Despite what the media may have you believe, Spain still has a real problem with racism, as Phil Ball explains
On Sunday October 11th, in the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, 85,000 people turned up for an anti-racism festival of football – perhaps the biggest sporting event yet in the European Year Against Racism. Cantona, Hugo Sanchez, Hagi, Karembeu, Higuita... you name them, they were out there, doing their bit. On the Monday, the headline in Spain’s football tabloid Marca was, predictably “El futbol gana por amplia goleada al racismo” (Football scores a huge victory against racism). Unfortunately, this is complete crap.
The player most conspicuous by his absence was Fernando Hierro, Spain’s Captain Marvel and midfield general. The player most conspicuous by his presence was Songo’o, Cameroon’s goalkeeper, currently playing for Deportivo La Coruña. Funny thing is that Hierro had been down on the original list of participants, despite the fact that he was playing the night before in Spain’s final game of their World Cup qualifying campaign – a tough one at home to the Faroe Islands. To be fair – none of the Spanish internationals who played out a meaningless 3-1 win were in the Bernabéu either – but if you’re one for conspiracy theories, read on.
On the Sunday previous to the anti-racism jamboree, Real Madrid drew 0-0 at home to Deportivo, due mainly to a startling performance by the aforementioned Songo’o. After yet another fine save had sent the ball for a corner, Fernando Hierro, respected captain of the colours, is alleged to have approached Songo’o and let off a bit steam with the following; “Eres un negro hijo de puta cabrón” – which means something along the lines of “You’re a black bastard son of a bitch”. Naturally, Songo’o was a little unhappy at this outburst, and reported Hierro to the appropriate authorities after the game.
The next morning, with the excrement flying, Hierro was in no-comment mode, presumably well-advised by his pale-skinned lawyers. Songo’o, in the eye of a gathering storm, repeated his allegations to the newspapers, but was less forthcoming when asked if he intended to take the matter to the courts. He was, nevertheless, quite clear on one thing: “If he (Hierro) plays next week in the anti-racism game, I won’t turn up.” Frantic phone calls ensued in the offices of the Spanish Football Federation. It was only Monday, and already Madrid’s attempt to paint itself clean, in the international eye, of 30 years of brazen hostility towards anything darker than beige was coming off the rails. Madrid is not a particularly racist city as such, but some of the deeds of its most famous team’s far-right followers make the The Football Factory look like a Teletubbies episode.
On the Tuesday, Songo’o said that he would prefer to forget the whole thing – although he stood by his allegations. He didn’t want, he claimed, to get bogged down in a legal battle. Coincidentally, the same morning, the Spanish Federation had come out on Hierro’s side, their spokesman telling the press that the midfielder was, quote, “An example to us all, a patriot and a great servant of his country – capped 56 times and always present at charity and anti-racist occasions.” Hierro himself, breaking his silence on the same morning, came out with the classic Ron Noadespeak, “Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a racist”.
And then the boys closed ranks even further when Roberto Carlos, Real Madrid’s black Brazilian full-back, chimed in with the “He’s a great guy in the changing-rooms” sort of line, and Songo’o clearly saw the way the wind was blowing.
At the time of writing, the matter has been mysteriously dropped from the newspapers, who prefer to bathe in the phony afterglow of the meeting of nations in the Bernabéu. Songo’o turned up and played in Cantona’s side, but the
tv commentators said nothing. The stuff about Hierro as the good-guy-who-lost-his-temper-but-you-always-say-things-like-that-on-the-football- pitch-in-the-heat-of-the-moment unfortunately doesn’t wash. Four years
ago, after another Real Madrid-Barcelona trench warfare game, Hierro went out to celebrate victory with some of his mates in a Madrid restaurant. Halfway through the meal, a family of Barcelona supporters, sitting on the other side of the restaurant, plucked up the courage to approach the table. The father, accompanying his son, asked Hierro if he would sign an autograph. Hierro replied that he would be glad to, and asked the boy his name. “Jordi,” the son replied, unsurprisingly, since there are more Jordis per square inch in Barcelona than there are Seans in Ireland and Owens in Wales. The name is a Catalan badge of identity. Hierro, clearly in favour of the concept of autonomous regions, wrote “Jorge” on the piece of paper and handed it to the father. “But his name’s Jordi,” corrected the father, as gently as he could. “Maybe so,” replied Hierro, “but you’re in Spain now.”
Two years ago, when Real Mad-rid lost an important game away to Real Sociedad, Canal Plus captured verbatim Hierro’s incredible rant at the linesman who had just been instrumental in pointing out a decisive penalty incident to the referee. His speech was so long and so astonishingly fascistic that it cannot be repeated here, save for the memorable “¿Que eres? Un puto Vasco?” (What are you? A f*****g Basque?). Again, he was neither suspended nor taken to task for this little outburst, despite the fact that Michael Robinson’s El Dia Despues programme played the whole thing through with accompanying sub-titles, and despite the fact that the poor linesman was from Galicia – Franco’s birthplace.
Hierro will lead out his country in the summer, whilst Songo’o will continue to eat humble pie. No-one was prepared to take on Hierro, clearly an institution for the Spanish Right, especially over a few words that many in this country would still consider to be pretty inoffensive. ‘What a fuss over nothing’ was the message clearly sent out by the Spanish FA just five days before its showpiece anti-racist extravaganza in front of the cameras of the watching world.
And where were the other Spanish squad players, some of whom were reputedly down to play? Maybe it’s a conspiracy theory gone too far – but Hierro’s alleged ‘tiredness’ might have looked a bit wan had some of his mates trotted out onto the Bernabeu that evening. A victory against racism? Pull the other one.
From WSC 130 December 1997. What was happening this month