Saturday 24 January ~
A remarkable story came out of last week’s Spanish league game between Real Madrid and Osasuna that seemed to broadly escape press commentary. The game’s referee, Alfonso Perez Burrull, wrote up in his match report that Real fans were waving flags and banners with “extremist or radical symbolism”. He also referred to chants “making reference to the gas chamber, death to Osasuna”, and shouts of “Fascists forever”, accompanied by gestures and signs “of a fascist nature”.
That of all people the referee was the one having to call attention to such behaviour means that, given a crowd of 75,000, the chanting and gestures must have been fairly conspicuous. You wouldn’t expect a man controlling a high-speed football game in arguably the world’s best league to otherwise notice the antics of spectators in a stadium the size of the Bernabeu. What on earth were the stewards or the police doing? Keeping an eye out to see if Osasuna defender Miguel Flano was tugging on Raul’s shirt? Unfortunately for Burrull, he seems to have been focusing as much on the crowd as on the game – he was given a one-month suspension from reffing for twice incorrectly booking Osasuna’s striker Juanfran Torres for diving.
Following Burrull’s report, the Spanish football federation slapped Madrid with a draconian fine of… €3,000. A federation spokesman said Real had been punished for breaching a rule aimed at preventing xenophobia and intolerance. There was nothing about measures being taken to ban fans from the stadium. There was not even a statement on the club’s English-language website condemning the fans’ behaviour. After all, if the federation doesn’t take such offenses seriously, why should the club?
We all know that Spain only came out of fascist dictatorship in the 1970s, and that Real was General Franco’s pet club. We also know that a generation back, such scenes were not uncommon inside English grounds, but sustained and steady campaigns have exacted healthy change. But while Real Madrid are not responsible for bigotry outside their stadium, there’s no reason why both they and the Spanish federation can’t take strong action to set a precedent in the face of ongoing pro-fascist behaviour from the Ultra Sur fan group. At the moment, like its objectionable former national team coach Luis Aragones, the country’s football officials are out of step with anti-racism campaigns across the FIFA nations. The Spanish federations’s risibly insulting fine is a naked affront to even basic, PR-driven levels of human decency.
Aragones’ disgraceful past remarks aimed at Thierry Henry were glossed over during his country’s Euro 2008 campaign. It seems we can hold off condemning a bigot if he provides us with some flowing, attacking football, so scarce has positive play become. But there can be no such excuse for a team claiming to be one of the world’s greatest footballing institutions. The silence of their players, officials and fans in tolerating the noxious extremism of the Ultra Sur group has been highlighted by one whistling referee. Spanish football needs men like Burrull, whatever his refereeing abilities, far more than it seems to realise. Ian Plenderleith