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Nov 18, 2004

Bernabeu not an isolated incident

Madrid unveiled its bid to hold the 2012 Olympic Games on Wednesday saying its strongest suit as potential host was the welcoming atmosphere visitors could expect in the city.

A few hours later at Real Madrid's Bernabeu Stadium England's black soccer players were greeted with monkey noises and racist chants every time they touched the ball.

The Spanish capital rightly prides itself on being an open and friendly city and would no doubt put on a high-quality show if it won the Olympics bid.

But the events during Spain's friendly against England were a chilling reminder that some disturbing sentiments lie just below the surface of Spanish society.

They also highlighted the clumsy way Spain coach Luis Aragones handled his recent remarks about Thierry Henry.

Aragones referred to Henry as "that black shit" in trying to motivate the France striker's Arsenal team mate Jose Antonio Reyes in a training session last month.

The initial response to his remarks revealed much about the differences in attitude to the race issue in Spain and England.

Spanish media dismissed the incident, saying it was just another indication of Aragones's eccentric methods of dealing with players and treating it as an amusing anecdote.

The following day when the Spain squad were filmed meeting children, which they do before every international, Aragones was shown by television stations patting a black boy on the head -- evidence, they said, that he was clearly not a racist.

Aragones said his conscience was clear, citing his many black friends as proof that he was "a citizen of the world".

Spanish media reserved criticism for English reporters for "carrying political correctness to an extreme" and for using the incident "to cover up flaws in their own society".

England still has a long way to go to eliminate racism and the media and politicians have on occasion whipped up jingoistic sentiments that have done little for race relations.

ANTI-RACIST INITIATIVES

But the English FA and anti-racist initiatives such as the 'Kick it Out' campaign show the desire of the authorities to confront the problem and have met with considerable success.

If an England coach had made remarks like Aragones's he would no longer be in his post. More importantly, the events at the Bernabeu are unthinkable in British stadiums.

Before the match big screens showed a 10-minute anti-racist video and the teams posed before a banner saying "All united against racism in football" but the reality was very different.

Every time a black player got the ball he was greeted with a crescendo of guttural monkey noises, the loudest reserved for substitute Shaun Wright-Phillips, who had the blackest skin.

During the second half large sections of the 55,000 crowd, many of whom were well-to-do men, women and children, joined in a chorus of "If you are not f**king black jump up and down," as they waved Spanish flags in the breeze.

At one end of the stadium a banner calling for an end to immigration was draped over the front row, reading "Stop immigration. Until when? Until they end our culture. Spain wake up now!"

The Spanish Football Federation press officer Fernando Garrido blamed English reporters for stirring up the issue.

"Were there racist chants against some players? This hasn't happened in the Spanish league and Spain for many years. So you (English reporters) should ask yourselves what you have done to contribute to all this."

RACIST ABUSE

In fact, monkey noises and racist abuse are extremely common in Spanish football but it is never mentioned in the media and rarely prompts comment from the federation.

Atletico Madrid midfielder Kizito Musampa was greeted with monkey chants in last week's King's Cup match in Tarragona against second division Gimnastic.

Similar chants are regularly used by Real Madrid fans when teams with black players visit the Bernabeu.

There are not as many black players in Spanish football as in England, neither is Spain a society accustomed to seeing as many black faces.

Most immigration is from South America and North Africa, while ignorance, fear and mistrust are more common sentiments than outright hatred.

But there is little doubt that many black players have a very tough time when they come to Spain.

Levante's Ivory Coast striker Felix Ettien revealed the problems he and a team mate encountered when they arrived to play in Spain in an interview last weekend.

"When we arrived we were ignored and isolated," he said. "We were like lepers. If we fell ill, they thought we had Aids or malaria. They wouldn't even touch us.

The depressing events at the Bernabeu will only achieve something positive if they finally prompt the Spanish football authorities to treat racism with the seriousness it deserves.