Footballer Sekou Gassama knows all too well what racism is.
As a forward for the Spanish club Racing de Santander, he has encountered it many times in football and its fan culture.
The Spaniard, of Senegalese descent, was playing at the age of 24 in Spain’s LaLiga football league when the stands turned against him. As he was warming up, one of the fans shouted: “Look at the f****** n*****”.
“I jumped into the stands looking for that person and the police helped me identify him,” Gassama told Euronews.
“After the incident, people tried to take the heat off him by saying that the word ‘n*****’ doesn’t mean anything, but it really annoyed me,” he added.
Police prevented the incident from escalating, but it was not recorded in the match report. The referee, Dámaso Arcediano, made no reference to it.
The player says that, of all the matches he has played in during his career, he has seen racist incidents in more than half of them.
“However, none of them [the matches] have been suspended. Although I believe this is what should be done,” he says.
Spanish football is in the spotlight after Real Madrid striker Vinícius Junior’s pointed out racist abuse aimed at him on numerous occasions.
Earlier this month the star accused LaLiga of being directly responsible, putting the league into crisis mode.
“Racism is normal in LaLiga. The competition considers it normal, the federation considers it normal and the rivals encourage it,” he posted on social media.
The big question is: Does the national championship have a problem that so far no one has been able to tackle?
Measures taken by clubs, the federation’s sanctions and complaints filed to the Public Prosecutor’s Office have not until now been enough to end racism in Spanish football.
Racism on the rise in Spanish stadiums
Gassama recalls one of the worst moments of his career came when he was starting to stand out as a football player. Parents of the opposing team would hurl racist insults when they saw him win.
“The first comments were the ones that shocked me the most. I was very young and I didn’t expect them,” he says.
The first insults were not the last, with the footballer experiencing more racist incidents throughout his career.
The abuse he suffered in Fuenlabrada forced the referee to stop the match, though it was not suspended.
Sources from the Royal Spanish Football Federation told Euronews that, when there’s a racist incident, it is more common to temporarily stop the match, but the number of matches that are actually suspended “can be counted on the fingers of one hand”.
In fact, there is only one precedent in Spanish football of a match being suspended after the stands insulted a football player: the Rayo Vallecano-Albacete game in 2019, according to these same sources.
The match was called off at half-time after the home fans insulted Albacete’s Ukrainian striker Roman Zozulya.
“Zozulya, you’re a Nazi!”, “f****** Nazi!”, “get out of Vallecas!”, they chanted. Both teams decided not to play again and the referee ended up suspending the match.
Despite only one game getting called off, data shows the number of sanctions for racism is increasing, according to the latest report by the State Commission against Violence and Racism in Sport.
Euronews requested data on the number of racist incidents taking place in LaLiga matches last season, but the Royal Spanish Football Federation, State Commission against Violence and Racism in Sport and LaLiga did not reply.
What’s wrong with Spanish football?
The tirade of insults against Real Madrid striker Vinícius’ made the Spanish Football Federation’s Competition Committee order a partial closure of Valencia’s stadium for five games and issued a €45,000 euros fine.
The harshest punishment ever received by a club for its fans’ racist behaviour.
Media coverage of this case led the sanctioning committee to act, but this is not always the case.
Many claim laxity against racist acts in Spanish football has so far been the norm.
LaLiga says it does not have the authority to impose punishments on clubs or fans. Instead, it must pass investigations into incidents of racist abuse on local prosecutors, who deal with them as legal cases.
“Neither Spain is racist, nor football is racist, nor LaLiga can be accused of racism. But there is racist behaviour in football and an institutional indolence that has led to a very weak application of the Sport Law,” explains Esteban Ibarra, president of the Movement Against Intolerance.
Ibarra points out that there are sufficient legal tools to combat racism in football, but the feeling of “impunity” is high.
A law against violence, racism and intolerance in sport, signed in 2007, is the current legislation, but Ibarra adds “it is insufficiently applied both in terms of precautionary measures and in the incident’s monitoring”.
A clear example is that, in the last ten years, not a single meeting of the Observatory on Racism has been convened, as Ibarra, a member of the organisation, he explains.
The expert blames institutions for entrenched racism in Spanish football.
Out of the nine complaints filed so far by LaLiga for racist abuse aimed at Vinícius during a match only two ended in sanctions against fans.
Three of these were shelved by the Public Prosecutor’s Office for not being able to identify the perpetrators, while the rest because it claimed the facts did not have a “criminal dimension”.
“Of course there are instruments, but the rules are not applied firmly. It is intolerable to keep the game going after racist incidents take place,” Ibarra added.