MADRID — Repeated racist insults against Brazilian soccer star Vinícius Júnior have unleashed a heated debate in Spain about tolerance for racism in a society that is becoming rapidly more diverse on and off the field.
Since the season began in August, the Real Madrid winger has suffered racist abuse by fans of at least five rival teams, including the hanging of an effigy depicting the Black player from a bridge by a group of Atletico Madrid fans in January.
“Racism is normal in LaLiga,” Vinícius said of the top league in Spanish soccer on Instagram and Twitter after he was targeted with monkey chants from Valencia fans at a game on Sunday. “The competition thinks it’s normal, as does the federation, and the opponents encourage it."
Through his social media presence, Vinícius has repeatedly called out racist attitudes that he says prevail in a southern European country where a third of children are now born to foreign parents, the majority from Latin America and Africa, and society as a whole is becoming more racially diverse.
Politicians were quick to jump on the controversy, dividing along ideological lines. “Zero tolerance for racism in soccer,” tweeted Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. “Hatred and xenophobia should have no place in our soccer or in our society.”
Madrid regional President Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who has become a lightning rod for culture war issues before local elections on Sunday, retorted that Spain “is not a racist country,” adding that anyone who said so was “lying.”
But Spain's wider Black community has long complained of racist treatment in a society that has been home to significant nonwhite communities since the 1990s, and where they feel little action has been taken by either leftist or conservative governments. Reports of racist hate crimes increased 31% from 2020 to 2021, the last year for which government data was available, and racism is the most common form of hate crime reported in Spain.
Rita Bosaho, who oversees legislation relating to race at Spain's Equality Ministry, urged the government to pass a long-delayed anti-racism law “so that no young person has to go through this again,” in reference to the abuse suffered by Vinícius.
Spanish author and anti-racism campaigner Moha Gerehou, who is Black, has written about being repeatedly asked which country he is from despite being born in Spain, and of his experiences of police harassment. He said that racism was so normal as to be unremarkable in Spain.
“Vinícius Jr does well to raise his voice to point out without euphemisms what is obvious: Spain is a racist country and soccer fields are not an exception. They are the norm,” he tweeted.
Gerehou has previously said that Spaniards struggle to understand that racism can include refusing someone entry to a bar based on their skin color. “The problem is … that many people don’t want to recognize the racism that exists in Spain,” he said.
Abraham Jiménez Enoa, a Cuban writer who moved to Spain 16 months ago, has documented the daily episodes of racism he has suffered — 182 so far, including being followed around stores, asked for his ID on public transportation and watching Spaniards compliment his lighter-skinned son.
“There’s a close-up of Vinícius in which you can see him suffering from what he is hearing and I really identified with that," Jiménez Enoa said. “Obviously I’ve never been in a football stadium where thousands of people are shouting ‘monkey!' but in the day-to-day. … A couple of times I have even cried from anger and frustration.”
While racism is also an issue in his native Cuba, Jiménez Enoa said that he has “never suffered such explicit racism in the streets, in shops, in the market, wherever" as in Spain.
“I had never suffered from how my skin color marks everyday life,” he said.
Far from support, Vinícius has found himself the object of condemnation from some Spanish soccer authorities. Immediately following Sunday's incident, LaLiga President Javier Tebas criticized the player for attacking the league, saying Vinicius didn’t show up for talks on the subject of racism that he himself had requested.
“Instead of criticizing racists, the league president shows up on social media to attack me,” Vinícius retorted. “I’m not your friend to talk about racism with you. I want actions and punishment.”
Some in Spanish soccer, however, acknowledged the widespread abuse, with Spanish Soccer Federation President Luis Rubiales condemning “a problem of behavior, of education, of racism.”
Authorities have been slow to clamp down on fans who insult and attack Black players. Only on Tuesday were four people arrested over the effigy incident, four months after it happened. Police didn't say if the timing had to do with the widespread condemnation of the latest abuse against Vinícius. Three other fans were also detained in Valencia for the racist attack on Sunday.
Spanish player Iñaki Williams, a Black forward on the Basque team Athletic Bilbao, tweeted his support for Vinicius with the words: “Racism is inadmissible in any circumstance.”
Williams experienced similar insults at a 2020 match, leading to the first criminal trial against a fan for racial abuse in the history of the Spanish game, expected to happen at some point later this year.
Even children’s leagues are not spared.
In March, police in Barcelona arrested a 49-year-old man for insulting a Black child from the stands of a match. Separately, a 12-year-old Black child was subjected to racist taunts in the Catalan town of Sant Vicenç de Castellet in September. In that case, no police action was taken.
Renata Brito contributed to this report from Barcelona, Spain.