Racism targeting Real Madrid football star Vinícius Júnior has left Spain’s top league scrambling to repair its international image and prompted national soul-searching over discrimination.
During Real Madrid’s match at Valencia last weekend, the 22-year-old Brazilian reported racist abuse from fans to the referee, but was shown the red card at the end of the match after getting involved in a scuffle with opposition players.
Javier Tebas, chief executive of La Liga, which runs the top two Spanish divisions, then sparked international outrage when he urged Vinícius to “educate himself” after the Brazilian said that the league “belonged to the racists” and urged sponsors and broadcasters to push it into taking action.
While racism is a persistent problem in Europe, the incident has left Spanish football — one of the country’s most important cultural exports — racing to reassure sponsors and fix the damage.
La Liga generated international broadcast revenue of €897mn last season, according to Enders Analysis, making it the second most valuable domestic competition in the world after England’s Premier League. Real Madrid and Barcelona are two of the most popular names in global sport.
Some of La Liga’s biggest sponsors, such as Santander and Puma, have voiced their support for Vinícius. One of the league’s commercial partners told the Financial Times that the incident was “damaging Spain’s brand”. Others in the industry warned that La Liga’s long-term appeal could be tarnished.
“No brand wants to be associated with racism. Unless something decisive is done soon, brands may opt not to renew their sponsorships,” said Ricardo Fort, a sports business consultant who previously ran global sponsorship at Visa and Coca-Cola. “The clock is ticking for La Liga.”
In Brazil, president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva demanded action from Fifa, football’s governing body, and La Liga, and said he would raise the issue with Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister.
The incident has dominated the news in Spain, prompting Sánchez to say there should be “zero tolerance for racism in football” and no place for xenophobia in society. But other politicians have been treading more carefully ahead of regional and local elections this weekend.
“A politician doesn’t want to say that Spaniards are racist. They say ‘it’s just a few…
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