Real Madrid players showed solidarity with Vinicius Junior ahead of Wednesday's game against Rayo Vallecano when they all wore the player's No.20 shirt after he was subjected to racist attacks during last weekend's La Liga game at Valencia's Mestalla Stadium.
"We have a racism problem," declared Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), as global outrage turned towards Spain.
The racist abuse that has emerged from fan groups reflects Spanish attitudes and is not exclusive to football, says Carles Vinas, professor of Contemporary History at the University of Barcelona.
"Football does not develop in a bubble outside its environment, so it is a mirror that reflects society's attitudes. If, as in the case of Spain, we face structural racism, it's obvious that racism will be projected onto the stands of the stadiums. Therefore, It is illusory to pretend to eradicate racism from football or sport when it is perceived daily in society," Vinas told DW.
Vinas believes that the prejudice in Spain, expressed through constant police control of foreigners, detention centers for immigrants and housing discrimination and hate speech in public spaces, has found a place in the football stands due to hardcore supporters.
According to figures released by La Liga, 10 racist incidents were reported in the league, with nine targeting the Brazilian over the last year.
In a previous incident, Mallorca's Public Prosecutor downplayed an attack, saying that "the sounds made, although repugnant, vexatious and absolutely unacceptable" had no illegal import. Another prosecutor in Madrid said that the hanging of a Vinicius effigy was not "an offence against personal dignity" once put in the context of football fandom.
"There is no real awareness of racism, neither at institutional nor club level. It has always been related to attitudes limited to hotheaded fans, and no good measures have ever been taken in this respect," Vinas, whose work has included the study of far-right hooligans in Spanish football, said.
La Liga "don't know how to deal with racism"
Sunday's attacks on Vinicius started even before the game, as footage emerged showing fans chanting racist memes at the player outside the stadium. During the game, the attacks reached a crescendo when Vinicius walked towards the stands and singled out some of the supporters who had made monkey sounds towards him.
The Brazilian would eventually be sent off after a scuffle with a Valencia player, but the league rescinded that decision.
"Racism is normal in La Liga," Vinicius wrote on social media after the game. "The competition considers it normal, so does the Federation, and the opponents encourage it." This led to a social media row between Vinicius and Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, the league's governing body, as Tebas blamed the Brazilian.
La Liga came under international pressure as current and retired footballers criticized the league's response. Tebas eventually walked back his comments and apologized to the player.
"The amazing thing about Spain is that in its football league, one of the most important in the world, they still don't know how to deal with racism properly. The reaction of the president of La Liga, Javier Tebas, was shocking, astonishing," said Sebastian Fest, an Argentinian journalist.
Brazil's President Lula da Silva also weighed in, increasing political pressure on Spain. The country is planning a bid for the 2030 FIFA World Cup alongside Portugal and Morocco. Protests in Sao Paolo held in front of the Spanish embassy have also been a source of embarassment for the country.
Reacting to the international pressure, Spanish police swiftly arrested three fans from the Valencia game and four people from an incident in January where an effigy of Vinicius was hung by the neck ahead of the Madrid derby.
Only a few bad eggs
Spanish sport authorities have tried to distance themselves from what they believe is the behaviour of a small minority of fans. The Spanish Sports Ministry (CSD) said that the racist attacks "by some madmen embarrass us as a society" but failed to offer any concrete steps forward. Instead, the organization simply pointed to the fact that its anti-discriminatory committee meets twice yearly to discuss these issues and offer punishments.
FASFE, a Spanish group of football stakeholders and fans, called for more than slogans and buzzwords to tackle the scourge. It asked for the empowerment of grassroots fan clubs that fight racism and the implementation of the German Fan Project model that has helped to reduce the violence between ultras in the Bundesliga. This consists of social workers being embedded in fan groups to help them resolve their differences and avoid right-wing propaganda.
"I believe that there will be some action to cover the situation, and calm will return, and we will continue in this way until the next case," said Vinas, expressing pessimism over the recent arrests. "Racism is trivialized in Spanish football, and neither club directors nor institutions nor government takes the problem seriously."
The global attention is forcing Spanish football to face up to its problems with racism. It could either be a watershed moment for real change or be swept under the bureaucratic rug until it rears it's ugly face again.