When the England v Bulgaria game was paused three times in October 2019, it was seen as a seminal moment in the world of football.
It should really have been the moment, the big moment where a game on the biggest stage was postponed because of horrific racist abuse black England players were receiving. But instead, it didn’t happen, they had to endure.
The reaction was huge, both in Britain and internationally. More and more reports surfaced of everyday racism players and fans alike suffered at football matches. From there it became a waiting game: What would be the first game to be abandoned?
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much waiting, first, there was the FA Cup tie between Haringey Borough and Yeovil Town but that didn’t receive the coverage it warranted.
The next game to be abandoned because of abuse came in Spain, just two months later and in the most undeserving of circumstances. But is an incident that tells us more about the state of modern football than what first meets the eye.
On 16th December 2019, the Segunda División game between Rayo Vallecano and Albacete Balompié was abandoned at half time due to safety fears of the visitor’s striker Roman Zozulya. For the entire first half (and much of the pre-match warm up), Zozulya had been on the receiving end of abuse from Rayo fans for his rumoured affiliation with far-right movements back home in his native Ukraine.
The headline in El Diario the next day read, “Football is suspended for “f******g Nazi” but not for racist insults, “Shakira belongs to everyone” or “Míchel, f****t”, referencing the fact that is not exactly the first time insults have been heard in football stadiums.
And there’s already history here. Back in 2017, Rayo Vallecano attempted to sign Zozulya from Real Betis where he had fallen down the pecking order. Rayo are one of the most political clubs in the world with an ardently left-leaning fanbase that reflects the working-class area, Vallecas, where they hail from. When fascism in the form of General Franco ruled over Spain, Vallecas was the only area in Madrid that opposed his dictatorship.
They are a club, and their ultras Los Bukaneros especially, that sees anti-fascism as intrinsic to who they are. It’s in the DNA of the club as Robbie Dunne, author of Working Class Heroes: The Story of Rayo Vallecano, told Planet Football: “if the Bukaneros didn’t have their principles, they’d have nothing and if they didn’t defend those principles, they might as well cease to exist.”
Zozulya lasted half a training session in the Spanish capital. Rayo fans attended said training session to protest his signing and they also handed out surprisingly well-researched sheets at their next game against Almeria where they were more eloquent in why they didn’t want someone like Zozulya representing their side. They conceded that might he not have been a Nazi, but there were too many coincidences for their liking.
The decision to postpone the match between Rayo and Albacete game was unsurprisingly controversial in Spain. Journalists and political commenters were split on whether the correct actions were taken by match officials. The larger questions, directed at La Liga and the RFEF (Royal Spanish Football Federation), were probably more than they could handle, especially since Rayo were to be punished to the tune of €18,000 and a two-match stadium ban.
For his part, Zolzuya has always denied being a Nazi, referring to himself as a patriot of Ukraine opposed to Russian rule. The links, though, are a little too convenient to be entirely dismissed. There have been pictures of him posing in basketball gear pointing to a number on the scoreboard, all the digits combining to form a number connected to Nazi ideology. Another, where he is seen holding a rifle, wearing a shirt of the Pravyi Sektor, an ultra-right-wing political group. He is also a vocal supporter of the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian National Guard regiment with reported neo-Nazi sympathies.
While pertinent to the story, whether Zozulya is a Nazi or not is almost entirely beside the point. What the match officials attributed to Zozulya’s experience is a false equivalence. When an individual suffers racism, homophobia or sexism they are suffering abuse because of who and what they are, they are suffering hatred and intolerance specifically directed at the type of person they were born.
Roman Zozulya was not the recipient of chants because of the colour of his skin or because of his sexuality, he was the recipient of chants because of his political beliefs. Political beliefs that actually revolve around the inherent intolerance to others who are different, others who have different colour skin, others who identify their sexuality differently.
So, what exactly was La Liga saying with this postponement? Had the precedent been set? Why exactly was it this incident after decades of what can only be called inaction for the inordinate amount of racist, fascist, xenophobic, sexist and homophobic incidents and chanting heard at Spanish stadiums?
The precedent that La Liga set by postponing this game is a curious, dangerous one.
A point that some within Spain raised is that this was perhaps a good thing to have finally happened, but for the wrong reasons. At the very least, the next time a player was to suffer any kind of abuse during a football game then the match would be stopped right?
Well no, not exactly.
In the wake of the Zozulya incident making shockwaves around the Iberic country, AS (a Spanish sports magazine) published a handy list of nearly 20 incidents of racist and homophobic chanting that had happened over the last two decades which didn’t result in games being abandoned. In fact, there were relatively infamous incidents, such as homophobic chanting at an Atlético de Madrid versus Málaga in 2017, missing.
And La Liga got off to a fantastic start in 2020 by adding another incident to that list when Iñaki Williams, the marauding and mercurial forward of Athletic Bilbao, was subjected to extremely ugly and aggressive racist abuse by Espanyol fans in a league game.
He is the latest of many black players to play in Spain over the past few decades to suffer incessant abuse at the hands of opposition fans.
Speaking after the game Williams said: “It’s something that no black player, or any player of any race wants to hear. It’s totally unacceptable; people should come to the ground to enjoy it, to support their team, to enjoy football, which is a team sport, a sport of friendship. It’s a sad day.”
Following on from what happened in Madrid, you would expect the game to be abandoned but, unfortunately, it was not. The incident was apparently not reported to the referee during the game and nor did it appear in his match report once the game had finished. The same tired excuses were offered by the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF): it was a small minority, the referee didn’t hear it and the RFEF’s matchday delegate didn’t hear it. All this despite Athletic’s winger Iker Muniain mentioning it to the referee and it being very clear during the game that Williams himself had heard the abuse.
It’s a sad truth that Williams is no stranger to abuse like this. In 2016, he was subjected to monkey chants from Sporting Gijón’s neo-Nazi group, the Ultra Boys.
The reaction in the Spanish media has been admirable at least and there does feel like a willingness to rectify an obvious problem at the heart of football and wider society. There were front-page headlines in magazines such as Marca, “Basta ya de racismo!”, “Enough of racism!”, as well as a special documentary aired by Movistar (the country’s equivalent of Sky). And this in a country where the sport coverage is almost 24/7 solely about Madrid and Barcelona.
Like most post-colonial nations, Spain as a country is one that has a difficult relationship with race. Back in 2004, Paddy Woodworth wrote this in the Irish Times:
“Spain, of course, is no more immune to the virus of racism than any other country. What is distinctive about Spanish racism is that Spaniards so often refuse to recognise this fact, and pride themselves on their tolerance. The same senior politician who once told me that there was not a racist bone in the Spanish body politic blithely complained in the next sentence that “Britain is letting Gibraltar fill up with Moors”.
And unfortunately, it is no different now. Fascism and far-right politics have been on the rise across much of Europe in the past decade and that is reflected in how the public vote. Vox, a party that believes in repealing the law against gender-based violence because “they are unfair to men” and restricting migrant’s access to universal health care, are now the third most popular political party.
One of Vox’s more high-profile supporters is Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga. This might be the single most important element in the whole story. It won’t shock anyone to find that the very foundations of which football is built on is flawed but it does go some way to explaining why society keeps failing to progress.
Vox is fiercely anti-gay marriage, MPs of the party have referred to feminism as “gender jihadism” and the work of “feminazis” and they echo other far-right sentiments around the wall by proposing a wall around the Spanish to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country. More than one member of the Vox has been investigated for hate speech and they have mooted shutting down Mosques and deporting immigrants.
So, when Javi Tebas declares the racist abuse Williams suffered as “a step backwards” it is a sentiment that rings hollow. They are meaningless words from a man who was a member of far-right party Fuerza Nueva in the 1980s. When the organisations that run football are governed by someone who believes in the intolerance of others, it’s no surprise that there has been no tangible effort to tackle racism.
It also makes total sense that the first time a game is suspended is because a white man is verbally abused.
This happened in Spain, but it could have been anywhere across Europe. The lack of representation at the head the organisations in football mean that any progress is stunted with more and more racist incidents allowed to happen. Look at Britain, football-related incidents rose more than 50% in 2019, over double the number of incidents from three seasons ago.
Speaking to journalist Musa Okwanga as part of the Stormzy’s Observer Magazine takeover, Shireen Ahmed, writer, activist and co-host of the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down hit the nail on the head:
“The head of the organisations that make the decisions are white men, and they will never empathise fully because they simply cannot. They can never, ever fully understand what’s happening. And I’ve learned this about my work on anti-oppression in sports, be it with Muslim women, or with women of colour. If the people at the decision-making table are not affected by this, then they’re less likely to care. And that’s a fact. Because they will never be moved in the way we need them to be.”
Football mirrors society. So, when organisations are headed by those with links to the far-right, others with links to the far-right will be protected on the pitch. While the universal condemnation of high-profile racist incidents, such as what happened in Bulgaria and to Iñaki Williams in Barcelona, are spiriting and offer some hope, for the systemic racism in football to be banished it needs real, tangible action to be instigated at all levels.
More than just words and outrage are needed.