Are We Ever Going to Look Beyond the Skin?

The opening sequence of Inglorious Basterds is a masterclass on how to write a lede. There is much to rave about its aesthetic treatment, but Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa really locks you into the chair, rendering your phone, partner, and the tub of popcorn on your lap irrelevant for the next few minutes. As he’s probing Perrier LaPadite, a French dairy farmer, on the whereabouts of a Jewish family from the neighbourhood, Landa begins explaining his work.

“If one were to determine what attribute the Jews share with the beast, it would be that of the rat…”

In Nazi Germany, Jews were known as Untermenschen. Sub-human. The Germans were convinced that while Jews looked every bit like other human beings, their skin concealed a dangerous, parasitic, and filthy creature.

The genius of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay is such that Landa addresses the psyche behind that thought in the same conversation. He mentions how squirrels and rats are similar in most characteristics; yet, rats are disliked significantly more.

Around the same time that the Schutzstaffel was rounding up Jews in Occupied France, a few thousand miles to the north-east, a Russian-Jewish poet, Ilya Ehrenburg, was spreading propaganda amongst Stalin’s army. She called the Germans “two-legged animals who have mastered the art of killing”. Further to the east, the Japanese called the Chinese “chancarro”, translating to animals or vermin.

It is easy to think of these groups as isolated armies, drunk on propaganda and hatred, suspending all tenets of humanity towards their enemy. And we’d be wrong every time. Xenophobic language has a long history, well beyond the Nazis, Bolsheviks, or even the slave trade. It goes as far back as Aristotle’s most influential works. He posited that the races outside the Hellenic umbrella of friendship were natural slaves. One such commonly used word for Gypsies or sub-Saharan people: barbarians.

Dehumanisation isn’t just a way of talking; it is a way of thinking.

And thinking isn’t limited to war generals or propagandist orators. There is a famous nursery rhyme taught in Palestine. It goes something like “Palestine is our country, the Jews our dogs.” Not every kid from Palestine will grow up to pick up a rifle. Some will become doctors, some bankers, some writers. Some might even develop an affinity for sports. You know, like regular people. Just like the average football fan at a stadium, dressed in club colours, beer in hand, bellowing slogans of victory and glory. Last Sunday, when the home crowd at the Mestalla Stadium heckled Vinicius Jr., it wasn’t just an illustration of a specific group of people. It was the thought, the psyche, they represented and felt no problems expressing. So, when Vinicius says something as loaded as, “In Brazil, Spain is known as a country of racists,” he isn’t necessarily pointing to Block C-Row Z at, say, San Mames.

racism, Vinicius Jr, Spain, La Liga, football, Real Madrid, say no to racism, xenophobia, racists
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

“Not for the first time. Not for the second or third time either.”

According to a survey published in November 2022, 25% of Spaniards between the ages 15 and 29 hold xenophobic views. The same study claims that about 40% of youth in Spain have faced some form of racial aggression. Between 2019 and 2021, there has been a 24% rise in police investigations of race-related cases. One can get into a long debate about whether Spain is a racist country, but there is little doubt about Spain’s problem with race within or outside the turnstiles of a football stadium. The country goes into polls for municipal and regional elections as this essay is getting written. Left-leaning leaders have admitted to a need for greater action.

After the match, which Real Madrid lost, manager Carlo Ancelotti was asked regular questions about the game. Reporters were keen to know where he thought Madrid lacked. Ancelotti had had enough, refusing to talk about the game. Otherwise softspoken in defeat or victory, as evident after the thrashing against Manchester City just three days prior, the timbre of his voice was markedly different. There was more than a hue of anger and frustration.

Of course, Spain is not the only country dealing with racism inside football stadiums. In 2018, when Ancelotti was the manager of Napoli, defender Kalidou Koulibaly was sent off for sarcastically applauding a referee after he had refused to intervene when Inter Milan fans hurled racist abuse. Ancelotti and the rest of the Napoli team implored the referee to stop the game multiple times, but to no avail. Just this year, Inter Milan and Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku was sent off for celebrating—silently—in front of Juventus fans who had been racially abusing him all game. The referee deemed his gesture provocative, even as hateful chants rang across the stadium. We will need an entire series of essays if we were to compile a list of all such incidents, even within a corpus as small as top-level football in Europe. 

Racism neither begins nor ends at stadiums, but administrators refuse to look at the problem straight. To minimise racism in the stands, we must acknowledge that xenophobia isn’t a fad that can be wiped out with a counter-trend. It runs much deeper.

Since the Valencia vs Real Madrid match, many players, teams, and administrators—including Brazil’s president—have published messages in solidarity with Vinicius. Change begins from the surface, so every such message is significant. But the activism must continue in the uncomfortable eye line of those who look away. 

La Liga president Javier Tebas had a lot to say too. Replying to Vinicius’ tweets about how such incidents aren’t rare, and how authorities must do better, Tebas was defiant in his defence. According to him, the league was doing just fine, as was the nation. Complaints were getting lodged. Regarding last weekend alone, there have been three arrests from the stadium and four others for the effigy burnt. What more does Vinicius want?

Evicting and arresting every offender from the stadium cannot be seen as a triumph. At best, it is a first step. That Tebas thinks this is enough is where the cracks begin. Whether a player from the next generation will face racial insults will depend on whether the sport is bothered with looking beyond the skin. It needs to answer, for itself, whether it can have rules strong enough to deem one offence as too many. To execute radical reconditioning, there must be, unfortunately, strong measures. Fine the home team, dock points, and force matches to be played behind closed doors. Every single time, regardless of the stature of the team.

That is the question one must ask of football administrators. Those who wear Armani and Louis Vuitton suits and travel in private jets, who liaise with billionaire oligarchs and heads of oil-rich states to invite investments, who, eventually, control the present and the future of the sport. The ilk of Javier Tebas. Are they willing to deep-clean the racism problem in football, even if it means antagonising influential people and a part of their revenue stream? So far, their answer has been pretty emphatic.

Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.