• Sports
  • Soccer

‘A Country of Racists.’ Spanish Soccer Is Embroiled in Yet Another Racism Controversy

5 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Fans lovingly refer to soccer as “the beautiful game,” for good reason. The game delivers so much joy, and passion, and artful creativity, on full display on pitches around the world, week after week.

But the scourge of racism still plagues global soccer. That the ugliness persists in 2023—also on full, terrible display, at stadiums around the world—is a forever stain on the so-called beautiful game.

The latest incident occurred in Spain this weekend, during a match between Real Madrid and Valencia, in Valencia. According to the referee’s official report from the game, fans directed racist remarks at Vinícius Jr., the Brazilian star who plays for Real Madrid. “Racist insults: in the 73rd minute, a spectator from the southern ‘Mario Kempes’ tribune directed himself towards player No. 20 of Real Madrid CF Mr. Vinicius José De Oliveira Do Nascimiento, screaming at him: ‘Monkey, monkey’ which led to the activation of the racism protocol, notifying the pitch delegate so that a corresponding warning over the loudspeaker would be made. The match was halted until said announcement was aired over the loudspeaker of the stadium,” the report reads, according to CNN.

During stoppage in play, Vinícius Jr. confronted a fan in the stands; his teammates held him back. Later in the game, which Valencia won 1-0, Vinícius Jr. received a red card and was removed from the match after he struck Valencia striker Hugo Duro in the face, even though Druro appeared to be choking Vinícius Jr. during their scuffle.

After the game, Vinícius Jr. spoke out about the incident on social media. “It wasn’t the first time, nor the second, nor the third. Racism is normal in La Liga,” he wrote in Portuguese on Twitter. “The competition thinks it’s normal, the Federation does too and the opponents encourage it. I’m so sorry. The championship that once belonged to Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Cristiano and Messi today belongs to racists.”

Vinícius Jr. wrote that “today, in Brazil, Spain is known as a country of racists.”

In a statement announcing an investigation into the incident, La Liga noted it has filed nine separate reports with government authorities regarding racist incidents involving Vinícius Jr. Before the match in Valencia, fans outside the stadium chanted “Vinícius eres un mono” –”you are a monkey” – as the Real Madrid team bus pulled up for the match.

On Tuesday, Spanish police arrested seven people in relation to incidents of racist abuse against Vinícius Jr. These incidents are being treated as hate crimes. Four young men were arrested for allegedly hanging an effigy of him off a bridge in Madrid in January. Meanwhile, three others were detained for their alleged involvement in the incident during Sunday’s match.

La Liga’s president, Javier Tebas, seemed to take issue with Vinícius Jr.’s response to the abuse, chastising him on social media for allegedly not showing up to a pair of meetings with him about racism. “Before criticizing and insulting @LaLiga , it is necessary that you inform yourself properly @Vinijr,” Tebas wrote in Spanish. “Do not let yourself be manipulated and make sure you fully understand each other’s competencies and the work we have been doing together.” In response to the incident, Real Madrid filed a hate crime complaint with Spanish prosecutors.

It’s difficult to believe that Tebas, or any other soccer bureaucrats, will successfully stamp out racism, given Europe’s long history of racial abuse in the game. In the 1970s, fans would spit at Black players from West Bromwich Albion, the English soccer club. In the 1990s fans called English pro Emile Heskey the N-word. More recently, after England lost to Italy at the Euro 2020 championships—which took place in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic – the UK Football Policing Unit (UKFPU) received more than 600 reports of online racist comments made towards England’s Black players.

Last year, a fan threw a banana toward Brazilian player Richarlison after he scored during a friendly between Brazil and Tunisia in Paris. In April of this year, Juventus fans could be heard making monkey noises as Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku, who is Black, was preparing to take a penalty shot.

While soccer authorities like FIFA have introduced stricter punishments for racist behavior, it could be time for pro leagues to consider zero-tolerance measures. Teams could be forced to forfeit matches if officials can detect that their fans are racially abusing opponents. If that 1-0 victory, for example, were taken away from Valencia this week, their fans might act differently next time.

The effects of racist abuse in the world’s most popular game are felt far beyond the stadium walls. At the conclusion of the G7 summit in Japan, Brazil’s President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, offered his support to Vinícius Jr. “It’s not possible,” Lula said, “in the middle of the 21st century, to have such strong racial prejudice in so many football stadiums.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com