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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, international discussions about racism in Spain have not subsided. There are also continuing allegations of racist abuse in Spanish football.

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

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

Legal sanctions

EU legislation – specifically Directive 43/2000/EC – applies to 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 Law 15/2022, and in sports via 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 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 to propose administrative sanctions and the Spanish Football Federation to then impose any.

But very few such administrative sanctions are proposed and fewer still are actually imposed. 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 identifying the perpetrators or proving their racist intent.

In response to recent events, on July 3 2023, Secretary of State Rafael Pérez 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 Italy and the UK.

EU law (which applies in Spain through the 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: 83 in 2013 compared to 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, many other players have reported suffering discrimination. Racial abuse has also been reported at grassroots level football. Players in a multi-ethnic football team based in Lavapiés, Madrid, have reportedly experienced racial profiling and racial abuse in sports facilities and during matches.

Shortly after the May 21 match, La Liga president Javier Tebas apologised for a tweet in which he had said that La Liga and Spain were “not racist” and had chastised Vinícius Júnior. Research shows, however, that many Spaniards would actually agree with his erstwhile summation. A 2019 EU survey 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 politicians, sports people and media pundits – also tends to deny that there is racism, while at the same time, blaming ethnic minorities for not contributing enough economically and abusing the healthcare and social security systems, despite the lack of evidence. Constitutional law scholar Fernando Rey Martínez calls this “liquid racism”.

Most black and ethnic minority people in Spain, meanwhile, feel they are negatively perceived by their white compatriots. A 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 all areas of Spanish life.

To deal with racism within football, Spain could look for inspiration from initiatives including the European Commission’s Fight Against Racism campaign in collaboration with Uefa and the 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 Sara Benedi Lahuerta, Assistant Professor in Law, University College Dublin and Rafael Valencia Candalija, Professor Titular de Derecho Eclesiástico del Estado, Universidad de Sevilla

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation