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Spain is a serious contender to host the 2016 Olympics and 2018 World Cup,but a failure to clamp down on fans’ racist and extremist behavior could end up compromising both bids.
Buoyed by Rafael Nadal’s Grand Slam tennis wins,the national football team’s European Championship triumph and Alberto Contador’s sweep of cycling’s three premier events,Spain is in a golden age of sports.
It would seem the perfect time to land the two biggest sporting spectacles on earth.
But scenes of offensive fan behavior still tarnish the country’s image,an issue that came to the fore when spectators at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium greeted England’s black football players with monkey chants during a friendly in 2004.
And the problem extends to sports such as Formula One,where fans don’t known when to differentiate between competitive spirit and racism.
“In Spain,there is a profound problem and the fight against racism hasn’t been taken seriously. The problem is a lack of education and sensibility when it comes to tackling racism,” Esteban Ibarra,head of the Movement Against Intolerance,told The Associated Press.
“The public would react positively to a campaign,but there is a real lack of political push in this fight.”
Spain’s friendly against England on Wednesday – the teams’ first meeting since the events in the Spanish capital in November 2004 – comes at a crucial time.
It’s a day before Madrid submits its documents to the International Olympic Committee outlining its bid plans for the 2016 Games,and a little over a week after Spain confirmed its joint bid with Portugal for the 2018 World Cup.
“It’s going to be a great test to see if we’ve overcome that episode or if we’re just continuing on with this problem,” said Ibarra,who has been charting racial incidents for 20 years.
Monkey chants still rain down on players across the country,with Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon nearly quitting a game at Zaragoza in February 2006 because of the abuse.
“When I first experienced it,I didn’t even hear it. It was reporters that brought it to my attention,” said Julian De Guzman,a Canadian of Filipino-Jamaican heritage who plays for Deportivo La Coruna. “Then I was watching (a replay of) the game and I was like ‘Wow.’ It was pretty surprising and kind of disappointing.
“The fines are never enough. They’re just a slap of the hand and they’re back at it again. It doesn’t really do anything.”
Last month,Real Madrid was fined 3,000 euros ($3,900) after some fans displayed fascist banners,made gestures and chanted slogans with reference to the death of their opponents and the gas chamber.
The Spanish football federation said fines correspond to current laws,but preferred not to discuss the issue at length.
“In Spain,we take all preventive measures possible to fight racism,” spokesman Jorge Carretero said. “I don’t see any type of problem with racism in Spanish football. The same problems exist in England,in Germany,in France,and elsewhere.”
Spain’s bid with Portugal for the 2018 World Cup is up against competition from England,the United States,Russia,Japan,Australia and Netherlands-Belgium,among others. The host will be selected by FIFA in December 2010.
“There is no place in football for corruption and racism,” FIFA said in a statement sent to the AP. “Football,given its global reach,power and influence has a duty to act in a responsible and progressive manner.”
Spanish Olympic Committee president Alejandro Blanco doesn’t believe recent events will bear any influence on Madrid’s chances of hosting the 2016 Games,with Tokyo,Chicago and Rio de Janeiro also in the race. The IOC will choose the host city on Oct. 2.
“These things can happen in any stadium in any country in the world,from Brazil to Italy to anywhere,” Blanco said. “It’s too easy to just say that Spain is a racist country,when it is not.”
The Spanish government passed a law against racism in sport in July 2007 in a bid to clamp down on the behaviour,but experts say that it is not being used. Clubs can be fined up to $842,000 and deducted points,places and even relegated for serious incidents,but it’s up to the league to enforce such punishments.
Yet extremist supporters,usually with far-right leanings and known as “ultras,” are still allowed into the stadiums. They have infiltrated all levels of Spanish football – from local leagues to the topflight – and have “a fundamental influence in promoting xenophobia in society,” Ibarra said.
“I think football fans have a clearer idea that they must turn their backs on the ultras. There is a rejection,but the ultra groups continue to be aided,receiving favourable attention from the clubs. The clubs need to stop supporting these groups.”
Last month,several players from a regional third-division team made up of Barcelona ultras were accused of assaulting members of an opposing team comprised solely of foreigners,mostly from South America,with several sent to the hospital with injuries.
In Europe,Britain and Germany have been leaders in expelling extremist groups from their grounds.
In Spain,only Barcelona has made an effort,while clubs like Madrid – voted FIFA’s top club of the 20th century – have publicly endorsed extremists.
“Concerning the (ultras) I have nothing but good things to say,” former Madrid president Ramon Calderon has said.
A construction and tourism boom in Spain over the past decade has fuelled immigration and the sudden wave of foreigners has led to a rise in xenophobia,which has spread out from the cities to villages.
The Internet has allowed radical groups to form better bonds domestically and internationally,and there are now at least 150 Web sites in Spain to lend their voice.
“Before 2000 you would walk down the street and be looking around and see no color,” said Joan Lino,a Cuban long jumper who moved to Spain and won bronze for the country at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Lino,is one of three Dominicans on the team involved in “Everyone Olympians,” which is sponsored by Madrid’s 2016 bid committee and aims to educate young people about the values of the Olympic spirit.
“Integration has always been complicated,but the Spanish are not racist,” Lino said. “They just haven’t had much immigration until now,so it’s a matter of coping with change. If you don’t have something,it’s usual to initially reject it. Racism is too strong a word for it.”
Spain’s Socialist government promised to pass a more wide-ranging and general law related to racism in society after winning last year’s election,but has yet to act. Spain’s Interior Ministry does not keep any record of racist acts.
The Spanish media’s close links to football clubs has also kept it from opening the debate.
Then-Spain coach Luis Aragones’ racist jibe in 2004 against France striker Thierry Henry to motivate one of his players was treated with humor,which set the tone for the abuse of England players in the ensuing match.
In August,Spain’s silver-medal winning Olympic basketball team was photographed in an ad using their fingers to apparently make their eyes look more Asian.
Last year,F1 champion Lewis Hamilton,the sport’s first black champion,was the target of racist abuse by a Spanish Web site nine months after a group of people wore dark face paint and T-shirts with the slogan “Hamilton’s Family” at testing near Barcelona.
Hamilton continues to be a target for many Spaniards who believe the British driver derailed Fernando Alonso’s championship hopes at McLaren.
De Guzman,the Deportivo La Coruna player,said he looks at the abuse as just a way for fans to try to knock a player off his game.
“At the end of the day,” he said,”these guys making the monkey chants,they also have dark-skinned players on their side.”