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Opinion: Vinícius Júnior: how Spanish law is starting to tackle racism on and off the football pitch

Posted 7 July, 2023

In the weeks since Brazilian footballer and Real Madrid winger Vinícius Júnior was racially abused by Valencia fans during a La Liga match on May 21, (opens in a new window)international discussions about (opens in a new window)racism in (opens in a new window)Spain have not subsided. There are also (opens in a new window)continuing allegations of racist abuse in Spanish football.

Spain of course is not the only country where (opens in a new window)football is plagued by racism. The experiences of players in (opens in a new window)France, (opens in a new window)Germany, (opens in a new window)Italy, (opens in a new window)Portugal and (opens in a new window)the UK show how widespread this is.

(opens in a new window)Research has (opens in a new window)shown that racism in football is a reflection of prevailing (opens in a new window)societal attitudes. The question is what the law is doing to stop it.

Legal sanctions

EU legislation – specifically Directive 43/2000/EC – applies to (opens in a new window)any racist incident that occurs within employment, self-employment, education, vocational training, social protection and access to goods and services. In sport, this covers publicly accessible competitions as far as they are publicly accessible – that is, if the public can pay to view them live in stadiums or on TV.

Under Spanish law implementing EU legislation (via (opens in a new window)Law 15/2022, and in sports via (opens in a new window)Law 19/2007), administrative sanctions can be imposed on organisers (the closure of a stadium, say, for up to two years) and on individual perpetrators, with fines ranging from €150 (£129) to €650,000 (£559,000).

Yet La Liga, which has now reportedly lodged (opens in a new window)ten complaints against fans, regarding racism experienced by Vinícius Júnior, cannot impose sanctions itself.

It is up to the Spanish Commission against Violence, Racism, Xenophobia and Intolerance in Sports (opens in a new window)to propose administrative sanctions and the (opens in a new window)Spanish Football Federation to then impose any.

But very few such administrative sanctions are (opens in a new window)proposed and fewer still are actually imposed. (opens in a new window)According to the Commission against Violence and Racism in Sports, in 2021-22, administrative sanctions were proposed for 1,608 spectators and 59 clubs. However, only eight were very serious sanctions, and only 28 were linked to racism or xenophobia. This latter figure represents a considerable increase from 2018-19, when only three sanctions linked to racism and xenophobia were proposed.

Reasons cited include the difficulty in (opens in a new window)identifying the perpetrators or proving their racist intent.

In response to recent events, on July 3 2023, Secretary of State Rafael Pérez (opens in a new window)granted the police, via Instruction 8/2023, the possibility to suspend sporting events and evict fans if a racist incident occurs.

Spain is not the only country that has struggled to take action against racism. This is also an issue in other European countries, including (opens in a new window)Italy and the (opens in a new window)UK.

(opens in a new window)EU law (which (opens in a new window)applies in Spain through the (opens in a new window)criminal code) also demands that member states have penal sanctions in place for very serious cases of incitement to racial hatred.

In the past ten years, the number of racist, xenophobic or intolerant acts in sport that have been prosecuted in Spain has, however, remained relatively stable: (opens in a new window)83 in 2013 compared to (opens in a new window)79 in 2021. It is unclear if this is due to the number of racist incidents remaining stable or to the ineffectiveness of criminal law. What is clear is that what happens on the football pitch and in stadiums is indicative of wider societal problems.

Denial of racism

Within Spanish football, (opens in a new window)many other players have reported suffering (opens in a new window)discrimination. Racial abuse has also been (opens in a new window)reported at grassroots level football. Players in a multi-ethnic football team based in Lavapiés, Madrid, have reportedly (opens in a new window)experienced racial profiling and racial abuse in sports facilities and during matches.

Shortly after the May 21 match, La Liga president Javier Tebas (opens in a new window)apologised for a tweet in which he had said that La Liga and Spain were (opens in a new window)“not racist” and had chastised Vinícius Júnior. Research shows, however, that many Spaniards (opens in a new window)would actually agree with his erstwhile summation. A 2019 EU survey (opens in a new window)found that 43% of Spanish respondents said they considered racial or ethnic origin discrimination to be rare or non-existent in Spain.

Public discourse – from (opens in a new window)politicians, (opens in a new window)sports people and (opens in a new window)media pundits – also tends to deny that there is racism, while at the same time, blaming ethnic minorities for not contributing enough economically and (opens in a new window)abusing the healthcare and social security systems, despite the lack of evidence. Constitutional law scholar Fernando Rey Martínez calls this (opens in a new window)“liquid racism”.

Most black and ethnic minority people in Spain, meanwhile, feel they are (opens in a new window)negatively perceived by their white compatriots. A (opens in a new window)2021 survey by the Spanish Council against Racial or Ethnic Discrimination found most respondents perceived that Spaniards don’t want to work with, live near or send their children to school with Roma or migrants. Anti-racism charity SOS Racismo has shown racism to be present in (opens in a new window)all areas of Spanish life.

To deal with racism within football, Spain could look for inspiration from initiatives including the European Commission’s (opens in a new window)Fight Against Racism campaign in collaboration with Uefa and the (opens in a new window)Feyenoord is for All campaign in the Netherlands. Though only time will tell if preemptive solutions are more effective than coercive ones.

One thing is clear. Legal sanctions are not preventing racism in football. And racism is not limited to pitches and stadiums.

Correction: The headline has been changed from “EU law” to “Spanish law”, and to reflect a new legal development. Incorrect comments made about EU legislation have also been removed. The Conversation

By (opens in a new window)Sara Benedi Lahuerta, Assistant Professor in Law, (opens in a new window)University College Dublin and (opens in a new window)Rafael Valencia Candalija, Professor Titular de Derecho Eclesiástico del Estado, (opens in a new window)Universidad de Sevilla

This article is republished from (opens in a new window)The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the (opens in a new window)original article.

The Conversation