye to the Spanish game.
As much as I love the club, the result became of secondary importance (though Alves thanked the "fan" for additional motivation to force the second Villarreal own goal by Mateo Musacchio). Kudos to Alves for his reaction in eating the banana and continuing to play at full bore. But his quote is in some ways more disturbing:
It's been happening for 11 years (ed. since he moved to Sevilla), we can't change it, so best to treat it as a joke. If we give it no importance, they fail. (ed. But do they?)
Graham Hunter's article after the Bernabeu incident says it all. It's time for a concerted effort to rid Spanish football of racism. For Villarreal, that means starting by finding the "fan" who threw the banana and banning him or her for life. The league should follow suit and do the same at every other ground in the country.
Then begins the education. Promote anti-racism campaigns in the media. Have Ikechukwu Uche, Javier Aquino, and Giovani dos Santos, among others, speak out before the Rayo match. Work with other clubs to increase fines and penalties for offenders. Push the government to increase criminal sanctions for such behavior.
There's a lot of work to do. But it has to start here and now. If not, I am reminded of the words of Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.