Gareth Southgate believes the fight against racism in football may have reached a defining moment as the fall-out from the abuse levelled against Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior in Valencia last weekend continues.
The England boss has led calls for stricter punishment since his side came close to walking off the field after some players were subjected to racial abuse during a match in Bulgaria in 2019.
Vinicius threatened to leave the pitch in the second half of Sunday’s LaLiga match at the Mestalla after being subjected to alleged monkey chants from the crowd and Real Madrid, who said the incident constituted a “hate crime”, filed a complaint with the Spanish State Attorney General’s Office.
In response, Valencia were given a partial stadium ban for five matches plus a fine of 45,000 euros (£39,000) – a punishment the club called “totally disproportionate”, while Valencia head coach Ruben Baraja vowed to lead the fight back against what he described as “smears”.
Southgate said: “It is a disgusting situation. I think it is so bad that it looks like it is going to force change. I am hoping there will be something positive to come from it.
“If anyone suggests to me we don’t have a problem in society with racism then there is another example of what we are dealing with, and more examples of people burying their heads in the sand, quite frankly.
“Hopefully it is a story that doesn’t just disappear in 24-48 hours without there being some significant change.”
The action by the Spanish football federation (RFEF) – which ordered Valencia to shut the Mario Kempes south stand, where the alleged abuse happened, for five matches – was strongly criticised by the club, who vowed to appeal.
That criticism was echoed by Baraja in a prepared statement prior to a press conference on Wednesday, in which he stressed he was “absolutely against racism”, but added: “I am not going to allow the Valencia CF fans and Mestalla to be smeared with labels that do not represent us.
“Just as a player rightly fights back against insults and I support that with all my might, we as a club and a fanbase rebel against those who, during the days since the game, have accused us of being what we are not.”
Earlier, Valencia had issued a robust statement against the ruling, saying: “Valencia CF wishes to show its total disagreement and indignation at the unfair and disproportionate penalty imposed by the competition committee on the club with the closure of the stand for five games.
“Valencia CF wants to publicly denounce that in this resolution of the RFEF competition committee they show evidence that contradicts what the national police and LaLiga say.
“In addition, this sanction is based on evidence that the club has not been able to see and without giving us a hearing.
“Valencia CF has condemned, condemns and will condemn in the most energetic way any act of racism or violence. These behaviours have no place in football or in society and we will continue to act in the most forceful way to eradicate this scourge.
“For this reason, Valencia CF is collaborating from the first minute with the police and all relevant authorities to clarify the events that occurred last Sunday.
“In addition, it has applied the maximum possible sanction with the expulsion for life from our stadium to the fans that the police have identified for their racist behaviour.
“For this reason we consider that penalising and depriving all the fans who were not involved in these unfortunate incidents from seeing their team is a totally disproportionate, unfair and unprecedented measure against which we will fight.
“The fight against racism requires the real commitment of all the parties involved without using it as a pretext to incur serious injustices.
“Valencia CF will appeal to the last instance the closure of the stand, a sanction that it considers totally unfair and one more offence in the latest disciplinary decisions that have been taken against the club. Valencia CF asks for the utmost respect and rigour for our institution and fans.”
In announcing the punishment against Valencia, the RFEF said in a statement: “The competition committee has sanctioned Valencia CF with the partial closure of the Mestalla stadium for five matches, more specifically the Mario Kempes south stand, following the events that occurred during the league match between the local team and Real Madrid CF.
“It is considered proven that, as reflected by the referee in his minutes, there were racist shouts at Vinicius, a Real Madrid CF player, during the aforementioned match, altering the normal course of the match and considering the infractions very serious.”
Vinicius, whose red card against Valencia on Sunday was rescinded, missed Real’s game at home to Rayo Vallecano with a minor knee complaint.