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Is it Time to Acknowledge that European Soccer’s Racism Problem Extends Beyond Disruptive Fans? Another Reckoning is Underway.


After suffering months of racist abuse on the field and outBrazilian soccer star Vinícius Júnior had had enough.

On May 21, 2023, the forward of Real Madrid – generally speaking as one of the best football players in the world – stopped a match at Valencia’s Mestalla stadium, pointing out fans who shamelessly made money racist remarks and gestures.

He later clarified that this was not an isolated event: “It was not the first time, nor the second, nor the third. Racism is normal in La Liga”, he tweeted in reference to the Spanish top division. “The competition thinks it’s normal, the federation thinks it’s normal and the rivals encourage it.”

Like a soccer scholar whose latest book includes an analysis of how players, fans and the game’s governing bodies are faring responded to the Black Lives Matter movement, I think the last incident points to how difficult it is to change fan behavior when racism remains institutionalized in the sport itself. While it is true that teams and leagues have made strides in signaling their lack of tolerance for racist behavior, systemic issues remain that stand in the way of real progress – not least the lack of black representation in management positions.

Deep roots of football racism

Football has one long-standing racism problem. Black players throughout the decades attest to both fan abuse – monkey chants are still common during games in parts of Europe – but also more subtle forms of discrimination, such as are omitted from the national teams or overlooked for coaching positions.

Black Brazilians like Vinícius and going back to Pelé have been victims of racism both abroad and at home. Indeed, if football writer Franklin Foer has pointed out that in the early days of Brazilian football, black people were not allowed to play for professional clubs or the national team. Even if eventually accepted, some of the black star players love it Arthur Freidenreich and Joaquim Prado would straighten their hair and try to lighten their skin hoping to gain popularity.

While great changes have taken place since then, the roots of subtle and overt racism faced by black footballers are deeply rooted – whether in their home countries or for prestigious European clubs.

Football’s Black Lives Matter moment

While it can be argued that there have always been small attempts to tackle racism in football, it is only in the last decade that such efforts really pick up steam. And it’s very focused on changing the attitude of fans.

In England, for example, the Football Association has long been working with an anti-racist group Kick it out to create programs and punishments for racist fan behavior. In the meantime, the Royal Spanish Football Federation has codes for applying financial sanctions against clubs with racist fans.

Such anti-racist efforts and messages increased as part of a more general societal reckoning on racism after the murder of George Floyd in the US by a police officer in 2020.

Football authorities – mostly wary of political statements And quick to punish players who display protest slogans on shirts – generally gave players free speech regarding Floyd’s murder and the protests that ensued.

Indeed, after restarting a pandemic-ravaged season in June 2020, the English Premier League was promoted an active Black Lives Matter campaign. This included “Black Lives Matter” patches on uniforms – though patches were later changed to read “No room for racism” – and the taking the knee for competitions. Three years later, many players and teams kneel anyway for matches all over England.

Players and officials in the UK regularly ‘kneel’ before matches.
John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

But it hasn’t stopped the abuse. In 2020, as players on the pitch formed a united front against anti-black racism, UK Home Secretary Susan Williams noted that incidents of racism had risen for the third year in a row.

Football leagues in Southern Europe tended to leave it to clubs and individuals to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than adopt blanket policies similar to those of the Football Association of England.

But again, it seems to have had little effect on the public’s racism.

Italian football remains one reputation for racism among his fan base. While there are numerous examples, the most recent cases include verbal attacks against Lecce defender Samuel Umtiti and striker Lameck Banda while playing at Lazioand racist taunts against Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku after he scored against Juventus in a Copa Italia semi-final.

In Spain, after the latest Vinícius incident, Football Federation Chief Luis Rubiales recognizes that racism was a problem in the competition. It would be hard not to: The May 21 abuse was at least the 10th racist incident against the Brazilian star that Real Madrid reported to the league this season.

The Diplomatic Consequences of the Vinícius Abuse – Brazil exclaimed the Spanish ambassadorand the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio was shrouded in darkness in protest – has reignited discussion about what action to take to eradicate racism in the game.

Spanish police has made several arrests about the abuse of Vinícius. In the meantime, La Liga fined Valencia – the team that played Real Madrid – 45,000 euros (US$48,000) and closed part of the stadium for the next five matches.

But given the persistence of mass racism despite numerous attempts to challenge it, I think it’s fair to ask whether such disciplinary action will now have any real effect.


Persistent racism in European football comes despite an increase in the football culture of ‘cosmopolitanism’. Before the 1990s there were relatively few black players in Europe’s top leagues, especially in countries where non-white players would be afraid of being subjected to racist taunts from their own and opposition supporters.

But modern fans have long since grown accustomed to supporting a racially diverse team. So why does racism persist in stadiums? Political scientists and sociologists Andrei Markovits and Lars Rensmann indicate “Gaming the world” that the rise of cosmopolitanism on the pitch is not reflected in the stands – that is, in European competitions, the composition of the fan bases is not as diverse as the team they come to support. Markovits and Rensmann argue that what we see in the stands is a kind of “counter-cosmopolitanism” in which the “other” is treated with anger and suspicion because they are perceived to threaten some fans’ stable sense of identity.

If the racial makeup of teams isn’t a reflection of the fan base, it isn’t reflected in management or among the people who run the sport.

Analysis performed in May 2022 found that of the 98 clubs playing in Europe’s five most prestigious leagues – England’s Premier League, La Liga and Italy’s Seria A, along with Germany’s Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1 – only two had black managers. La Liga had none, and still not.

Does not meet the Sterling standard

As England striker Raheem Sterling noted in an interview in 2020“There are about 500 players in the Premier League and a third of them are black, and we have no representation of us in the hierarchy, no representation of us in the coaching staff.”

While there is certainly some merit in the measures being taken in Spain to tackle behavior in the stands in the aftermath of the latest Vinícius incident, there is an argument that it is too little, too late. Moreover, it does little to address more institutionalized racism at play. And to date, anti-racism programs and fines have failed to eradicate racism in football.

As Sterling noted, “If there are more black people in positions, if I can have someone from a black background… (to) go to in the (Football Association) with a problem I have within the club – these will the times when I know change is happening.”

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