Andy Mitten

The shame of Spanish football

Andy Mitten

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"One started it and then others followed, pockets of fans making monkey noises whenever Daniel Alves touched the ball. It was by no means the majority, but it was clearly audible. Some were mimicking a monkey, many of them were laughing. They only did it with Alves, not Eric Abidal, a black Barca player.

"I was angry and asked them what they were doing. Some of them laughed and said it was only a bit of fun. Those closest to me stopped when they saw me object."

Those were the words from a friend who is an Espanyol season ticket holder. I was on the opposite side of the stadium and knew nothing of the monkey noises during Sunday's Catalan derby between Espanyol and Barca, but plenty heard the racist noises in other parts of the ground.

Fans are back in the news in Spain. Not headline news. The headlines in Madrid's press celebrated Real Madrid going five points clear of Barcelona after the Catalans drew against their neighbours. Pep Guardiola's side may be better than Jose Mourinho's men, they may beat them season after season, but it's Madrid who can afford to lose another clasico and still win the league.

The Catalan media are not taking the dropped points lightly, with the focus on an alleged injury-time handball which could have been a penalty, but wasn't. So Barcelona didn't score the penalty that wasn't given and could only draw with their noisy neighbours. Thankfully, the overwhelming pro-Barca Catalan media could bury that bad news in a flurry of individual awards on Monday night in Zurich, much like the racist chanting was buried deep in the pages of the newspapers after the Catalan derby.

There was much good and much bad about the fans in Spain last weekend. Promoted Granada took 5,000 to the Santiago Bernabeu and unlike the thousands of Real Madrid fans who streamed out of the stadium well before the end of the game, they watched the full 90 minutes. Madrilenos had seen their team demolish Granada with five goals, but it was the visiting fans up on the stadium's highest tiers who made the most noise. Such sizeable away followings are rare in Spain and no team has taken more than 5,000 fans to a league game since half of Gijon descended on La Coruna two years ago.

The Granada fans in red and white who'd travelled from one of Spain's prettiest cities in Andalusia 400 kilometres away were making the most of a first visit to the Bernabeu in 35 years, but to put this in perspective and not overstate the loyalty on show, Granada were not even attracting 5,000 fans for home games two seasons ago.

When teams are promoted, you see a surge in fan interest. Fellow Andalusians Cadiz took thousands away when they came up in 2005. They all wore yellow and sang happy songs about only being there for the beer. Everybody loved their fans, except maybe their partners at home.

But there's a darker side to Spanish fandom. It isn't the mainstream, but almost every club has an extremist fringe which latches onto it. Some of them are among the clubs' most loyal supporters and travel everywhere, but their politics and actions are extreme. Espanyol have one such fringe.

They're diminishing in numbers and the club want nothing to do with them. That may sound like a given, but plenty of club presidents in Spain are in cahoots with the ultra groups and aid them with tickets and travel.

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The Espanyol manager and chairman both condemned the racist chanting, while highlighting the passion of the rest of the fans. And the atmosphere was superb on Sunday, a febrile arena of noise and flags like "Qatar is Not Catalonia" and "Catalonia is More Than One Club" — both being digs at Barca.

Not for the first time though, the racist chanting at Espanyol went beyond a lunatic fringe element and sullied what should have been a great night as their team got an 86th minute equaliser against the planet's best side, a goal scored by a 20-year-old local boy.

Racism at football in Spain is like England 25 years ago. I used to stand on the Stretford End at Old Trafford and hear it regularly in the 80s as you did at many other English grounds.

Thankfully, you don't hear it these days and you see lots more black faces at English football grounds, but it hasn't been completely eradicated on or off the pitch. As if watching the 1-6 wasn't bad enough for this Manchester United fan, hearing "Balotelli you black b******" four or five times from someone sitting a few rows behind made it even worse. That's the thing with seating at football, you can't move away like you can on a terrace and identifying the perpetrator is not easy when he's behind you. But that was just one racist.

Most Espanyol fans are not racist and most didn't make monkey noises, but plenty did. If you ask them why, their answers highlight a latent racism, ignorance, lack of decency and respect. They can't see that some of their own black players would be offended by racist abuse. Probably some of these fans may be a bit thick too.

They genuinely don't think it's offensive and feel that any media reaction is an over reaction. Yet it's only by the media highlighting the issue that it can be tackled. Not every black player is like Samuel Eto'o and confronts racism head on by shaming those responsible and demanding action rather ignoring the abuse and hoping that it goes away. And it's only by continuing to highlight the backward behaviour of some in Spain that more will be done to address it.

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