The attention brought by the latest case of abuse against Real Madrid forward Vinícius Júnior has taken Spain to what could be a turning point in the fight against racism in soccer.
Never before had local authorities acted so quickly to take action against fans who insulted players, and never before had soccer officials sanctioned a club so harshly for their fans’ racist behavior.
Things have clearly changed since Vinícius threw the spotlight on Spain by pointing a finger, literally, at those who racially abused him last weekend in Valencia. But some of the challenges that existed before Vinícius’ case stirred Spain into action are still in place, especially when it comes to punishing fans criminally for their abuse.
No one has ever gone to trial in Spain for racially abusing a player, and despite the unprecedented attention prompted by the recent Vinícius case, it may not be easy to get fans to start paying for their actions in court.
Similar cases of abuse like the one faced by Vinícius on Sunday have been shelved by prosecutors in the past, including a few others involving the Br azilian player.
Spain created a specific law against violence, racism, xenophobia and intolerance in sports in 2007, but not all cases of racism can be punished criminally, only those in which there is an additional intent to harm the victim physically or morally. There is a lot of leeway for interpretation and most cases, including “monkey” chants like the ones made against Vinícius, end up falling into a category in which punishment only includes fines and bans from stadiums.
"What is it going to take to criminalize these people?" Vinícius said this week in one of his many posts on Twitter criticizing the lack of action against racism in Spain.
The prosecutor who shelved one Vinícius case said the “unpleasant” racist chants against him came within the context of a soccer rivalry, and although they were “inappropriate” and “disrespectful,” they came inserted within the normal mockery by fans in a soccer game. He also said the racist insults only “lasted only a few seconds,” and when “contextualized,” they “did not constitute a crime against the dignity of the affected person.”
Not being able to fully identify the perpetrators also played a role in the decision to shelve the case, according to the prosecutor.
Another prosecutor who analyzed racist chants against Athletic Bilbao forward Nico Williams last year shelved the case with the argument that the fan’s social media accounts didn’t seem to show that he was racist.
The Spanish league, which has been acting to denounce these cases, decided to avoid making the formal complaints to the prosecutors’ office specialized on hate crimes, instead going directly to the courts.
"We were forced to change strategies," Spanish league president Javier Tebas said in an interview with The Associated Press before the latest case against Vinícius happened. "We don’t want to have to face these interpretations by prosecutors. We are going straight to the courts and the results have been different."
Tebas also called for more sanctioning powers for the league because he says his body can only denounce the cases. He said the league could end racism in six month if given more authority.
Before the case in Valencia, only one of the fans who racially abused Vinícius was facing the possibility of a criminal trial - a man accused of calling the player a monkey during a league game in Mallorca. Both the fan and Vinícius spoke before a judge earlier this year.
The first trial against a fan accused of racial abuse in Spanish professional soccer is expected to happen at some point this year in a case involving Athletic Bilbao forward Iñaki Williams, the older brother of Nico Williams. He was insulted by an Espanyol supporter in a match in 2020.
"The fact that a criminal procedure was archived doesn’t mean that there won’t be punishment," Rafael Carlos de Vega, a prosecutor with Spain’s Attorney General’s Office, told the AP. "The economic sanctions are severe, and these people are being kept from the stadiums."
Nine Valladolid fans were fined in 4,000 euros ($4,300) each and were banned by the club for more than three years for racially insulting Vinícius in a match last year. Valencia also banned the three fans arrested this week from its stadium.
"The main thing we have to learn from all of this is that we are bringing visibility to a problem and everyone has been having to react to it to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again," De Vega said. "The moment we have sanctions and clubs react and perpetrators are banned from stadiums and people start denouncing these acts, then we will have made great progress in eradicating this problem."
All seven people arrested shortly after the uproar caused by the Vinícius case in Valencia have been released pending more investigation. The four detained in Madrid accused of hanging an effigy of Vinícius off a highway bridge in January have a temporary restraining order banning them from a 1-kilometer (0.62-mile) area around Madrid’s stadium and training facilities and from coming within the same distance of any soccer stadium between four hours before and four hours after a Spanish league game.
Hate crimes in Spain are typically punished with one-to-four years of prison time, while crimes against a person’s moral integrity are punished with six-to-24 months behind bars.
Valencia was fined in 45,000 euros ($48,200) and had part of is stadium closed for the next five games in what was the biggest sanction ever for a club in Spain in cases involving racism.
Esteban Ibarra, president of the Madrid-based Movement Against Intolerance, Racism and Xenophobia, was optimistic that the uproar caused by the latest case of abuse against Vinícius would help change how prosecutors have been handling cases of racism and similar crimes.
"With the visibility of this case nationally and internationally, I think that the attitude of prosecutors may start to change," he told the AP. "Maybe it will help change the perception of the prosecutors in these cases."