VOA News/Graham Keeley
MADRID — Vinicius Junior is an idol to millions for his sublime goalscoring skills for Real Madrid but off the football pitch he has prompted a stark national debate over racism in Spain.
The 22-year-old Brazilian player was reduced to tears after, once again, being the target of ugly abuse during a game between his team and Valencia last week.
“I am sorry for those Spaniards who disagree but today, in Brazil, Spain is known as a country of racists,” he said after the match, implying the latest insults were proof of how racism permeates not just La Liga but Spanish society.
His words were echoed by Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who called on FIFA, football’s governing body, and La Liga to take serious measures.
“We cannot allow fascism and racism to seize control of football stadiums,” he added.
Within Spain, politicians were swift to condemn the racist insults directed at Vinicius Jr and promised action.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said that “hatred and xenophobia should have no place in football nor in our society.”
Three people were arrested for alleged hate crimes against Vinicius Jr and another four were detained for hanging a black blow-up effigy of the player from a bridge. Valencia will have part of its stadium closed for five games.
Debate over xenophobia
But beyond the political bubble, what is the reality for racial minorities in Spain?
Spain is a country which has a relatively small population of Black people, compared to Britain or France.
Moroccans form the largest group of non-Spaniards, with 833,343 people according to government figures from 2022, followed by Romanians with 627,478.
A survey published last year by the Centro Reina Sofia research center found 25% of Spaniards aged 15-29 hold clearly racist or xenophobic views, with most of their hatred directed to Roma, Black people, and people of Moroccan origin.
Spanish police investigated 639 racist or xenophobic incidents in 2021, a 24% rise compared to 2019.
Ousman Umar’s life is a world away from that of a superstar footballer.
Dumped in the Sahara by traffickers, the then 13-year-old son of a traditional healer believed that he was going to die like other migrants.
Umar survived not just the desert but every other step of a five-year odyssey from Ghana to Spain.
Sixteen years later, he is a successful businessman in Barcelona with a master’s degree from one of the world’s top business schools. He has made it his mission to persuade Africans to stay at home rather than follow his footsteps through the NGO Nasco Feeding Minds.
“I don’t think Spain is a racist country. You have to remember that Britain and France have much larger populations of Black people. Spain is the entrance to the European continent, but they go to France or Germany,” Umar told VOA.
“I don’t share Vinicius’ opinions at all but unfortunately in sport you do get cases like this and there should be rigorous ways to stop this.”
However, Umar, who lived rough on the streets for two years when he arrived in Barcelona, said he had been the victim of racism.
“(Recently) I went to give a lecture to young businessmen at a leading business school, but I could see this woman guarding her bag. It’s a very racist way of acting. I could give you hundreds of cases like this.”
Ignacio Garriga, whose mother emigrated from Equatorial Guinea to Spain in 1960, is a lawmaker for the far-right Vox party, the third largest party in Spain’s parliament. He is one of a handful of lawmakers from racial minorities.
“I don’t think Spain is a racist country. There are cases of racism like the anti-Spanish racism which I suffer in parliament from separatist supremacists,” he told VOA.
“They say ‘a Black person cannot have the views that I have, that a Black person cannot say that illegal immigrant should be expelled, that a Black person should be left-wing.”
Mikel Mazkiaran, of NGO SOS Racismo, said many migrants suffer ‘institutional racism’.
“It is good that a debate of this kind happens, but most migrants suffer problems accessing residence permits, accessing home rental and their treatment which they receive in detention centers,” he told VOA.
Spain created a specific law against violence, racism, xenophobia and intolerance in sports in 2007, Associated Press reported, which said a state commission has monitored cases which might break the law.
However, the law stipulates that not all cases of racism can be punished criminally, only those in which there is an extra element affecting the victim. In practice, this means perpetrators, like the fans at Valencia, escape with fines or bans from stadiums.
Some information in this report was provided by Associated Press.