It was 15 minutes before the end of a soccer match last month between Spanish Primera Liga leaders Barcelona and rivals Real Zaragoza when Samuel Eto'o decided he'd had enough. Shouting "No mas!" the Barcelona striker turned abruptly and began to walk off the pitch. The chorus of ape noises from the stands at Zaragoza's Romareda stadium, which had sounded each time the Cameroon-born striker touched the ball, erupted louder than ever. Although the referee, other players and his coach eventually persuaded him to stay, Eto'o knew what he was doing. "This is a struggle beyond the football field," he said at a press conference a few days later. "I made my decision because fans attacked me for my color."
When the Royal Spanish Football Federation (rfef) fined Zaragoza just €9,000 though that was the largest amount ever imposed in Spain for such an incident fifa, too, decided it could tolerate no more. At a meeting in Zurich this month, football's governing body ruled that national associations must punish clubs whose fans are guilty of racist abuse by deducting league points and imposing relegation or disqualification from tournaments, with a two-year international ban for countries that don't comply. "Recent events have demonstrated that there is a need for concerted action and an urgency for more severe measures ... to kick this evil out of the beautiful game," said fifa president Sepp Blatter.
Something had to be done and, as the Eto'o incident showed, particularly in Spain. Although players of African descent are routinely harassed during soccer matches, it took the three-time African Player of the Year's near departure from the field to jolt the country or at least its media into recognizing how entrenched racism has become among fans. Many are now asking why Spain a country that, after the terrorist bombings in Madrid of March 11, 2004, prided itself on its tolerance toward outsiders can't seem to curb the ugly scenes that blight its stadiums.
Such scenes are not new. "Ultras" fans whose ardent devotion to their teams has often spilled over into violence have long been a feature of the Spanish game. "This kind of behavior began 20 years ago in isolated incidents," says Esteban Ibarra, president of the Movement Against Intolerance, an ngo that monitors the incidence of racial abuse in Spain. "But it has spread, propagated through the media, and it has contaminated not just soccer stadiums but Spanish society at large."
Indeed, racist insults at Spanish soccer games are now almost routine. A year ago, members of the same Zaragoza crowd pelted Eto'o with peanuts, and in January Zaragoza were fined after a group of supporters hurled racist taunts at Real Betis' Brazilian forward Robert. In 2004 Spanish national team coach Luis Aragonés created a stir when he allegedly made racist remarks about Thierry Henry, the black French striker who plays for London club Arsenal. Shortly after, a "friendly match" between Spain and England was marred by the all-too-familiar simian noises. Perhaps most troubling, the xenophobic chants and racist slogans are no longer confined to bands of Ultras. "What concerns me," says Javier Duran, president of the Observatory of Racism in Sport, the body created by the Spanish government to monitor xenophobic incidents, "is how generalized the phenomenon has become. At Zaragoza, it was the whole stadium chanting those ape noises, not just a handful of fans."
To be sure, racist insults can be heard in stadiums elsewhere in Europe. In Italy last year, Messina's Marc Zoro, an Ivorian, had to be restrained by teammates after he was racially abused by Lazio fans at Rome's Olympic stadium. (Zoro later suffered similar abuse at Inter Milan.) Yet Spain stands out. Duran attributes the xenophobic displays at soccer games to the country's recent influx of immigrants a function both of Spain's recent economic success and its declining birthrate. Spain's National Institute for Statistics reported last year that the number of foreigners living in the nation is nearly four times what it was five years ago. "The widespread presence of immigrants is a new phenomenon for us, so we're just beginning to recognize the problem of racism," says Duran.
It is unclear how deeply and how subconsciously racism is embedded in Spanish society. No anti-immigrant party has ever won a seat in parliament and there were no reported attacks on the country's Muslims (of which there are estimated to be about 1 million) after the March 11 bombings. A recent poll by the Madrid-based Center for Sociological Investigation found that although 60% of respondents thought there were "too many immigrants" in Spain, more than 70% maintain that immigrants should enjoy the same rights "as any other Spaniard."
Perhaps because Spain prides itself on a broadly based tolerance, there is a degree of unwillingness to identify racism, when it occurs, for what it is. Juan José Paradinas, who writes about soccer for daily newspaper El País, says insults at soccer games even when targeted at a player's race are merely examples of aggressive gamesmanship, intended to distract opponents. "It's like calling someone fat or ugly, a dwarf or an idiot," he says. "People use whatever physical characteristic they can to provoke someone." Carles Viñas, author of The World of the Ultras: Spanish Football's Rad-icals, disagrees. "There's a lot of hypocrisy in Spain about this," he says. "People don't want to admit to the racism that exists in this country." Piara Powar, director of Kick It Out, a London-based organization that works to combat racism in soccer, concurs. "The problems in Spain," he says, "stem from the way in which the subjects of race and ethnicity are not really part of public debate."
That may be changing. The Spanish government has invested some €200 million in campaigns to promote tolerance, including screening educational films at stadiums and requiring guides against racism to be distributed. Last year, the government's Superior Council for Sports (csd) worked with soccer leagues on a program to teach racial sensitivity to both players and fans, established the Observatory to monitor xenophobic incidents, and outlined penalties for racist behavior. Last month uefa and Football Against Racism in Europe (fare) an organization devoted to countering racism and xenophobia in football across Europe organized a conference at the Nou Camp to raise awareness.
But such measures have repeatedly fallen short, as have paltry fines imposed by the rfef. Rafael Blanco, head of the csd, says that the clubs haven't taken the troubles in the stands seriously enough. "In many cases, those in professional soccer aren't conscious that this is a new kind of violence. They don't think it matters." Evidence of that assertion is easy to find. After the incident in Zaragoza, rfef president Angel María Villar told the uefa/fare Unite Against Racism conference in Barcelona: "We shouldn't make a mountain out of a molehill." Zaragoza coach and former Barcelona player Victor Muñoz denounced the fans' behavior, but added that the same thing occurs in all Spanish stadiums, including Barcelona's.
The new fifa penalties are aimed firmly at such attitudes, and the Spanish government has joined the fight back. Secretary of State for Sport Jaime Lissavetzky has proposed reforms to the law ensuring that clubs whose fans exhibit racist behavior face significantly tougher fines, deduction of points or relegation. Powar thinks Spain needs to take a more basic step. "First," he says, "they have to accept they have a problem." Such acknowledgment is what Eto'o encouraged in Zaragoza. Spain, after all, is his home. "I've lived my life in Spain. My son is a Spaniard," he told a press conference. "On the soccer field it's one thing to insult a player to provoke him," he added, "but it's something else to believe that you're better than someone else because of his color. Sometimes you have to take a stand." In Spain, who'll stand with him?