Spain Fights Soccer Racism Against Black Players

The Spanish government has crafted a new law to fight racism in sports after several black soccer players there were targeted with insults and attacks.

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ED GORDON, host:

One country trying to deal with racism on the soccer field is Spain; the government there is drafting a law against racism in sports after several black soccer players were targeted with abuse. Many Spaniards thought their country was immune to the racial tensions that have plagued other European nations, so the incidents have come as an embarrassment to a country that is one of the favorites to win the World Cup Tournament.

Jerome Socolovsky reports from Madrid.

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JEROME SOCOLOVSKY reporting;

Switch on the radio in Spain on a weekend afternoon and you realize that soccer sure gets people excited here. So when the players of African and Caribbean origin complained about racism in the sport, it made headlines.

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Twenty-seven year-old Peter Lucene(ph) was born in France to a family originally from Martinique. He moved to Spain five years ago after playing for several French teams. He says he's never seen anything like the behavior of Spanish fans.

Mr. PETER LUCENE (Soccer Player, Spain): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: There are many people here who say, no, there's only a little bit of racism, he says, but I say there's a lot. In some stadiums, you hear monkey noises, you hear insults, and that shouldn't be allowed to happen, he adds. Lucene says he's never had problems from other players. It's just the fans of opposing teams. They throw bananas onto the field when black players have possession of the ball. They call Latin American players Indios, which means Indians.

Mr. LUCENE: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: I tell you, for me it's unthinkable. I just can't explain it, he says, because it shouldn't happen here in Spain. We're in Europe. We're always saying there's so much racism in the United States, but look what's happening here. Some people, including Spain's national team coach, have argued that spectators don't mean to be racist when they make monkey noises and throw bananas. They say it's just the way Spanish fans try to psych out the opposing team. Lucene says he doesn't buy that argument anymore. He's decided to speak out, like a number of other black sportsmen.

Last February, Cameroonian player Samuel Eto'o, who plays for the European champions, Barcelona, took a stand at an away game in Zaragoza. He threatened to storm off the field after racist abuse by fans there. Although his coach persuaded him to stay, the Zaragoza soccer team was later fined around $10,000 by the Spanish Soccer Federation.

Samuel Eto'o has been invited to testify before the Senate's special commission on racism and xenophobia in Spanish sports. He hasn't appeared yet, but at a recent hearing, members of the all white panel, condemned racism in soccer. Senator Arturo Gonzalez Lopez heads the commission.

Senator ARTURO GONZALEZ LOPEZ (Special Commission on Racism and Xenophobia, Spain): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: The truth is, Spanish society is not a racist society. Neither Spanish soccer nor Spanish sport is racist, he says. Far from it. What is true is that lately many racist actions have been occurring, he adds.

Senator Gonzalez, like other members of the commission, has praised Samuel Eto'o for bringing attention to the problem of racism among soccer fans. But cultural sensitivity is a relatively new idea in Spain, and the Spanish Senator says Eto'o, himself, is partly to blame.

Sen. GONZALEZ LOPEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Many times his own attitudes and actions in some stadiums do not help, he says. I am referring to when he's celebrating a goal or a corner kick, and he shrieks like a monkey, he adds.

Sen. GONZALEZ LOPEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Spain's soccer teams are among the world's best. Hardly anyone would deny that that's in large part thanks to the many foreign players. But with increasing numbers of immigrants from Africa and Latin America, racial tensions in Spain are reflected in the country's soccer stadiums. The government is proposing a law in which clubs that tolerate racist acts by their fans would face suspensions of up to two years and fines of up to $800,000. Racist fans would be banned from stadiums for up to five years. Spanish sports officials say that if passed, the law would be one of the toughest in all of Europe.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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GORDON: Coming up, Al Gore says count him out in 2008. Is this clearing the way for Hillary? And affirmative action on the hot seat again. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable.

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